By Merlin Edwards III
All of the hype of the NFL season will soon be past speculation. All of the assumptions and what-ifs will finally come to a close, on Sunday, when the Oakland Raiders play their first regular season game against the New Orleans Saints at the Superdome. Finally, full-tilt football is here.
Starting even before the draft, the Oakland Raiders have been a hot topic throughout the preseason. The talking heads have either picked them for the playoffs, or something close to it. There is optimism surrounding this team everywhere you look, and for good reason. They believe they have found the quarterback of the future, as well as one of the best pass rushers (or overall defenders) in the league. Having those two positions as your best players on either side of the football will always bode well for you in the NFL.
The secondary has been bolstered with the the additions of Reggie Nelson, Sean Smith, and first round pick, Karl Joseph, but having a good team on paper doesn't win football games either. With all of the new additions this defense needs to get very comfortable with each other, very quickly
There is something to be said for a defense that is great because they are talented, but also have played together with continuity of personnel for a number of years. The Raiders defense is far from the same as last year. Maybe, seeing as they were in the bottom 5 of the league in total defense, having a bunch of brand new players is a good thing. However, anytime the ENTIRE defense, sans a few players, needs to be changed in order to get better, there will naturally be growing pains. It is said in the NFL that offenses are farther along than defenses at the beginning of the season. Defenses typically don't start to dominate until a couple weeks in. If that statement is true, then the Raiders have a lot to prove this week against the Saints.
Drew Brees may be getting older but the elite quarterbacks around the league seem to just get wiser with age. He just signed a brand new contract, making him the fifth highest paid QB in the league and he is going to play like it on Sunday. This will be a true test for a Raiders defense that is relatively untested.
Coby Fleener is a new addition that is going to give the Raiders fits. Relying on Ben Heeney to cover the tight end is not going to work. It didn't work last year, and it doesn't look like he's any better at it this year. Brees loves to throw the seam route to his tight ends after spreading the defense out with multiple wide receiver sets. If the Raiders do not find a way to slow down Fleener, it will undoubtably be a long day for the defense.
Sean Smith and David Amerson are both sizable corners and will match up well with the smaller receivers they have in New Orleans. The front seven should have a pretty good day too seeing as it is the only position group with continuity and that is without mentioning the introduction of Bruce Irvin. All of the match ups seem good on paper except for linebacker position, so all fans can do is hope that Ben Heeney can step up and cover somebody. If he can't, the Raiders will have to rely on their talented offense against the Saints mediocre defense to overcome the uphill battle of winning a shootout against Drew Brees.
The Raiders offense brought back almost all of its starters except for upgrading at the right guard position and they look like they may be ready to rock. They have a clear advantage against the New Orleans defense. This is a defense that was in the bottom five in every category that mattered last season, and they didn't do much to help themselves in the offseason.
They have suspect starting corners that Amari and Crabtree should have a field day with. The linebackers are the best part of their defense, but the O-Line should be able to assert its dominance and help Latavius Murray to get to the second level all day. Murray has his limitations with elusiveness and pad level but this is a defense that the offensive line should be able to handle. If the holes are big enough, Latavius will find them and hit them with the speed we all know he has.
Sunday's game has the potential to jump start a Raiders offense and defense for the whole season. Even though many of the experts are picking the Raiders to go to the playoffs, I am still a little skeptical. There are still many question marks that need to be figured out in order for the team to win double digit games. But this weekend is when it starts, and this team gets to prove it to everyone that they are ready for the bright lights.
Getting into a shootout type of game with Brees is never a good idea, but it would be a good start to prove that the offense is ready. Getting tested early on the road and passing that test can be a huge boost for a young team. This is the defense to do it against, and this is the type of offense The Raiders guys hope to show they can stop.
My prediction: Raiders 28-Saints 21