Raiders visit Tennessee Titans Sunday in key Week 1 matchup that could be playoff preview

AP File Photo: Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) smiles on the sideline during the second half of an NFL preseason football game against the Seattle Seahawks in Oakland, Calif., Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

By Joe Hawkes-Beamon
Sports Radio Service Writer

OAKLAND — Finally, the NFL regular season is here.

For me, the preseason schedule is nothing more than a dinner salad. It’s just there to help me pass the time until my main course (preferably a grilled salmon with broccoli and red potatoes or homemade spaghetti), is brought to my table.

Bring on the “meal” that is the NFL regular season.

Week 1 has some great matchups that can set the tone for the 2017 season: Kansas City traveling to Foxborough to take on the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots on Thursday night in the league’s kickoff game, Seattle at Lambeau Field to take on the Packers and Dallas hosting the New York Giants on Sunday.

Add the Raiders against the Titans in Nashville to that list of games.

Oakland has been picked by many national publications and experts as a trending opponent to play New England in the AFC Championship Game (the Raiders “host” the Patriots on Nov. 19 in Mexico City), but the true test starts against Tennessee at 1:00 p.m. ET (12:00 p.m. CT/10:00 a.m. PT) at Nissan Stadium in Nashville.

The Raiders are making their second straight trip to Nashville for a regular season game. Oakland defeated the Titans 17-10 in Week 3 last season.

Derek Carr threw for 249 yards with one touchdown and an interception, while the defense forced three turnovers to pace the Silver and Black to victory that day.

Carr posted his second consecutive season with at least 25 touchdowns passes (28) and 3,900 yards (3,937) after throwing 3,987 yards and 32 touchdowns in 2015.

The Raiders raced out to a 10-2 start in 2016 before a 2-2 finish, highlighted by Carr’s season-ending leg injury that doomed Oakland’s chances in the playoffs. Oakland had no chance against the Texans in the AFC wild-card playoff game with rookie Connor Cook under center and lost 27-14 in Houston, there first playoff appearance since 2002 when I was just a freshmen in college.

With additions like running back Marshawn Lynch, tight end Jared Cook and wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson in the offseason through free agency to go along with wide receivers Michael Crabtree, Amari Cooper and Seth Roberts, Oakland has the offensive talent to match any team in the league score-for-score.

The Silver and Black finished with the NFL’s sixth-ranked offense averaging 26 points per game last season so its a virtual guarantee that the offense can score more this season.

Will longtime kicker Sebastian Janikowski still handle the kicking duties for Oakland this season? Janikowski and the team are at crossroads on a contract that the Raiders want to restructure that pays Oakland’s all-time leader in games played (268) $4.05 million this season, a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

At 39, Janikowski said he wanted to kick for the Raiders when the team moves to Las Vegas in 2020. The veteran kicker has been dealing with back issues that kept his out of the team’s final two preseason games.

On Monday, the Raiders worked out three kickers: Mike Nugent, Josh Lambo and Marshall Koehn.

With Janikowski still on the roster Tuesday, he’s collected $238,000, representing one-seventeenth of Janikowski’s salary or one game-check. If Janikowski is still on the roster Saturday at 1:00 p.m. PT, the remainder of his contract becomes fully guaranteed.

Defensively?

The strength of the unit will come from defensive end Khalil Mack, the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year after recording a team-leading 11.0 of Oakland’s league-low 25 sacks in 2016.

Mack is tougher than sandpaper to block.

Double- and even triple-teams seems to not work on a guy that also registered a pick-6 (interception returned for touchdown) last season. Mack had a stretch where he recorded at least one sack in eight straight weeks.

Linebacker Bruce Irvin finished second on the team with 7.0 sacks, but has double-digit sack talent. Irvin was tied with Atlanta Falcons outside linebacker Vic Beasley for the league lead with six forced fumbles in 2016.

Oakland is high on rookie defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes, the team’s third-round pick in this year’s draft out of UCLA. Vanderdoes had an impressive training camp and showing in preseason games and has cemented a starting spot on the defensive line.

But Oakland still has a bag of footballs at middle linebacker, with rookie Marquel Lee as a starter and second-year player Tyrell Adams as the backup. Lee was decent against the run in preseason, but still has to improve in pass coverage against running backs out of the backfield and tight ends over the middle of the field.

In the secondary, David Amerson is Oakland’s best cornerback. TJ Carrie is expected to start at the other cornerback spot since high-priced free agent addition Sean Smith can’t cover speedy wide receivers. Smith was working as a hybrid safety/linebacker in training camp covering tight ends with the second-team defense, and lined up as the fourth cornerback when the offense deployed four wide receivers in drills.

The hope is once this year’s first-round draft pick, cornerback Gareon Conley steps onto the field, he’ll surpass the entire group. Conley didn’t play in the preseason and barely took reps with the team during training camp as he dealt with legal issues and litany of nagging injuries.

Second-round draft pick Obi Melifonwu, who the team hoped would contribute at safety, was placed on injured reserve Tuesday after battling a knee injury during training camp.

The earliest that Melifonwu could return would be Week 8.

Some pundits are questioning with players like linebacker Perry Riley Jr., who was signed by Oakland off the street last season and was the team’s starting middle linebacker the rest of the way and cornerback Joe Haden available via trade this season, why didn’t the Raiders, a legitimate Super Bowl contender, upgrade those key spots on a defense that finished ranked 26th in total defense last season?

