On Sunday, the Las Vegas Raiders will travel to Charlotte to take on the Carolina Panthers to kick off the 2020 season. Here are three key matchups to look for during Raiders vs. Panthers.
The excitement surrounding the 2020 season is sky-high. Not only because the Raiders will be playing their inaugural season in Las Vegas, and opening the brand new Allegiant Stadium, but also because of the team’s much-improved roster
Here are three key matchups to keep on eye on in the Week 1 game between the Raiders vs. Panthers:
Jon Gruden vs. Matt Rhule
When Jon Gruden takes the field on Sunday in Carolina, he will be doing so for the 218th time as an NFL head coach. On the opposing sideline, Matt Rhule will be doing so for the first time.
Gruden’s staff consists of veteran coordinators in Paul Guenther and Greg Olson while Rhule’s coordinators, Joe Brady & Phil Snow, will also be making the jump from the colligate level. Brady did have a short stint in the league with the New Orleans Saints.
Of all the key matchups to watch for in week one, the coaching battle is of the utmost importance.
Rhule was successful in rebuilding not only one but two college programs (Temple & Baylor) but now he jumps to the pro ranks.
“When I was coaching and doing Monday Night Football,” said Gruden. “I followed him at Temple, have a lot of respect for what he did at Temple. And then he went to Baylor and turned that program around after a lot of bad things had happened. This is one hell of a coach, he’s a great guy and you can see why he was coveted by Carolina to be their coach.”
The respect is mutual. Rhule considers Gruden a mentor from afar, receiving advice from Gruden while he was at Temple.
It’s fair to say teams with new coaching staffs (and quarterbacks) will be at a disadvantage due to unusual offseason that limited the time they had to get their teams up to speed with new schemes and philosophies.
The Panthers not only have an inexperienced head coach, but they will have a new starting quarterback under center as well.
On the flip side, Gruden and his quarterback Derek Carr enter their third year together.
If Gruden wants to get the 2020 campaign off to a good start, then he must take advantage of his experience and continuity with his staff and quarterback over his counterpart in Carolina.
Raiders Rookie Starters vs. Panthers Rookie Starters
One of the similarities between the Las Vegas and Carolina rosters is that both will be reliant on rookies to come in and fill large roles and make immediate contributions.
For the Raiders, they will start a trio of rookies that includes wideouts Henry Ruggs III and Bryan Edwards, and cornerback Damon Arnette on defense.
Ruggs III and Edwards were bright spots in training camp, drawing rave reviews from their teammates and coaches. The same can be said for Arnette who, despite playing through an injured thumb most of camp, won the starting job over veteran Prince Amukamara.
These rookies will be asked to help improve position groups who were among the teams weakest links in 2019.
And for the Panthers, you can expect to see at least four rookie starters on the defensive side of the ball. Derrick Brown, Yetur Gross-Matos, Jeremy Chinn, and Troy Pride Jr will be asked to help improve a defense that ranked 31st in points allowed (29.4) a year ago.
Brown was the seventh overall pick in the draft but won’t have an easy task in his first NFL start facing a Raiders offensive line that, if healthy, will rank among the best in the league.
The team whose rookies adapt the quickest on Sunday will be at a major advantage.
Cory Littleton versus Christian McCaffrey
Raider fans know all too well the struggles linebackers have had over the years in coverage against opposing running backs and tight ends.
In 2019, things were not any better. According to Pro Football Focus, Raiders linebackers earned a coverage grade of 38.4 while allowing the league’s second-highest passer rating of 122.
In the offseason, the Raiders made it a top priority to address the linebacker position by signing two free agents, Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski.
In Littleton, Las Vegas picked up one of the NFL’s top coverage linebackers. Since 2016, Littleton has logged roughly 1,200 coverage snaps, earning a grade of 87.3, according to PFF’s grading system.
Littleton will have his hands full as he will be expected to slow down the top dual-threat running back in NFL Christian McCaffrey.
McCaffrey had a season for the record books in 2019 rushing for 1,387 yards and catching a ridiculous 116 passes (NFL record for running backs) for 1,005 yards and 19 total touchdowns.
A major factor in the outcome of the game will be Cory Littleton’s ability to contain McCaffrey and not allow him to be a game wrecker in the passing game.