It’s finally here. The first regular season games of 2017 for the NFL. The Kansas City Chiefs upset the New England Patriots in dominant form last night. Can their AFC West rivals do the same on Sunday?
The Oakland Raiders enter this season with high hopes and uncertainty, if you can believe it. They broke out last season with a 12-4 record, easily their best performance in over a decade. Then they faltered after quarterback Derek Carr broke his leg late in the year, losing to the Houston Texans in the first round of the playoffs.
There’s a lot of talk around the league that the Raiders could take the next step and challenge the Patriots for the AFC crown; in fact, they’re tied for second with the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl odds. But that’s a lot to ask of a fairly young team that still has a multitude of concerns, especially on defense.
That defense is going to be challenged right off the bat when the Raiders go to Nashville to face the Tennesse Titans at 1 p.m. EDT on Sunday. The Titans competed with the Texans for the AFC South title last season before dealing the same scenario as their opponents this week: their franchise QB breaking his leg.
Despite the injury in 2016, Marcus Mariota is primed for a Carr-like breakthrough season this year. It’s not hard to see it happening with the talent around him. Like Carr, his offensive line is one of the best in the league, and one could argue that it’s even better than the Raiders. Tackles Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin turned in two of the top performances at their respective positions last season; Conklin did it as a rookie. Their interior line is solid across the board with center Ben Jones and guards Quinton Spain and Josh Kline.
The Raiders line is stacked with four great talents in Donald Penn, Rodney Hudson, Kelechi Osemele and Gabe Jackson. However, newcomer right tackle Marshall Newhouse has never been anything more than average during his career. He did play well in the preseason, but his presence gives the Titans the nod in total offensive line talent.
The Titans took steps to give Mariota more weapons this offseason as well. He already had two productive running backs behind him in DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. However, the passing game for Tennessee last year was understated. Wideout Rishard Matthews and tight end Delanie Walker were solid, but Mariota lacked consistent targets to throw to. That has now changed.
Tennessee used the #5 overall pick to draft Corey Davis out of Western Michigan back in May. The rookie has battled hamstring issues during training camp, but he’s expected to suit up on Sunday. Then the Titans lured veteran Eric Decker to complete their receiving corps. Mariota now has six extremely dangerous weapons to work with, something that the Raiders defense may have trouble handling.
While Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin will still provide consistent pass rush, the Raiders secondary has a lot of issues as of now, mainly at corner. David Amerson has been solid thus far, save for a concussion scare, but the spot across from him has rapidly gone downhill. Sean Smith, the expected starter, played poorly in the preseason and also got hit with a felony assault charge. T.J. Carrie, his immediate replacement, did even worse. First round corner Gareon Conley hasn’t been able to play with a shin injury. He may dress Sunday, but his snaps will be limited.
With a drastically improved Titans passing attack, the Raiders have to be frightened about their coverage. At least safeties Reggie Nelson and Karl Joseph should be fine, though second round rookie Obi Melifonwu going to injured reserve for the first eight games hurts a bit.
Stopping Murray and Henry is another point of emphasis, but the Raiders have just as many problems at linebacker. They had to part ways with the newly acquired Jelani Jenkins due to injury, so they’ll be going with Irvin, Cory James and fifth round rookie Marquel Lee to start the year. Irvin is always solid, but James and Lee are both inexperienced. On the plus side, the former looked good during the preseason.
The Raiders offense is going to be counted on to get the team through tough matchups, so thankfully they’re set up for success. Carr has four effective receivers to throw to in Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree, Cordarrelle Patterson and Seth Roberts, as well as tight end Jared Cook. Hometown hero Marshawn Lynch has returned from retirement to man the run game, with scatbacks Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington behind him.
Oakland’s offense will challenge Tennessee’s defense, which is solid but vulnerable. They have three great pass rushers in Jurrell Casey, Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo. The Titans aimed to improve thier secondary by adding cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Jonathan Cyprien. Even so, their run defense is middle of the road, so the Raiders could pounce on that weakness by hammering Lynch, Richard and Washington all game.
Both teams have been lucky with injuries. There are only a few players who have been ruled out on Sunday. For the Raiders, it’s safety Keith McGill and fullback Jamize Olawale, and for the Titans, it’s corner LeShaun Sims. The Raiders are closely monitoring Conley and James however. Kicker Sebastian Janikowski, who just resolved a contract dispute a few days ago, is questionable with a back injury. The Raiders signed camp leg Giorgio Tavecchio to the practice squad as insurance, releasing Max Valles.
This should be a competitive game. The Raiders and Titans are both young teams ready to establish themselves as competitors in the AFC. A win here will be huge the rest of the way for either squad.