Shutdown Corner - NFL

He was taken out of Toledo in the sixth round of the 2006 draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he's played for several teams, and he was once released by the St. Louis Rams. Bruce Gradkowski(notes) is an unlikely name to take over for the first-overall pick in 2007, but that's exactly what he did when even the Oakland Raiders couldn't take JaMarcus Russell's(notes) abysmal play anymore. What did Gradkowski do with the opportunity of his first Oakland start last Sunday? He simply led the Raiders to a shocking 20-17 upset over the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals. His feature moment was an 80-yard touchdown drive late in the game, in which he showed the kind of mobility and leadership completely foreign to Russell since he game into the league. 17 of 34 for 184 yards and two touchdowns doesn't sound like anything but an average performance, but you have to consider the team -- for the Raiders, these stats signify significant improvement over what came before.

Gradkowski spent his last few days accepting congratulations from the likes of ex-Raiders quarterback Jeff Garcia(notes) (who he basically replaced at Russell's backup) and former coach Jon Gruden (who mentored Gradkowski in Tampa Bay and who, we're quite sure, gave him a snappy nickname at some point). Now, he faces another test in the Dallas Cowboys, who the Raiders will face today in the "middle child" of the NFL's Thanksgiving Triple Play. The strategy for Gradskowki is pretty simple -- roll out of the pocket to create throwing lanes and avoid the batted passes that come with his 6'1" frame, read Dallas' blitz concepts, and simply move on when Darrius Heyward-Bey(notes) drops five or more passes. Oakland's first-round pick this year continued to be a huge liability to the Raiders' offense -- he was targeted six times against the Bengals and caught only one pass.

The Cowboys can match Oakland in high-priced, underachieving receivers; Roy Williams has now mastered the art of smiling after his drops. In their last two games, the supposedly explosive Dallas offense has scored a grand total of 14 points. The most exciting aspect of this game might be the exploits of Oakland punter Shane Lechler(notes), who is channeling the preseason exploits of Titans punter A.J. Trepasso, the guy who hit the big screen at Cowboys Stadium when the Tennessee Titans played there.

"If that guy in Tennessee can hit it, I can hit it," Lechler said this week.

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