The Raiders begin their 2021 season with a difficult matchup against the Baltimore Ravens.
Obviously, the biggest storyline at play is how to stop the Ravens dual-threat quarterback Lamar Jackson. Jackson accounted for nearly 5,000 yards of total offense last season, but he will have a tough task of going against a Raiders' rejuvenated defense headed by defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. They've also added a combination of young rising stars and veteran leadership in Yannick Ngakoue, Solomon Thomas, Casey Hayward Jr. and Gerald McCoy. There will be a lot of components that will contribute to who leaves Allegiant Stadium with their first win of the season.
Take a look at the first installment of Pick Six for the 2021 season for six storylines to watch.
1) Allegiant Stadium will be the move
This will be a milestone game for Raider Nation in many regards. First and foremost, it's the Silver and Black's first regular season game in front of fans.
The last Monday night game the Raiders played in Allegiant Stadium was against the New Orleans Saints and equated to their first win ever in their new home. The Raiders will have the daunting task of picking up another big win, this time among a sold-out crowd. After waiting so long to play a home game with fans in attendance, quarterback Derek Carr is ready for a high-energy ball game. He just politely asks that you control your excitement while he's trying to move the ball down the field.
"I'm really excited. I think that preseason game, I was hyped even though I knew I wasn't playing," said Carr. "Just going through pregame was awesome. Hearing our fans and when the defense made a big hit hearing them go nuts and things like that, that was a lot of fun.
"But when we're on offense, let's try and be quiet. Let's be as quiet as we can. You can clap for first downs. You don't have to go crazy, but hopefully stay quiet on offense and save all our energy for hopefully when we score and when we're on defense. I am excited to play in front of them. I know they'll be excited, but let's just try as best we can on offense to be as quiet as we can."
2) Raiders offense must limits mistakes to Marlon Humphrey
With Marcus Peters injured, more of an emphasis to lead the defense will be on the shoulders of Ravens All-Pro cornerback Marlon Humphrey. The cornerback has established himself as a young star in this league since he was drafted in the first round by the Ravens in 2017. Humphrey is coming off another spectacular season with 82 total tackles, 2.5 sacks, 11 pass deflections and a league-leading eight forced fumbles. Head Coach Jon Gruden compared Humphrey's ability to create turnovers to a Raiders' Hall of Fame cornerback he once coached.
"I've never seen a guy like this Humphrey. Marlon Humphrey, I love this guy," Coach Gruden told the media Thursday. "He can poke the ball out, and I hate to use Charles Woodson's name, but if Charles is listening, I think Marlon Humphrey can poke the ball out as good or better as Woodson. He poked it out nine times last year. This guy is really one helluva a football player. He has my total respect. I like watching him play and compete."
Another person who's very familiar with Humphrey is running back Josh Jacobs. Jacobs and Humphrey were teammates at the University of Alabama – winning a National Championship with each other in 2016.
"He's one of the best, if not the best in the game right now in my eyes," said Jacobs. "Definitely just fun to go against him. I mean, it's bragging rights. We go back to 'Bama, we go to train in the offseason. ... When I see him, I want to have those bragging rights. But it's definitely going to be fun."
While it's all love between Jacobs and Humphrey, the young running back seems prepared to run over whoever it takes to get bragging rights over his former college teammate.
3) Injury Woes in Baltimore
The Baltimore Ravens are coming into Allegiant with a less than ideal roster. The Ravens, who produced an 11-5 season and a playoff win last season, had big hopes for 2021. While hopes clearly aren't dashed for the talented roster, the injury bug has hit them harder than arguably any team in the NFL this offseason. The Ravens have a plethora of their key players on injury reserve including their 2021 first-round draft pick Rashod Bateman, linebacker L.J. Fort and their future star running back J.K Dobbins, who tore his ACL in the preseason.
To make a bad situation worse, both Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters and running back Gus Edwards tore their ACLs in practice Thursday, and will be out for the entire season. Dobbins and Edwards' injuries prompted the Ravens to sign running backs Le'Veon Bell, Devonta Freeman and Latavius Murray this week. While the Ravens have had to adjust on the fly for this Monday night showdown, the expectations and preparation remains the same for the Raiders.
"Having a relationship with Greg [Roman] and knowing him he'll adjust," defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said Friday. "And it's not going to slow them down at all. They'll just put pieces in there. This is the NFL, everyone is extremely talented. The guys they signed, extremely talented. So we know we're going to get their best shot, we understand that part of it.
"We have a lot of respect for how they attack defenses."
4) Carl Nassib will make history
Another historic milestone will be when No. 94 steps on the field Monday.
Earlier in the offseason during Pride Month, defensive end Carl Nassib came out as gay on his Instagram. Nassib's announcement prompted a massive outpouring of positive reactions from his teammates, coaches and fans across the league. Along with coming out, he pledged to donate $100,000 to The Trevor Project, a crisis intervention and suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ+ youth.
"I was definitely surprised by the big reaction, Nassib said earlier in Training Camp. "It was incredible. I thought nobody would care, but it was just such a good feeling to have all the support. I was glad I could do my part to help bring visibility and representation to my community."
Nassib's performance against the Ravens on Monday will make him the first openly gay man to ever play in a regular season NFL game.
5) Andre James has big shoes to fill
Rodney Hudson, who was the Raiders' Pro Bowl starting center since 2015, departed in the offseason. Andre James, who has backed up Hudson for two seasons, now has the opportunity to lead the charge of the Raiders offense. Many questions and concerns have been brought up about how he'll adjust to the starting lineup, however his teammates and coaches have had nothing but the utmost confidence that he'll be able to perform at a high level.
"Honestly I don't feel any pressure," said James. "It's just another day at work for me. I'm just excited for the opportunity."
From James' rookie season coming out of UCLA to now, the mental approach he takes to the game now has been his biggest area of improvement he's made. He credits his father, who passed away from cancer while he was in college, for preparing him for this moment of starting in an NFL season opener.
"My dad introduced me to this game. Going out, I practice every day for him," James said. "I play every day for him. I get emotional just talking about this right now because he's an awesome guy. I still hold that close to my heart and everything he taught me. His perseverance, his everything. I still hold it close to me now today."
Even with the pressures that come for James in his second start at center in the NFL, he has a formidable -- albeit young -- offensive line around him to help him block. Regardless, he'll have made his father proud.
6) More vet presence at the quarterback of the defense
One of the biggest additions that has occurred recently is the depth added to the linebacker room. Within two weeks before the start of the season, the Raiders traded for Denzel Perryman and signed K.J. Wright. Both players have a proven track record of success in the league, and were both former players of Gus Bradley in Los Angeles and Seattle. Despite the difficulty of learning an entirely new defense in such a short period of time, both have made their imprint on the defense since arriving to Las Vegas.
"K.J. Wright, I never met him in my life and all of a sudden a week ago, he's on the field practicing with the ones," Maxx Crosby said Friday. "I've just seen him come in with so much confidence. The way he practices [is] like a complete pro. Coming in acting like he knows exactly what to do, and he's been at home basically. Things are always changing, that's the National Football League. You never can take a day for granted.
"Denzel Perryman and K.J. Wright, you never know what can happen."