8:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Ravens -4.5, Over/Under: 50.5
The National Football League concludes it’s opening weekend with a trip to Sin City as the Las Vegas Raiders (finally) welcome their fans to Allegiant Stadium for what is sure to be a stiff test in the form of the Baltimore Ravens. Indeed, after back-to-back early postseason exits, the Ravens have designs on breaking through in 2021, though they’ve already been met with a wealth of adversity heading into tonight’s kickoff. Baltimore has suffered heavy losses in the Backfield already, with the top two Tailbacks on the depth chart, J.K. Dobbins (134 CAR, 805 YDS, 6.0 Y/A, 9 TD) and Gus Edwards (144 CAR, 723 YDS, 5.0 Y/A, 6 TD), each tearing their ACL in the last two weeks. Dobbins, a promising sophomore out of Ohio State, was expected to be the team’s primary ball-carrier following the departure of his predecessor, Mark Ingram, while Edwards has been one of the most frequently called-upon backups in the NFL, totaling at least 130 carries in each of his three seasons in the league. However, the former tore that particular ligament in his knee in the preseason finale against Washington, while the latter unfortunately suffered the same malady in practice last week, which has left (General Manager) Eric DeCosta and (Head Coach) John Harbaugh scrambling for reinforcements. In today’s NFL in which most teams eschew running the football in favor of tossing it all over the gridiron, the Ravens have been a bonafide throwback to the days of yesteryear; Baltimore has led the league by a sizable margin in both rushing yards (198.9) and yards per carry (5.5) in each of the past two seasons, with their average of 206.0 yards per game in 2019 the greatest by any team in over thirty years. Of course, much of that production comes courtesy of (2019 MVP) Lamar Jackson (64.4% 2,757 YDS, 6.41 NY/A, 26 TD, 9 INT, 73.7 QBR), who has redefined the position over the past two seasons; the only Quarterback to put together consecutive 1,000-yard rushing campaigns, the 24-year old led the team in rushing last season as his game-breaking speed and quickness has become a nightmare for opposing defenses. Granted, asking him to shoulder the load of the running game in it’s entirety isn’t ideal by any means, which is why the franchise went out and added the likes of Le’Veon Bell (82 CAR, 328 YDS, 4.0 Y/A, 2 TD) to the Practice Squad, along with Latavius Murray (146 CAR, 656 YDS, 4.5 Y/A, 4 TD); since holding out for all of 2018 due to a contract dispute with the Steelers, Bell, a two-time All-Pro, has been largely an afterthought now that he’s on his third team in as many years, amassing just 66.0 yards from scrimmage in that time. Although all signs point to (Rookie) Ty’Son Williams getting the majority of the reps tonight, Murray remains an intriguing option; the 31-year old spent the last two years in New Orleans as a quality backup behind Alvin Kamara, and would likely relish a shot at the Raiders, whom he broke into the league with back in 2014, rushing for a career-best 1,066 yards a year later. With all that said, as much as this team prefers to pound the rock, getting over the proverbial hump will in all likelihood involve this passing game developing into something greater than it’s been of late; Baltimore ranked dead-last in passing yards (182.4) in 2020, with their Receiving Corps accounting for a meager 136 receptions, 1,715 yards, and seventeen touchdowns, featuring just one player to amass over 500 receiving yards, which was (third-year Receiver) Marquise Brown (58 REC, 769 YDS, 13.3 Y/R, 8 TD). While this has long-been a run-oriented attack under the direction of (Offensive Coordinator) Greg Roman, there is a train of thought that they need to grow in the passing department, which is why the team added (veteran) Sammy Watkins (37 REC, 421 YDS, 11.4 Y/R, 2 TD) in Free Agency, and selected Rashod Bateman (27th Overall) in the First Round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Yes, they love to utilize their Tight Ends, and that isn’t likely to change after they doubled down and inked (Pro-Bolwer) Mark Andrews (58 REC, 701 YDS, 12.1 Y/R, 7 TD) to a four-year, $56 million contract extension, but in order to challenge teams like the Chiefs and Bills they are have to able to stress them both downfield and outside the harsh-marks. Fortunately for Jackson, their opponent tonight has been a disaster in defending the pass over the past few seasons (more on that shortly), which should translate into plenty of opportunities to develop that phase of the Offense. Tonight’s meeting marks only the second time that Jackson has matched up with Las Vegas, with that previous encounter taking place back in 2018, which was only his second start as a Rookie; the Ravens pulled away late in the 34-17 victory, with the Pro-Bowler completing 14-of-25 passes for 178 yards, a touchdown, and a pair of interceptions, while rushing for another seventy-one yards and a score on eleven attempts.