The overlooking of a strong middle linebacker and a sturdy cornerback may come back to bite the Raiders in key situations this season, as it did last season.

Like Oakland, Tennessee has a hot, young signal-caller that is returning from a leg injury of his own and have the Titans thinking playoffs for the first time since 2008 in quarterback Marcus Mariota.

Mariota had Tennessee on the brink of the playoffs last season at 8-7 before finishing tied at 9-7 with division rival Houston for the AFC South title, but Houston won the division due to a better division record (Houston was 5-1, Tennessee was 2-4) that left the Titans outside of the playoffs.

The former No. 2 overall pick by Tennessee out of Oregon threw for 3,426 yards with 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2016. Mariota, just like Carr, is a mobile quarterback that will use his legs to get out of trouble.

Just like Carr, Mariota suffered his season-ending injury on Christmas Eve while being sacked by the opposing team’s defense.

The Titans’ running game could spell trouble for Oakland, especially with the physical running styles of both DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. Tennessee boasted the NFL’s third-ranked rushing attack averaging 136.7 yards and Murray was a big reason for that.

The seventh-year running back from Oklahoma finished third in the NFL in 2016 in rushing with 1,287 yards and nine rushing touchdowns in his first season with Tennessee after a forgettable season 2015 season in Philadelphia.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Titans called 44-percent of rushing plays (2nd in the NFL) and was fourth in the league averaging 4.6 yards per carry.

Henry, a former Heisman Trophy winner, was selected by the Titans in the second round in the 2017 NFL draft, was second on the Titans with 490 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns in his rookie campaign.

Wide receiver Rishard Matthews gives the Titans a big-play threat downfield that they haven’t had in forever.

Matthews quickly became one of Mariota’s trusted receivers last season in his first season with Tennessee after four seasons in Miami, finishing tied with tight end Delanie Walker for the team lead in catches with 65 to go along with 945 yards and leading the team with nine touchdown catches.

Walker gives Mariota a pass-catching threat that is tough as nails that Raiders safety Karl Joseph will have to keep an eye on come Sunday. After not playing in last season’s contest, Walker could be the difference maker this time around as Oakland has had trouble in recent years covering agile tight ends with linebackers and safeties.

Especially agile tight ends like Walker, who has been targeted by Mariota 159 times over the past two seasons. The 12-year veteran from Central Missouri State racked up 800 yards receiving and seven touchdown catches last season following a career-high season in 2015 when Walker had 94 catches for 1,088 yards and six touchdowns.

Tennessee’s first-round pick, wide receiver Corey Davis who didn’t play in the preseason while dealing with a hamstring injury, is expected to see action on Sunday but its unknown how many plays the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Davis will line up for.

The Titans did sign eight-year veteran wide receiver Eric Decker in the offseason to bolster the wide receiving corps for Tennessee, and has a hidden gem in rookie wide receiver Taywan Taylor in the event Davis doesn’t start.

It might not be the best week to start a Davis on your fantasy team, just some friendly advice.

On defense, Tennessee is quietly won of the better defenses in the league that no one really talks about led by defensive tackle and space-eater, Jurrell Casey, who is the 6-foot-1 and 305-pound clog in the middle of the Titans’ 3-4 defensive scheme ran by legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

Casey recorded 44 tackles for 5.0 sacks for a Titans defense that ranked 20th in total defense in 2016, finishing second in the league against the run surrendering just 88.3 yards per game and 30th against the pass yielding 269.2 yards through the air per game.

Tennessee’s pass rush is powered by outside linebackers Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan. Orakpo led the Titans with 10.5 sacks and Morgan was second on the team with 9.0 sacks.

Casey, Orakpo and Morgan combined for 23.5 of the Titans’ 40 sacks in 2016. Tennessee was just one of seven teams to record 40-plus sacks last season.

Inside linebackers Avery Williamson (team-leader in tackles with 104) and Wesley Woodyard (57 tackles) aren’t household names, but are consistent and provide additional support in the running game.

The player that I’m most intrigued to watch Sunday is second-year safety Kevin Byard.

The MTSU product didn’t record an interception during his rookie season after recording 19 interceptions (a career-high six during his junior season), but did finish third on the team with 58 tackles, four passes defensed and a sack in 16 games played. His seven starts were the most for a Titans rookie safety since Michael Griffin’s 10 starts in 2007 according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

At 5-foot-11 and 212 pounds, Byard isn’t the biggest safety, but his instincts and attention to detail is an important element for Tennessee’s defense.

Throw in free agent addition in cornerback Logan Ryan, a Super Bowl champion with New England and the drafting of USC’s speedster and highlight-maker Adoree’ Jackson, the Titans have talent in the secondary to compete with top-end wide receivers.

Sunday’s matchup between the Raiders and Titans could very well be a playoff preview that may not be decided until late in the fourth quarter.

The game’s outcome could be reminiscent of last season’s game when Tennessee had a would be game-tying touchdown from Mariota to wide receiver Andre Johnson that was called back due to an offensive pass interference call before the Raiders took over on downs two plays later.

Prediction: Raiders 27 Titans 23