Oakland Raiders quarterback EJ Manuel (3) during an NFL preseason football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
By Joe Hawkes-Beamon
Sports Radio Service Writer
OAKLAND — The Raiders will play their first home game of the preseason schedule when they host the Los Angeles Rams Saturday night at the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum.
Kickoff is at 7:00 p.m. PT.
This will mark the first game between the Raiders and the Rams in the preseason since 2015 (an 18-3 home win for the Silver and Black). Oakland and Los Angeles last played in the regular season in 2014, when the Rams rolled over the Raiders 52-0 in St. Louis where the Rams called home from 1995-2015 after relocating from Los Angeles originally.
Oakland dropped their preseason opener 20-10 to the Arizona Cardinals last Saturday night in Glendale.
The Raiders held out most of their top players most notably quarterback Derek Carr, running back Marshawn Lynch, wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper, offensive lineman Gabe Jackson, Rodney Hudson, and Kelechi Osemele.
With left tackle Donald Penn still holding out due to a contract dispute, the Raiders were cautious about playing Carr in the preseason opener. Carr is the franchise signal-caller the organization rewarded with a five-year, $125 million extension following his second-straight 3,900-passing yards and 25 touchdown-passing season in the offseason.
But with the second preseason game on the horizon and the Raiders returning to their Alameda headquarters Thursday following their annual training camp in Napa for the remainder of the season, you’d expect Carr and the first-team offense to be on the field Saturday night for at least the first quarter in front of Raider Nation.
Training camp reps are great, but Carr and the first-team offense need to be on the same page and live-action in an NFL game (even if it’s preseason), is the only way teams get better especially a team that have been picked by most Las Vegas odds-makers as the AFC’s representative in Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis on Feb. 4, 2018.
Once Carr gets his work in for the evening, the battle for Carr’s backup will continue between five-year veteran quarterback EJ Manuel and second-year signal-caller Connor Cook.
Manuel got the starting nod against Arizona and played admirable in the first half, completing 10-of-12 passes for 107 yards and a quarterback rating of 103.8. The former Buffalo starter was signed in the offseason to be Carr’s backup, but Cook was drafted in the fourth round by the Raiders in 2016 and the organization believes he could be just as good as Carr someday.
Cook took over for Manuel and played the entire second half and was just 10-of-21 for 82 yards, but did lead the Raiders to their lone touchdown of the evening, a one-yard rushing score by second-year reserve running back John Crockett in the third quarter that finished off a five-play, 63-yard drive.
Remember, Cook did make NFL history last season becoming the first rookie quarterback to make his pro debut in a playoff game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, albeit after the Raiders lost Carr to a broken leg for the remainder of the season after an 12-3 start on Christmas Eve.
Losing Carr was the ultimate lump of coal in the stockings of Raider Nation.
Defensively, defensive end Khalil Mack and linebacker Bruce Irvin sat out Saturday’s contest in the desert. Both Mack and Irvin should see the field and get a chance to play with some of Silver and Black’s younger talent in second-year linebacker Cory James and rookie middle linebacker Marquel Lee.
James led all defensive players with seven tackles (seven solo) and looked more comfortable defending the run, while Lee finished with six tackles (five solo) and a fumble recovery in his first NFL preseason game.
Lee did struggle at times covering the running back out of the backfield and tight ends on option- and curl-routes, and needs to improve his coverage skills as the Raiders face dynamic tight ends almost on a weekly basis with Kansas City and San Diego coming to mind with elite guys named Travis Kelce and Antonio Gates, respectively.
Rookie defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes may have wrapped up a starting job, but fellow rookie defensive tackle Treyvon Hester racked up two of Oakland’s four sacks in Arizona with rookie linebacker LaTroy Lewis registering the other two sacks to go along with four tackles (four solo).
Add in holdovers Justin “Jelly” Ellis and defensive end Mario Edwards, Oakland’s defensive front could be intriguing to watch in 2017 after lacking any serious punch in 2016 with a league-low 25 sacks, 18 by the aforementioned Mack (team-leading 11.0 sacks) and Irvin (second with 7.0 sacks).
The Rams enter Oakland 1-0 in the preseason following a 13-10 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in Los Angeles last Saturday.
Former California starting quarterback Jared Goff, the Rams No. 1 overall pick in 2016, started the game and finished 3-of-4 for 34 yards during his only drive. The Rams are entering the 2017 season hoping that they can rebound from a disastrous 4-12 season a year ago that resulted in a head coaching change, out goes longtime head coach Jeff Fisher and enters first-timer Sean McVay.
