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Key Matchups: It will take a collaborative defensive effort to stop Christian McCaffrey

The Silver and Black will be entering Sunday's game against the Carolina Panthers with a feeling of shock and uncertainty that has nothing to do with the team they're facing.

The Raiders and Panthers will kick-off at Bank at America Stadium with no fans in attendance. With the restrictions placed on fan attendance due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these two teams will have the bizarre challenge of battling their hearts out with no one in the stands to see.

Despite no fans being in attendance, this will not prevent the Raiders from taking the field and beginning what they hope can be a special season for this young team. Here are a few key matchups for everyone sitting at home to look out for as they could potentially be what leads a team to their first victory of the season.

Jon Gruden vs. Matt Rhule

A huge key matchup going into Week 1 will be the battle of the brains between two of the most intriguing football minds in the game. Jon Gruden will face the challenge of going up against Carolina Panthers' head coach Matt Rhule, who will be coaching in his first game as an NFL head coach.

Rhule was hired by the Carolina Panthers after turning around a struggling Baylor University football team and finishing the 2019 season with an 11-1 record and being named the Big 12 Coach of the Year. Rhule also found the same success at Temple University before going to Baylor as he helped the Owls improve from a 2-10 team his first year as head coach to a 10-3 team in 2016 with an AAC conference championship to go along with it.

Rhule is looking forward to the challenge of head coaching his first NFL game against a coach who he has considered a mentor.

"I really respect Jon Gruden," said Matt Rhule while speaking with "I'm very grateful to him. It'll be an honor to take the field with someone that's done everything he's done."

According to Coach Gruden, the respect between him and Rhule is mutual as he has been connected with Rhule since he was coaching at Temple and Gruden was an analyst for Monday Night Football.

"I have a lot of respect for him and what he did at Temple," said Coach Gruden "He went to Baylor and turned that program around after a lot of bad things that happened. This is one hell of a coach. He's a great guy. You can see why he was coveted by Carolina to be their coach."

Derek Carr vs. Brian Burns and Tahir Whitehead

The Panthers are coming into the game against the Raiders banged up in the secondary after placing starting cornerback Eli Apple on injured reserve and cornerbacks Donte Jackson and Troy Pride dealing with injuries. This makes it imperative for the Panthers to be able to win off the line of scrimmage and get after Derek Carr.

Two of the Panthers' most poised pass rushers are Florida State product Brian Burns and former Raiders linebacker, Tahir Whitehead. Burns is looking to have a breakout sophomore season after having an impressive rookie year totaling 7.5 sacks, the second most for a rookie in franchise history.

"Brian [Burns] is another really good player, he's another really good pass rusher," said Derek Carr. "He can wreck the game. He can change the game. We got to have our antennas up and be ready for him because he's a really good football player."

Another player that will assist the Panthers pass rush is a very familiar face to the Raiders. Tahir Whitehead will be lining up against the Raiders after being released from the team in March, setting up the Raiders for their current "young gun" approach to the team. Whitehead led the Raiders in tackles in the 2018 and 2019 season and has big shoes to fill at outside linebacker for Carolina, replacing perennial All-Pro player Luke Kuechly — who retired at the end of the 2019 season.

"Tahir has brought a veteran leadership," said Panthers head coach Matt Rhule. "He's moving great, he looks really good. He brings such seriousness, such maturity to our defense. I think we are going to start or play with a bunch of young guys, and having a guy like him out there has really helped because I've bought into him and our coaches have bought into him, our players have bought into him. I think we've all bought into him so much; I think the young guys are really heeding some of the things he's saying and that's going a long way for us."

Christian McCaffrey vs. the Raiders' Defense

The African proverb 'it takes a village" is the best way to describe the approach the Raiders are taking to containing Panthers All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey.

Since being drafted by the Panthers in 2017, McCaffrey has put the league on notice showcasing his skills as a runner and a receiver, becoming one of the most versatile and feared backs in the league to go against. McCaffrey is coming off an MVP-like 2019 season which saw him eclipse 1,000 rushing and receiving yards with 19 total touchdowns.

McCaffrey has established himself as a nightmare to game plan against and the Raiders are hopeful they can turn in a collaborative team effort from the coaching staff and the players to stop McCaffrey.

"[McCaffrey's] a great tailback," said Coach Gruden "He can function in a two-back set. He's a great receiver out of the backfield. He's a versatile weapon. He's a guy you can put in the slot. He can run option routes and seam routes. He has a wide array of skills that you have to account for. Most of the teams in pro football are finding guys like this and Carolina arguably has the very best. We have to know where 22 is, that's for sure."

Pro Bowler Cory Littleton will also be depending a lot on his teammates to help him stop McCaffrey. The former Rams linebacker was signed by the Raiders in March to help them fill the void in the Raiders front seven to help against versatile players in the backfield such as McCaffrey.

"My man can do anything, he runs that offense," said Cory Littleton referring to McCaffrey's game. "You just have to play the defense that's called. Know where our help is, our leverage, where somebody is getting outside of us, or if we do have somebody working with us. It's just basically relying on your brother next to you. There is going to be a lot of situations where I'll have outside leverage on a back, hoping that I have somebody working across the middle of the field that's going to protect me. And that's what we do as a defense, protect our brothers."

View photos from practice at Intermountain Healthcare Performance Center as the Silver and Black prepare for their regular-season opener against the Carolina Panthers.

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