It’s been a long offseason, but game week is finally here! The Las Vegas Raiders will look to prove they’re a legitimate playoff contender on Monday Night, while the Baltimore Ravens are hoping to show the world that they still are one despite a handful of changes from a year ago.
Obviously, every team in NFL is looking to get off to good start in Week One, but this game is even more significant for the Raiders. Not only will it be the first regular-season game with fans in Las Vegas but also an opportunity to prove a lot of doubters wrong on national television.
A lot has been made about the organization’s personnel decisions over the last several months and most of that chatter has been negative. The Silver and Black are a team that’s currently “flying under the radar” and win on Monday Night would send a statement to the rest of the league. However, they’ll need the five players below to show up to make that happen.
There’s no sugarcoating it, this was a rough offseason for Clelin Ferrell.
When the team signed Yannick Ngakoue in free agency, the writing was on the wall for Ferrell that his role will be reduced this season. During training camp, there was contextual evidence of that as he was getting reps with the second-string defense. Plus, he saw a decent amount of playing time in the preseason games while Ngakoue and Maxx Crosby watched in street clothes.
However, this matchup against the Ravens actually suits Ferrell’s skillset fairly well.
Baltimore is a run-first team and the third-year pro has always been a good run defender, whereas that’s been a consistent weakness for Ngakoue. Now, the Ravens’ rushing attack is unique because quarterback Lamar Jackson is a significant threat with his legs, but they do like to use a lot of gap runs and rely on their offensive linemen to win one-on-one blocks.
That’s where I think Ferrell could actually be more beneficial for the Raiders than Ngakoue because the former is stronger at the point of attack and can hold his ground against guards and tackles.
Even as a pass rusher, I think there’s some benefit to giving the former No. 4 overall pick some more playing time than normal on Monday. Jackson’s ability to pull the ball down and run on passing plays gives defensive coordinators headaches, and the best way to defend against that is to use power rushers to collapse the pocket. Again, that’s something that Ferrell thrives at.
The worst thing a pass rusher can do against a mobile quarterback is rush straight up the field and create rushing lanes for someone like Jackson to exploit. That’s a potential concern for a rusher like Ngakoue who likes to win around the edge as a rusher, and not so much for Ferrell whose best move is to turn speed to power with a long arm.
So, look for the Raiders to give their second-string defensive end quite a bit of playing time and his performance will likely have a big impact on the outcome of the game.
Covering tight ends has been an issue for the Raiders for several years now. Cory Littleton was supposed to be the solution to that problem last year but ended up contributing to the issue instead. He allowed 571 receiving yards and a 101.8 passer rating when targeted while earning a sub-50 coverage grade, per Pro Football Focus.
However, part of Littleton’s lack of success can be chalked up to a defensive scheme that nobody seemed to play well in. New defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s scheme is notably simpler than his predecessor’s, which should make life a little easier for the linebacker. Against the Ravens, that hypothesis will be put to the test.
Baltimore has an impressive tight end in Mark Andrews, who they just made the third-highest paid player at the position. In just three seasons, Andrews has accumulated 156 receptions for 2,105 yards and 20 touchdowns. Not only is he a skilled player but offensive coordinator Greg Roman also does an excellent job of scheming him open.
Roman uses a heavy dose of play-action as 35.7 percent of Jackson’s dropbacks included a run fake, which was the third-most of any quarterback with at least 35 dropbacks last season. That puts a ton of stress on linebackers and safeties in coverage and the Ravens love to leak Andrews between those two positions and dump the ball between them.
Plus, Jackson’s mobility forces backers to play closer to the line of scrimmage on scrambles, which provides another opportunity for Andrews to break free from coverage. In other words, Littleton will have his handful on Monday. But the Raiders need him to play well and be able to take away the tight end to force Baltimore to beat them with probably their weakest position group, wide receivers.
If Las Vegas and Littleton can negate the throws over the middle to Andrews and force Jackson to throw the ball outside, then that’s a win for the Silver and Black’s defense, regardless of the scoreboard.
Hey rookie, welcome to the NFL! Your debut gets to be against one of the best offenses in the conference over the last few years and features a scheme that’s difficult for your position to defend, congrats!
As mentioned above, the combination of the Raven’s scheme and Jackson’s legs can put a lot of stress on safeties where they often end up in coverage no man's land. Defensive backs can’t just sit back in coverage because they have to honor the quarterback as a runner but if they leave too early, the ball will go right over their head for a first down.
