Running Back Latavius Murray and Quarterback Derek Carr
The regular season has finally arrived, and the Oakland Raiders officially kick off their 2016 campaign Sunday afternoon in New Orleans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The Silver and Black will have their hands full against Drew Brees and Co., so let's look at five questions I have heading into the Raiders Week 1 matchup with the New Orleans Saints.
1. Can the run defense get back on track?
It was no secret that the Raiders struggled to stop the run throughout the preseason; however, now they'll get a chance to remedy that situation in a game that matters.
The Saints finished the 2015 season ranked No. 24 in rushing offense, averaging just over 93 yards per game on the ground, electing instead to rely heavily on the aerial attack.
Mark Ingram led New Orleans in rushing last year, finishing the season with 769 yards, and six touchdowns, and it appears as though he'll once again be tasked with sparking the run game for the Saints in 2016.
Both Head Coach Jack Del Rio and defensive end Khalil Mack have said throughout the preseason that the Raiders defense is committed to stopping the run, and Sunday afternoon they'll get their first chance of the regular season to do just that.
2. How does the team deal with the absence of defensive end Mario Edwards Jr.?
The Oakland Raiders haven't had the benefit of defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. causing havoc along the defensive line since the very first week of the preseason, but starting Sunday, when the games are meaningful and not as many players hit the field, they'll feel the full effect of his absence.
The team placed Edwards on the Reserve/Injured list Monday, so with him not eligible to return to practice for six weeks, the team will have to find a way to replace his production.
On the team's first depth chart of the season, Kahlil Mack and rookie Jihad Ward were listed as the starting defensive ends, with Justin Ellis and Dan Williams manning the interior line, but regardless of who is lining up along the front, defensive coordinator Ken Norton, Jr., is confident the unit can produce.
"The guys wouldn't have made the team if we weren't very confident in them," said Norton when asked about the defensive line. "We have a really good group of guys who have really made a strong commitment to our growth as a team, their growth as individuals. They are really committed to playing this game at a very high level, so we're very, very confident in our rotation."
That rotation will certainly have its hands full Sunday as they try to make life difficult for Brees and the Saints offensive attack.
3. How does Latavius Murray look?
By design, running back Latavius Murray didn't carry the ball a ton during the preseason.
Over the course of three games – he didn't play in the preseason finale – he carried the ball just 12 times, playing sparingly in all three contests.
Now, wins and losses count, and Murray is once again in position to be the bell cow running back for the Raiders.
The fourth-year ball carrier will be looking to get off to a hot start in The Big Easy, especially against a Saints defense that was ranked No. 31 in the league in2015, and struggled mightily trying to stop the run.
One big difference for Murray this season compared to last year, is that he will no longer have to carry the bulk of the rushing responsibilities, as the team now boasts a pair of rookies in DeAndré Washington and Jalen Richard who will be able to spell Murray throughout the course of the game.
In what could likely turn into an offensive shootout, being able to run the ball, and control the clock will be critical, so having Murray be able to get rolling would pay huge dividends for the Raiders offense.
4. Can the Raiders limit Drew Brees?
There's no doubt about it, Drew Brees is one of the premier quarterbacks in the NFL; he proves that year in and year out.
Last season – his 15th in the league – Brees quarterbacked the league's top-ranked passing offense, throwing for 4,870 yards, 32 touchdowns, and averaging 324.7 yards per game.
"[I'm a] huge fan, huge fan of Drew Brees," said quarterback Derek Carr. "He's a Hall of Famer. He's one of the top five most accurate quarterbacks of all-time. Some of the balls that he has thrown, those are throws you dream of and he does it almost every week. I have nothing but respect for him. I think that he's definitely one of the best to ever play this game."
It's hard to completely shut down a player like Brees, but limiting the Saints big plays, particularly when they're in the red zone, will be critical in Sunday's showdown at the Superdome.
5. How will the team handle the Week 1 jitters?
The Silver and Black haven't played a meaningful football game since early January.
Yes, they've lined up and played four preseason games, but the excitement, anticipation, and intensity is nothing compared to what Sunday's season opener in New Orleans will be like, not to mention that the Superdome provides one of the more daunting home-field advantages in the NFL.
No doubt it's going to be a noisy environment Sunday afternoon, so I'll be watching to see how the team responds to the conditions, particularly as far as communication and pre-snap penalties are concerned.
Last year the team came out in flat in their Week 1 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals last year, and Derek Carr and Co. will surely want to avoid a repeat performance of that effort this season.