McVay spent the last seven seasons in Washington as an offensive assistant, but the last three as the offensive coordinator where he’s aided in the growth of Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins. Cousins has posted back-to-back 4,000-yard passing seasons in the Nation’s Capital and is line for a major contract next offseason after making nearly $44 million (fully guaranteed) on one-year franchise tenders the past two seasons (which includes this season at $23.9 million after walking away with $19.9 in 2016).
The Rams are banking on the 31-year-old McVay (the youngest head coach in NFL history) to develop Goff into a franchise quarterback. Goff started the team’s final seven games of the season last year and completed 112-of-205 passes for 1,089 yards and a five-to-seven touchdown:interception ratio during that stretch.
Los Angeles did add weapons for Goff to help expedite the second-year pro by bringing in former Buffalo Bills wide receivers Robert Woods (signed by the organization to a five-year, $34 million ($15 million guaranteed) contract in free agency), a USC Trojan; and former top-pick Sammy Watkins in a blockbuster trade last Friday.
Watkins is also looking to have a bounce back season in 2017 that is reminiscent of his second year in 2015; where he exploded on to the NFL landscape with 60 catches for a career-high 1,047 yards and nine touchdowns in 13 games after a down year in Buffalo in 2016; where he posted career-lows in catches (28), yards (430) and touchdowns (2) while dealing with a nagging foot injury that limited the former standout from Clemson to just eight games.
When healthy, Watkins can take the top off a defense as his career average of 16.1 yards per catch can attest, which should open things up for wide receiver Tavon Austin.
Austin, who is paid like the Rams’ No. 1 wide receiver at $42 million ($28.5 million guaranteed), doesn’t play like a No. 1. With the additions of the Woods and Watkins on the outside, the 5-foot-9, 174-pound Austin can now flourish in the slot and be utilized in the similar fashion that the 5-foot-10, 178-pound DeSean Jackson (now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) was utilized by McVay in Washington.
The Rams also added skill players via the NFL draft, utilizing three of their first four picks on tight end Gerald Everett, and wide receivers Cooper Kupp and Josh Reynolds that will give Goff or third-year backup quarterback Sean Mannion (18-for-25 for 144 yards against Dallas) more options to look to in the passing game.
Kupp had fumble recovery on the Rams’ first drive of the game for a touchdown and could be a fixture in the Rams’ offense by Week 5 as coaches have salivated over his route-running ability. The former wide receiver from Eastern Washington is arguably the greatest weapon in Football Championship Subdivision history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, setting all-time records in total receptions (428), receiving yards (6,464), and receiving touchdowns (73).
Kupp finished his senior season as the best wide receiver in FCS in 2016, hauling in a conference-leading 117 receptions, for 1,700 yards receiving and 17 receiving touchdowns.
Third-year running back Todd Gurley is still the bell-cow for the Rams.
As a rookie in 2015, Gurley carried the ball 229 times for career-highs in rushing yards (1,106) and rushing touchdowns (10) in 13 games, but dipped a bit in his second year out of Georgia. Although Gurley played all 16 games in 2016 and finished with a career-high 278 carries, Gurley had only 885 yards rushing and six touchdowns to go along with a career-high 327 receiving yards.
Defensively for Los Angeles, veteran defensive coordinator Wade Phillips brings 39 years of coaching experience to Southern California and help McVay’s transition as a first-time head coach almost seamless. Phillips was the defensive coordinator from 2015-16 where he help guide Denver to their third Super Bowl championship in franchise history in 2015.
In 2016, Phillips’ defensive unit finished tops in the league in pass defense and yards per play.
Fourth-year defensive tackle Aaron Donald highlights the Rams’ defense. Donald was selected to his third-consecutive Pro Bowl in 2016 after recording eight sacks and 62 tackles while playing in all 16 games.
The glue to the Rams’ defense, Donald is currently holding out for a new contract that will make him one of the highest-paid defensive tackles in football. Recent reports have Donald threatening to extend his holdout into the season, which would cripple the Rams.
After Saturday’s game, the Raiders will travel to Dallas for their third preseason game against the Cowboys; and the Rams will return home to take on the Chargers in the “Battle of Los Angeles” or what my mentor likes to call the game, the “Carson Chargers” vs the “Inglewood Rams” at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Both games will be on Saturday Aug. 26th at 7:00 p.m. PT.