The Raiders, losers in nine of their last 10 season-openers, are putting their chips on running back Darren McFadden and a ground game that lost one of its most important pieces when left tackle Jared Veldheer went down in the preseason with a triceps injury.
The Colts, on the other hand, plan to ride the arm of quarterback Andrew Luck and a steady group of wide receivers that includes former Raiders first-round draft pick Darrius Heyward-Bey.
Oakland has historically played well in Indianapolis but has lost three straight games overall to the Colts. To avoid a fourth, the Raiders will need to win in the individual matchups. Here are some of the key battles to keep an eye on in Sunday’s game:
Colts QB Andrew Luck vs. Raiders CBs Tracy Porter and Mike Jenkins
Luck tends to get lost in the shuffle when the people discuss some of the top young quarterbacks in the NFL, but the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft should hardly be overlooked.
In his first season as Peyton Manning’s replacement, Luck took a team that had won just two games the previous year and led them to an 11-5 finish and a spot in the playoffs. He passed for 4,374 yards and 23 touchdowns with 18 interceptions.
He’ll have his favorite target back in veteran Reggie Wayne who turns 35 in November and is coming off another stellar season in which he topped the 1,000-yard mark for the eighth time in his career.
The Colts also signed Heyward-Bey in the offseason after he was dumped in a cost-cutting move by the Raiders. Since entering the league as the seventh overall pick in 2009, Heyward-Bey has been one of the most frustrating players in the NFL. At times he appears capable of being a consistent playmaker, a speedy wideout who is a physical nightmare for some defensive backs. Other times, the former Maryland star seems disinterested.
Porter and Jenkins will be faced with the task of trying to contain Wayne and Heyward-Bey after average showings in the preseason.
Opposing quarterbacks completed 63 percent of the throws against Jenkins in 2012, according to ProFootballFocus.com, and he got off to another slow start with the Raiders in the preseason when he was a frequent target.
Porter, Oakland’s other starting cornerback, also had a rough time in the preseason and might have lost his starting job to D.J. Hayden had the Raiders' rookie cornerback not been limited in contact drills after undergoing abdominal surgery in the offseason.
Raiders RB Darren McFadden vs. Colts Run Defense
For a guy who burst into the NFL with such promise, McFadden has been mostly a disappointment as the centerpiece to Oakland’s ground game.
McFadden’s biggest problem, of course, is being able to stay healthy. He hasn’t made it through a full 16-game schedule, and Raiders head coach Dennis Allen made sure to use McFadden sparingly in the preseason in order to keep him fresh.
McFadden is a bulldog once he gets going, a punishing, bruising runner who piled up big yards behind the left side of Oakland’s offensive line two years ago. However, because left tackle Jared Veldheer suffered a torn triceps during training camp, McFadden is without his best blocker.
Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson has ways to get around that. He can line up McFadden as a receiver (158 career receptions) or put him in motion coming out of the backfield.
There is the possibility Oakland might use some of the spread option offense, with Terrelle Pryor at quarterback and McFadden as the pitch guy seeming a good fit for the scheme.
Simply put, the Raiders need McFadden to play well if they are going to have any chance. Oakland is 10-2 in games in which he has ran for 100 yards or more.
There’s also the thinking that a good ground game will help the Raiders keep the ball out of the hands of Luck. As good as the Colts quarterback was in 2012, he can’t be very effective at all if he’s standing on the sidelines watching Indianapolis’ defense.
Then again, there wasn’t much worth watching from the Colts run defense last season. Indianapolis ranked 29th in total run defense in 2012 and allowed opponents to pile up an average of 137.5 yards on the ground each time out.
The Colts attempted to plug some of the gaps in their run defense by signing free agents Ricky Jean Francois and Aubrayo Franklin to anchor the defensive line. Though there was slight improvement, Indianapolis still gave up six runs of 20 yards longer.
Raiders LT Menelik Watson vs. Colts DE Cory Redding
Watson never expected to be Oakland’s opening-day starter at left tackle simply because he had never played the position before until injuries along the offensive line forced Dennis Allen to shake things up. He also missed the majority of training camp with a calf injury.
Once Veldheer went and the two backups behind him struggled, the Raiders put Watson on a hurry-up diet to get him caught up.
Watson, who suffered a minor knee injury in practice on Wednesday, tends to be a little stiff at times, but he’s a stout run-blocker who only started playing football two years ago after giving up hope of playing professional basketball. At 6’5” and 315 pounds, Watson is also very strong with his hands, which can be attributed to his boxing days.
Because he’s a rookie and is at a new position, look for the Raiders to deploy a tight end or extra offensive lineman to Watson’s side of the field to help the pass protection.
Something like that might be helpful against Redding, the veteran defensive end who had 46 tackles and two sacks in his first season with the Colts last year.
Indianapolis will likely allow Redding to go one-on-one with Watson, but they’ll no doubt blitz the left side of Oakland’s offensive line frequently in hopes of confusing the second-round pick. If that happens, the Raiders will have to use an extra tight end and keep a running back in to help in pass protection.
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