The last two teams to open the 2018 NFL season have aspirations to be the last two standing in Atlanta in February as the Los Angeles Rams and Oakland Raiders prepare to square off Monday night in Oakland.
The clash of in-state rivals who haven’t met since 2014 will be the first for the reigning Offensive Player of the Year in Rams running back Todd Gurley, as well as the first in his second stint as Raiders coach for Jon Gruden.
Both teams have made significant changes since the Rams were the surprise winners of the NFC West last season at 11-5, while the Raiders were so disappointing while going 6-10 in the AFC West, they chose to dismiss coach Jack Del Rio in favor of Gruden.
Gurley led the NFC in rushing with 1,305 yards while third-year quarterback Jared Goff directed the NFL’s highest scoring offense at 29.9 points per game.
In what will be his first game in Oakland since staring at the nearby University of California, Goff will be complemented by new wideout Brandin Cooks, acquired by trade from New England, while Gurley should benefit from the addition of two free-agent signings in the offensive line — center John Sullivan and left tackle Andrew Whitworth.
Goff also should enjoy the absence of defensive standout Khalil Mack, the 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, whose holdout led to a trade from the Raiders to the Chicago Bears last week.
“I would say I’m not upset about that,” Rams coach Sean McVay assured shortly after hearing about the Mack trade. “But that being said, you still have a lot of respect for the guys that they will put out there. It’s going to be a great challenge for us.”
Goff threw for 3,804 yards and 28 touchdowns last season, 308 yards and six TD’s more than the Raiders’ Derek Carr, whose season was seen as a significant step backward from consecutive campaigns in which he had averaged 3,962 yards and 30 touchdowns.
The 27-year-old believes the sky’s the limit under Gruden’s tutelage.
“I expect us to be excellent,” Carr proclaimed. “I expect (everyone) to know what to do. I expect us to do it. Thankfully we have a really talented group and team of not only players but coaches as well. It’s going to be good.”
Former Green Bay Packers star wideout Jordy Nelson is now a part of that group. He will be positioned opposite of Amari Cooper, another former star expected to experience a rebirth under the offensive-minded Gruden.
While the Raiders will find themselves lining up with San Francisco 49ers castoff Tank Carradine instead of Mack along the defensive front, the Rams avoided a similar predicament when they got defensive tackle Aaron Donald to end his holdout and sign a six-year, $135 million deal.
The large contract will allow Donald to lead a new-look unit that now also features nose tackle Ndamukong Suh and cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters.
—Field Level Media