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Raiders-Falcons preview: What to watch for, keys, storylines, match-ups

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Tomorrow the Raiders have their home opener against the Atlanta Falcons. The game kicks off at 1:25pm Pacific time. See the viewing guide here. Here’s what to expect and what to keep an eye out for in the game.

League leading rushers

After the first week of the season, the Raiders are leading the NFL in rushing; putting up 167 yards on the ground with three touchdowns. That total was helped greatly by the 75-yard touchdown run by Jalen Richard. Latavius Murray as the workhorse had a decent day with 59 yards on 14 carries (4.2 yards per carry). The question becomes if they can keep it up.

I don’t want to play the “if you take away that big run” game, because those big runs are just as much a part of a team’s rushing totals as any. Running backs have a lot of short runs and wait for their moment to break free for big gainers. But the Raiders can’t count on that big run happening every week. They will need their stable of backs to consistently average over 4 yards per carry even without the home run.

Cut down on the penalties

Last week the Raiders had a ridiculous 14 penalties for 141 yards. That was twice as many flags as the Saints (7) for nearly three times as many yards (53). When fans see that, they automatically thing it’s the officials out to get them or at very least some bad officiating. But one team having a considerable amount of penalties more than the other team doesn’t mean those penalties weren’t justified. I saw two penalties on the Raiders against the Saints that were unjustified. Then again, the flags worked in the Raiders’ favor on the final drive which was kept alive by two pass interference penalties, -- one on fourth down.

Jack Del Rio had some interesting things to say about the Raiders’ penalties in the game:

“The number is way too high,” said Del Rio. “I think the refs in the NFL do a tremendous job with all the close judgment calls they have to make. It’s my belief that we’re a highly disciplined, highly competitive football team and as we continue to work the way we have, I really believe people will get used to seeing us be competitive and the penalties are going to disappear. It’s just my belief. Anyway, we are addressing it and will continue to.”

He was hinting at what he sees as a perception by the officials that the Raiders are undisciplined and that perception was causing them to throw unwarranted flags. That is the history of the Raiders, coming from a guy who grew up a fan during the days in which the Raiders were considered one of the dirtiest teams in the league.

All the Raiders can do is take care of their end of things. Getting double digit penalties is a recipe for losing games.

Sean Smith vs Julio Jones

What a brutal opening game for Sean Smith. He was lit up by Drew Brees and the Saints receivers. Some say it was a match-up issue, which makes sense with regard to the 98-yard roasting Smith gave up to the speedy Brandin Cooks. But it doesn’t explain how he was beaten by Willie Snead and rookie Michael Thomas.

Smith will resume starting duties after getting benched last week, and he will face one of the best receivers in the NFL in Julio Jones. Jones is coming off an All Pro season, catching 136 passes for 1871 yards and 8 touchdowns. He caught four passes last week for 66 yards and a touchdown. Cooks may be quick, but Jones is elite. Smith is a good cornerback. If he is going to rebound this week, it won’t be an easy task.

Schraeder put through the shredder

Every opposing offense is going to key on trying to stop Khalil Mack. The Saints did last week and kept him out of the box score for the most part. This released Bruce Irvin to get a strip sack and Denico Autry to face one-on-one match-ups and apply some good pressure as well.

Getting the primary duties of stopping Mack this week is second-year starter Ryan Schraeder. He didn’t give up any sacks last week, though 2014 first round pick Jack Matthews did. The Falcons will have a decision to make of which side of the line to send help. Do they leave Mattews alone against Irvin or Schraeder on his own against Mack. Decisions, decisions.

No such protection issues for Raiders

While the Falcons will have their hands full keeping the Raiders pass rushers out of the backfield, the Falcons pose no such threat. They were the worst pass rushing team in the league last season, with a NFL worst 19 sacks. Thus far there is no reason to expect anything different.

The Falcons didn’t record a sack in their season opener against the Buccaneers – a game the Falcons lost 31-24. Jameis Winston picked them apart, going 23 for 32 for 281 yards and four touchdowns for a passer rating of 125.1.

Derek Carr wasn’t sacked last week either, with the only pressure he saw coming from the interior later in the game. Donald Penn kept him clean from both sides of the line. Austin Howard is at right tackle for this game. With he and Penn at the tackle spots last season, the Raiders had gave up the 11th fewest sacks (33) in the NFL.

Return of the tight end?

Even before the game began last week, there was a head-scratcher. Mychal Rivera was inactive for the game. That move would have made sense if Marcel Reece were playing – he practiced with the tight ends a lot in training camp. But Reece is suspended for the first three games, which left the Raiders with just Clive Walford and Lee Smith. And in the game only five passes went to the tight end. All of them went to Walford who caught 3 passes for 25 yards.

With the issues the Raiders had late in the game with the offensive line, one would think that perhaps the tight end was kept in to block more often. The problem with that thinking is most of Walford’s targets came in the second half after the injury to Watson and Walford’s biggest catch (18 yards) came in the fourth quarter following the injury to Matt McCants that had the offensive line shuffle around. Carr went for Walford twice on the game-winning drive. The 18-yarder and on a deep ball. Clearly Walford is seen as a weapon and they would be smart to look for him more often.

The aforementioned lack of Falcons pass rush and solid pass protection from the Raiders should also allow the Raiders to send Walford out as a receiver more often as well.

Another familiar face on opposing coaching staff

Last week one of the storylines heading to New Orleans was the Raiders facing their former head coach, Dennis Allen, who is now the Saints defensive coordinator. That match-up didn’t work out too well for Allen, who watched as his former quarterback Derek Carr led the Raiders to a 35-34 win with a clutch fourth quarter performance.

This week, the familiar faces are Ken Norton Jr and Falcons head coach Dan Quinn. They spent three total seasons as part of the Seahawks’ staff. Norton was the linebackers coach while Quinn was defensive line coach in 2010. Then Quinn returned in 2013 as defensive coordinator for that vaunted Super Bowl winning Legion of Boom defense. Both coaches left the Seahawks during the 2015 offseason and are now gameplanning against each other.

Norton has tendencies he brought with him from his Seattle days, as I’m sure Quinn does as well. Both will have to play a game of chess; going away from any tendencies the other coach assumes they will have. Norton basically got an indepth course into Quinn’s philosophies over two seasons, so he should be able to impart some insight to the Raiders coaching staff.