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Pick Six: Who steps up on the defensive line?

Kicking off the season Monday night under the lights – it doesn’t get much better than that.

Nine months after Jon Gruden was re-introduced as head coach of the Oakland Raiders, his team will finally play a meaningful game, and after wandering in the long football desert that is the offseason, the return of the regular season is cause for celebration.

Week 1 sets the tone, it always does, so let’s take a look at six things you need to be watching for Monday night at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.

1. The environment

There’s nothing better than primetime, nothing.

The lights, the crowd, the energy – it’s hard to replicate that kind of thing anywhere else besides at a primetime football game.

Throw in Jon Gruden’s official return to the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, and Monday night is going to be a fun one, I promise you that.

It’s Week 1, so I’m sure both teams will be all fired up at kickoff; keep an eye out on which team can harness that energy and come out of the gates fast at the OACC.

2. Who controls the line of scrimmage?

The battle for the line of scrimmage is paramount for success each week, but with the Raiders trio of gladiators in the middle going against Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh, you’re going to want to keep an eye on the big fellas up front Monday night.

I’ve said time and time again – and I’ll say it once more – that the Raiders have the best interior offensive line the NFL, and they’ll certainly have a chance to prove it Monday night when they square up with Donald and Suh.

The big guys up front are so crucial to the Raiders offense as a whole – both on the ground and through the air – and I’m fired up to see how they handle this huge challenge to start off 2018.

Put your seat belt on Monday night, it’s going to be nasty down there in the trenches.

3. Donald Penn working at right tackle

Speaking of that Raiders offensive line, Donald Penn is poised to make his first career start at right tackle Monday night against the Rams.

Monday will be Penn’s 171st career start, but all of the previous 170 came on the left side.

The veteran tackle’s move right has been one of the more discussed storylines of the offseason, and we’ll finally get to see what he looks like in his new spot against the Rams.

The Raiders allowed just 24 sacks last year – good for the third fewest in the NFL, and the play of big No. 72 was a big reason why.

Let’s see how he fares on this new adventure.

4. Who steps up on the defensive line?

Well, we’re going to get our first look at a Raiders defensive line without Khalil Mack for the first time since 2013.

The Silver and Black sent the All-Pro defensive end to the Chicago Bears last week in exchange for two first-round picks, and while the trade admittedly sent shockwaves through the league and the locker room, at the end of the day, Khalil Mack isn’t showing up again at 1220 Harbor Bay Parkway.

That said, Mack’s departure creates a ton of opportunities for other guys on the defensive line, and I’m excited to see which ones step up and make the most of their chances.

When you’re talking about guys who will be looked at to step up in 2018, Bruce Irvin is the first guy that comes to mind, and while there will indeed be more asked of No. 51, don’t sleep on the rookies along the interior of the defensive line either.

Oh, and we haven’t even talked about Arden Key, Tank Carradine, or Fadol Brown either.

The Raiders have the players to get after the quarterback, let’s see how they impact what Jared Goff wants to do Monday night.

5. Will Marshawn and friends get rolling?

Look, I know it’s a brand new season, and that it’s not entirely fair to categorize a team by what they did – or didn’t do – a year before, but if you look at the 2017 iteration of the Rams, as good as they were, they did struggle to stop the run.

Now, will that issue rear its head again in 2018? That’s to be determined, but with Marshawn Lynch, Doug Martin, and the rest of the Raiders running backs gassed up and ready to roll, I’ll be keeping a keen eye on how they establish an identity on the ground against the Rams.

Head Coach Jon Gruden has made no bones about it, he wants to pound the rock, and control the line of scrimmage, and I have a feeling if the Raiders can do just that Monday night, they’ll drive back home with a “W.”

6. Teacher vs. Student

It’s a tale as old as time that we’ve seen play out in movies, book, television shows – everything – and we’ll see the battle between teacher and student manifest itself once again Friday night at the OACC.

Not only did Jon Gruden give Sean McVay his start in the NFL, but the two families – the Grudens and McVays – go way back too.

“Two families that are extremely close,” McVay explained. “The common things are that they love their family and they love football. That’s been something that’s really kept us close over the years and what the Gruden family has done for me specifically, Jon and Jay, I can’t really can’t say enough about how fortunate and blessed I feel that I have gotten the chance to work with Jon, but then also have the relationship that we do where he kind of puts his arm around you, really teaches you what you know about the game from a foundational standpoint. Certainly wouldn’t be anywhere close to where I am today or even have had the opportunity that I’ve been so lucky to have if it wasn’t for what Jon and Jay Gruden have done for me, specifically in coaching.”

Who comes out on top Monday night, Gruden or McVay? It’s going to be the Raiders vs. the Rams at the OACC, but make no mistake about it, all eyes will be on the team’s respective head coaches.

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