Monday night marks the start of a pivotal season for the Las Vegas Raiders, as they’re looking to finally get over the hump and go from playoff contender to playoff participant. And beating a team that has made the postseason three years in a row would send a message to the NFL world that the 2021 Raiders aren’t to be ignored or disrespected.
As for the Baltimore Ravens, they’ll obviously be looking to start the season off in the right direction and heading towards keeping their streak alive.
While football is a team game and teams ultimately win or lose, of course, the game is built on individual matchups, some of which matter more than others. Below are three one-on-one battles that I feel will go a long way toward determining the outcome between the Raiders and Ravens.
Gus Bradley vs. Greg Roman
I was a pitcher in high school (not a good one) so consider me picking two coaches as the first key matchup like me throwing you a first-pitch curveball because you might not have seen it coming.
New defensive coordinator, Gus Bradley’s impact was evident during the preseason, minus the game in San Francisco where it was starters versus backups in the first quarter.
Even the Raiders' second- and third-stringers looked like they were playing fast and thinking less compared to the last couple of seasons. That likely means the first unit is picking the scheme up well too, but Monday night will be a major test to see if that’s true.
Greg Roman took over as Baltimore’s offensive coordinator in 2019, and his offenses have ranked first and seventh in total points scored in the two seasons under his tutelage. Having a dynamic quarterback in Lamar Jackson has been an integral part of that success, and Roman has done an excellent job of opening up the playbook to suit Jackson’s skill set.
While Bradley has never squared off against the combination of Roman and Jackson, the Raiders’ defensive coordinator does have a history of being able to contain the former MVP.
Baltimore did win the first contest, but only scored 16 points on offense and the then-rookie quarterback was held to just 204 passing yards, one touchdown and 39 rushing yards on 13 attempts. He was also sacked three times by the Chargers.
The second time around, the game went in Los Angeles’ favor and Jackson struggled to get much going, as the offense didn't reach the end zone until a little more than halfway through the fourth quarter. Jackson finished completing less than 50 percent of his passes for 194 yards, two touchdowns to one interception, and nine carries for 54 yards on the ground. Also, he was sacked seven times.
Monday night could be a different story, though, seeing as Roman is now calling the shots and Bradley has a completely different set of players at his disposal. It will be a matchup of who can make the best adjustments and put their players in the best position to succeed.
And we’ll find if Gus Bradley is to Lamar Jackson as what Ruben Patterson was to Kobe Bryant.
Cory Littleton vs. Mark Andrews
I briefly touched on this matchup in my X-factors column, so I’ll spare you some of the details to avoid repetition. And the other article is linked if you’d like to take a look.
Anyways, matchups like this are exactly why Las Vegas signed Cory Littleton during free agency last year. They need him to be a tight end eraser in coverage, especially when going against a player of Mark Andrews’ caliber.
Andrews’ unique blend of size - 6’5 and 256 pounds - and athleticism - 7.26 relative athletic score at the combine - make him extremely difficult for linebackers to cover. Last season, 14 of his 27 catches against linebackers went for either a first down or touchdown, and he averaged over 10 yards per catch when covered by a backer, per Pro Football Focus.
Littleton does have some first-hand experience trying to cover the Ravens’ tight end and knows exactly how difficult Andrews is to cover. Those two squared off back in 2019 and the latter got the better of the former, catching his lone target against Littleton for 38 yards and a first down.
Obviously, that’s a small sample size so there’s no reason to think Las Vegas’ linebacker can’t turn things around and have more success on Monday night. Plus, Bradley’s zone-heavy scheme will give Littleton some support, but he still needs to hold his own against Andrews to force Baltimore to beat Las Vegas with someone else.
Otherwise, it could be a long night for the Silver and Black.
Hunter Renfrow vs. Tavon Young
Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters are two of the better cornerbacks in the NFL and together, they help form arguably the best secondary in the league. Both are former first-team All-Pros and have been to multiple Pro Bowls, and they’ve been able to shut down some elite wideouts in the past.
That’s not exactly an ideal matchup for the Raiders’ rather unproven wide receiver corps, so passing yards on the outside could be hard to come by. However, Hunter Renfrow could save the position group and move the ball from the slot.
Renfrow has made a name for himself as an up-and-coming slot receiver in the NFL. In 2020, 48 percent of his targets came when he was lined up inside, which lead to 27 receptions for 300 yards (11.1 YPC), 13 first downs and a passer rating of 108.6 when targeted, per Pro Football Focus.
That sets up a matchup that could lean in Las Vegas’ favor.
Baltimore is expected to start Tavon Young as their nickel corner, who has been a good player when healthy, but the latter part of that statement has been an issue for him recently. Young missed the entire 2019 season with a neck injury and tore an ACL just 39 snaps into the 2020 campaign.
In other words, he really hasn’t played in about two years and draws a tough matchup to comeback to against Renfrow.
Look for quarterback Derek Carr to test Young early by targeting Renfrow in the slot since that appears to be the Ravens’ weak spot in their secondary. Plus, if Baltimore’s pass rush starts to get some push, look for Carr to use the Clemson product as his security blanket, especially on third downs.