It’s finally here — Oakland Raiders games that count, Derek Carr playing entire games, head coach Jon Gruden’s mysterious offense and starters against starters. Ahhhhh.
Every week before the game, this column will greet you typically on Fridays before a Sunday game, but this week on a Monday morning. The premise is simple: five things to watch for and one prediction. So, with the Los Angeles Rams coming to the Black Hole for a 7:30 PM PST Monday Nighter, here is what to watch for:
1. Gruden’s reception
This Monday will actually represent my first game ever in Oakland, and the number one thing I’m most curious about is how the crowd will greet Gruden. Two weeks ago? I would have expected an unrelenting avalanche of applause, but that was before he traded Khalil Mack away for future draft picks.
I still think Gruden gets a warm greeting, but don’t be surprised if there are some boos mixed in as well.
2. Blind side
Speaking of draft picks, the Raiders — the same team that has seen their starting quarterback go down in back-to-back seasons with injuries — is starting a first round pick at left tackle. While the “was Kolton Miller a reach?” conversation has been beat into the ground, the point remains that he has a lot to prove and Monday will be a massive test on a national stage. The good news for Miller is that the Rams strength is up the middle, but the bad news is that with a rookie on the edge, you can bet he gets tested early and often.
An interesting subplot to the Miller development is the connection it has to the Mack trade. The Raiders justified it by pointing to the two first round picks they got in return, but if Gruden’s first round pick from this year doesn’t pan out, it’ll only make things worse moving forward.
3. Strength on strength
The best interior offensive line in football against the best interior defensive line in football will make for great television come kick-off. Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh versus Kelechi Osemele, Rodney Hudson and Gabe Jackson — talk about some heavyweight stuff. Last year, the Raiders did see Suh when they traveled to play the Miami Dolphins and he finished with one tackle, but it was a sack.
With massive question marks at right and left tackle, it’s going to be up to the players in the middle to both contain Donald and Suh as well as provide some support outside when needed.
4. Gruden’s mysterious offense
The Raiders have made a point of revealing nothing this offseason (for good reason), but now it’s time to see what all of the hype is about. Facing off against one of the best defenses in the league, Gruden needs to have his offense humming if they want any chance of winning this game. The weapons are there at skill positions. It’s just a matter of whether or not they can put people in the right positions, keep the Rams off balance and unlock the potential of players like Carr and Amari Cooper.
5. All eyes on Paul
As I’ve said before, it’s the addition of Paul Guenther that might make the biggest impact of any newcomer this season and with no Mack, that might be truer than ever. Now lacking a true superstar, Guenther (the team’s new defensive coordinator) will be tasked with turning this rag-tag group of veterans and rookies into a competent NFL defense — and quickly.
On the other side of the field will be head coach Sean McVay, who oversaw the highest scoring offense in the league last season. Whether Jared Goff continues his improvement or not, Guenther and the defense will have their hands full tonight.
Prediction: 20-17, Rams
It’s not the way you want to start off the 2018 NFL season, but the truth is, the Rams are one of the best teams in the league — if not the best. With the sudden departure of Mack, I can’t imagine the Raiders locker room is completely unified and emotionally prepared for this game (and any setbacks it might feature), so I’ve got the Raiders losing a close one.
I do believe the Raiders defense will be league average or better this season, and I think the offense will finish in the top-10 — but in Week 1, that might not be enough.