Blind Side Protection
Many of the keys to this game were areas of concern all of last season. The offensive line was more beaten up than a Chargers fan in the bathroom of Oakland Coliseum. Marcus McNeill, after continuing to get injured, was released.
His replacement? Jared Gaither.
Most fans are already asking the same question that even coaches are asking: When will Jared Gaither return? After earning a long term contract with the San Diego Chargers, Gaither has not practiced with the team. It may be early, but this is exactly what the Chargers were trying to avoid when they chose Gaither over McNeill.
The result of Gaither injured is allowing Mike Harris, an undrafted rookie, to start at Philip Rivers' blindside. This may end bad. No disrespect towards Harris, he just isn't completely ready to start, especially at such an important position.
The best case scenario is Mike Harris proves everyone wrong and makes Jared Gaither's injury easily forgotten. The worst case scenario, well, we all know the end.
Prediction: Philip Rivers gets sacked five or more times. Two come from Mike Harris' side.
Fierce Pass Rush
In 2011, San Diego's secondary, with the exception of Eric Weddle, was the scapegoat for the defensive troubles after almost every loss. The secondary was horrible last season, yes, but they weren't the main problem.
It seemed that on every play in 2011, the Chargers could not get in the backfield and put pressure on the opposing quarterback. With the time San Diego gave them, quarterbacks had an easier opportunity of picking apart the defensive secondary.
Shaun Phillips battled injuries last year, joining Larry English and his annual bust of a season. Travis Laboy didn't make much of an impact and Corey Liuget had an average rookie year. The only player who played up to his caliber was Antwan Barnes, who led the Chargers in sacks.
Corey Liuget has had an outstanding offseason and is ready to prove his first round value of a year ago, Shaun Phillips AND Larry English are healthy and on pace for a better season, and Antwan Barnes will look to recreate his production a year ago. New additions like Melvin Ingram, Kendall Reyes and Aubrayo Franklin will also add to the rotation.
Prediction: The Chargers will record six sacks. Two of them will be Melvin Ingram.
Receivers Creating Space
With Ryan Mathews not playing Monday night, the Chargers will throw the ball even more. Vincent Brown, second year receiver, will also miss at least the first eight weeks with a broken ankle. This makes the value of Malcom Floyd, Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal much higher. It's been mentioned that San Diego would like to use Micheal Spurlock in the passing game as well, seeing that Richard Goodman will return kicks once again in 2012.
Getting open has been a problem for Chargers' receivers, making Philip Rivers sling it into traffic more times than once. Antonio Gates will most likely be Rivers' number one target throughout the year because of his ability to create space. If Malcom Floyd can stay healthy, he should be a breakout star in 2012 with Vincent Jackson now in Tampa Bay. Robert Meachem is a great deep threat that's perfect for Rivers' game, but the chemistry between the two still needs work.
Prediction: Behind Antonio Gates, Eddie Royal will have the most catches for the Chargers.
Contain Darren McFadden
Darren McFadden has averaged 4.2 yards per carry against the San Diego Chargers in his career. In all those seasons, he split carriers with Michael Bush. With Bush now in Chicago, expect McFadden to dictate the Raiders offense in 2012.
The scariest thing of it all is that it's the first game of the season, which means McFadden is 100%.
There's no doubt about it, Darren McFadden is a top five running back in the NFL when healthy. He'll see a fair share of carries Monday night especially with the Raiders' upgraded blocking scheme. San Diego understands that McFadden is Oakland's best player. They've been working all week on ways to stop him, but how do you really stop a player like that?
The best thing the Chargers can do is contain him and limit his production. This is where the pass rush comes in. McFadden should see 25-plus carries Monday night, but the Chargers must not allow him to have a field day. He's very capable of doing what Adrian Peterson did in 2007 against San Diego, when he broke the single game rushing record with 296 yards. Let's not let that happen again.
Prediction: Darren McFadden runs for 115 yards and one touchdown.
Confidence, Poise and Intelligence.
Mental mistakes are costly in the NFL. One botched snap could cost a game for a team, right Rivers?
San Diego is 14-3 against the Raiders in the last 17 games, but more importantly, 1-3 in the last four. It's clear that the Chargers are a better team on paper with the talent they have, yet lately, they always seem to beat themselves. Turnovers and blocked punts were the only reasons the Raiders have a 3-1 record over San Diego the last four games.
The last thing San Diego can do is come into this game thinking it will be easy. They must play this game, as well as every game, like it's the Super Bowl. The Chargers may have the better team, but the Raiders have the advantage: home field.
San Diego always has a difficult time playing games in stadiums with very loud crowds for the opposing team. In Monday night's game, the Chargers must be smart, play with confidence and relax in the most tense moments.
Prediction: The Chargers beat the Raiders. 31-21
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