Finally, it’s time.
The long, dark months of the offseason are officially behind us, and now it’s time to play some football, for real.
The Oakland Raiders open up the 2017 campaign this Sunday at Nissan Stadium against the Tennessee Titans, and headed into the new year, expectations are high for both squads, particularly for the Silver and Black.
Led by quarterback Derek Carr, the Raiders will try to build on an impressive 2016 that saw the team clinch a postseason berth for the first time since 2002, this time with an even more potent group of players on the offensive side of the football.
A season is not defined by just one game, but Head Coach Jack Del Rio would assuredly like his group to start off on the right foot, so here are three matchups to keep an eye on Sunday afternoon in Music City.
Quarterback Derek Carr vs. Quarterback Marcus Mariota
While the Raiders and Titans are certainly two different teams – there’s an argument that Mike Mularkey’s group is where the Silver and Black were a year or so ago – there is one striking similarity between the two squads; each will go as far as their young quarterback takes them.
Drafted just a year apart, Carr and Mariota have both enjoyed strong starts to their respective NFL careers, and are the faces of their franchises.
Not only that, they each lead dynamic offensive units; granted, their styles of quarterbacking are a little different.
While Carr has no issue taking off and running, showing off his athleticism in the process, No. 4 is lethal from the pocket, picking apart opposing defenses with his cannon of an arm. Mariota, on the other hand, is the prototypical dual-threat quarterback, which adds another dimension that Defensive Coordinator Ken Norton, Jr.’s group needs to prepare for.
“Everybody knows he [Mariota] is mobile,” said cornerback David Amerson. “Anybody that can throw and run has some type of value to them; it makes them a threat. People change their whole defenses around running quarterbacks and stuff, but not only can he run, he’s a pretty good thrower too. You really have a two-headed monster. He’s perfect for that offense.”
Carr is 2-0 in his professional career against Mariota – while at Fresno State, he did lose to Mariota and Oregon in 2012 – and whichever signal-caller can put together a better day will likely put their team in good position to win Sunday.
Linebacker Marquel Lee vs. Running Back DeMarco Murray
Less than a year ago, Marquel Lee was game planning for the likes of Virginia Tech, Duke, and Boston College.
Now, fast forward to September 2017, and the rookie linebacker is not only listed as the starting middle linebacker on the Raiders depth chart, he’ll also be tasked with helping stop All-Pro running back DeMarco Murray Sunday afternoon.
Welcome to the NFL, rook.
In 2016, the Titans boasted one of the top rushing attacks in the NFL, averaging 136.7 yards per game on the ground, and they’ll look to keep pounding the rock in 2017.
Now, that number is certainly aided by the fact that Marcus Mariota is a legitimate threat to tuck the ball and run, but make no mistake about, even headed into year seven, Murray is a force to be reckoned with on the ground.
We’ll find out Sunday afternoon if Lee and his defensive teammates can limit big No. 29.
Safety Karl Joseph vs. Tight End Delanie Walker
This matchup is going to be fun.
Even at 33 years old, Delanie Walker is one of the best tight ends in the NFL, and he’s a player that can’t be taken lightly, especially in the Titans offensive system.
It’s no secret that at times the Raiders defense has had some challenges in years past shutting down the opposing tight end, but hopefully Joseph can find a way to do just that Sunday.
Now in his second NFL season – and healthy – Joseph has enjoyed a strong start to 2017, and shown off some of that big-hitting ability that he was so heralded for at West Virginia.
Mariota has shown a willingness to find Walker – the big tight end has been targeted 159 times over the past two seasons – so if Joseph is able to make life difficult for him, it would help to make the Titans offense a little more one dimensional.