That means Tre’Von Moehrig has to stay disciplined to stick near his man in coverage, while also nailing down his timing of when to converge on the quarterback where his speed will also be tested, but he’ll also need to stay under control to avoid missing the tackle. Sounds pretty simple, right?
While Littleton will certainly help to defend against Andrews, Bradley uses more zone than man coverage which means Andrews and Moehrig be matched up a few times during the game as well. Also, the tight end lined up in the slot 62.5 percent of the time last season, which should create a few more back and forths between him and the rookie.
Against the run, Moehrig will face a similar challenge against Jackson as the one previously mentioned, tackling and matching the shifty quarterback’s athleticism. While the plan seems to be for the former Horned Frog to primarily play free safety this season, personally, I’d love to see Bradley use him in a more versatile role, especially this week.
That’s was one of Moehrig’s strengths in college and the Raiders need to have athletic defenders in the box to help bottle up Jackson as a runner.
While this is a lot to ask a rookie in his first game, the Raiders might not have another choice. They’re extremely young in the secondary and constantly relying on just linebackers and defensive linemen to bring down the most mobile quarterback in the NFL sounds like a disaster waiting to happen.
Henry Ruggs III
Truth be told, part of the reason why this game is so important for Henry Ruggs III is he needs to get off to a good start after a disappointing rookie campaign. He figures to play a prominent role in the team’s offense this year and is expected to take over as the second receiving option behind Darren Waller.
But beyond just starting the season off strong, Ruggs will be a big factor in the Silver and Blacks’ offensive success against the Ravens. Between Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters and Jimmy Smith, Baltimore probably has the best cornerback room in the league.
That means passing yards are going to be hard to come by, but having someone who can threaten those defensive backs vertically can help open things up.
Forcing the Ravens secondary to play back to front will allow other Raiders’ receivers to operate in the underneath areas and create yards after the catch. Also, if the likes of Humphrey, Peters and/or Smith start feeling threatened by Ruggs’ speed, that should help him create separation on short to intermediate routes later on in the game as well.
Making defensive backs “feel his speed” is something the 2020 first-round pick needs to work on this season to maximize his potential. It’s one thing to be fast and deep threat, but winning in the other two areas of the field is how the speed demon can be come a “complete receiver”. Of course, Jon Gruden’s scheme will play a big factor in that, too.
Circling back to Monday’s game, the best way to keep the Ravens’ secondary in check is to try and take advantage of their aggressiveness by hitting a deep pass or two early on. Especially since they know Ruggs has 4.27-speed, connecting on a couple of bombs will make Baltimore’s corners a little hesitant to come up and make a play on the ball against shorter throws.
Sticking on the offensive side of the ball, Alex Leatherwood is another Raiders’ rookie facing a tall task on Monday night.
He’s known for his prowess as a run blocker and that will be put to the test. Baltimore’s defensive line is headlined by Calais Campbell and Derek Wolf. Both of whom are terrific run defenders and play on both the left and right, so Leatherwood will have to deal with each of them.
Going up against a couple of defensive linemen with 22 years of combined NFL expreicne isn’t exactly an ideal matchup for an offensive lineman making his debut. But Las Vegas will need the No. 17 overall pick to create rushing lanes and help keep Baltimore’s offense off the field.
In pass protection, it doens’t get much easier for Leatherwood. Justin Houston is another wily veteran who will be looking to take advantage of the rookie. Last season was arguably the worst of the 10-year pro’s career, and he still managed to rack up eight sacks and 34 pressures.
On the other side of Houston will be Tyus Bowser, an up-and-comming pass rusher for the Ravens. While he only accumulated 33 pressures a year ago, those came primarily in a reserve role as he only started two games.
Part of the reason Baltimore was comfortable letting Ngakoue walk this offseason was the development they’ve seen in Bowser over the last couple of years, so this game will be the first opportunity to see if that was a smart decision or not.
Parnell McPhee is another Ravens’ edge rusher that can’t be ignored and will certainly grab Leatherwood’s attention. Also, we might get a few rookie on rookie reps if Baltimore’s third-round pick Udafe Oweh gets some run.
In other words, the Ravens have no shortage of pass rushers to throw at the Raiders’ rookie right tackle.