Meanwhile, a year after enjoying their first season following their relocation to Las Vegas, the Raiders look to finally welcome the fan base to their new home, Allegiant Stadium, while hoping that this new Black Hole will fuel them to a long-awaited return to the Playoffs. Then again, that’s the statement that (Head Coach) Jon Gruden and (General Manager) Mike Mayock made a few weeks ago, proclaiming that it was indeed time for the franchise to advance to the postseason. Now entering the fourth year of Gruden’s second tenure with the Silver & Black, that should be the case, but the likelihood of that happening is another debate entirely. After being coaxed out of the broadcasting booth for a ten-year, $100 million contract, Gruden’s current run with the franchise has been uneven at best, even if they’ve managed to improve incrementally; Las Vegas is only 19-29 over the last three years without a winning record or postseason appearance to show for it. The club has struggled from a personnel standpoint, whether it be Free Agency or the Draft, where they’ve missed on a slew of selections despite setting themselves up for success with a wealth of premium picks (remember the haul of picks that they received from the Khalil Mack Trade?). As a result, the Defense has been an unmitigated disaster throughout this new era, finishing thirty-second, twenty-fourth, and thirtieth over the last three years in points allowed. And it’s with that said that Gruden convinced one of his former assistants, Gus Bradley, to join him in Sin City with the hopes that the venerable Defensive Coordinator will be able to mold a young unit into a more respectable one; the 55-year old is largely credited with the creation of the Seahawks’ once-fabled Legion of Boom, and though that Cover-Three scheme is considered antiquated by today’s standards, he has continued to build stout defenses during his tenures with the Jacksonville Jaguars and (most recently) the Chargers. Both the pass-rush (21) and turnover differential (Minus-11) must see significant improvement, while it will be necessary for former high draft picks, most notably (Defensive Lineman) Clelin Ferrell (27 TKL, 3 TFL, 10 QBH, 2.0 SK, 2 FF, 2 PD) and (Safety) Jonathan Abram (86 TKL, 3 TFL, 4 QBH, 2 INT, 6 PD) to play to their billing, otherwise it’s difficult seeing this group making the kind of leap that the Raiders so desperately need them to make. The additions of (Defensive End) Yannick Ngakoue (23 TKL, 7 TFL, 11 QBH, 8.0 SK, 4 FF) and (veteran Linebacker) K.J. Wright (86 TKL, 11 TFL, 3 QBH, 2.0 SK, 1 FF, 2 FR, 1 INT, 10 PD) should prove valuable simply for their experience within Bradley’s system, with the inclusion of the former allowing the Coordinator to move Ferrell inside where the Coaching Staff feels that he can become more impactful, while the selection of (Safety) Trevon Moerhig (43rd Overall) in the 2021 NFL Draft gives them a young talent that has the requisite skillset to play deep centerfield in this scheme. Interestingly, Gruden felt it necessary to sacrifice much of his stellar Offensive Line in an attempt to free up cap space in order to bolster the Defense, which could prove detrimental to what has been a steadily-productive attack. (All-Pro Center) Rodney Hudson was traded to Arizona, while (longtime Guard) Gabe Jackson was included in a deal with Seattle, leaving a much younger unit in their wake; (Tackle) Alex Leatherwood (17th Overall) should fit seamlessly into a role at either Right Guard or Tackle, though all eyes will be on (third-year Center) Andre James, who is replacing the aforementioned Hudson. Furthermore, (veteran Guard) Richie Incognito is expected to miss tonight’s affair after suffering a bruised calf muscle in practice earlier in the week, meaning that this position group will see even more upheaval, as (Sophomore Lineman) John Simpson will be taking over. Simply put, this gambit on Gruden’s part will be interesting to see play out over the course of the campaign, for while the Coaching Staff has praised their young Linemen, from a spectator’s view it’s akin to playing with fire. Either way, Las Vegas must find a way to strike some balance on both sides of the football, for their woes on Defense have played a direct role in their repeated late season collapses over the last two years; Gruden’s charges were 6-3 and 6-4 heading down the stretch of the previous two campaigns, only to falter to a cumulative 3-10 record in November and December, narrowly missing the Playoffs on both occasions.