As the Oakland Raiders prepare to do battle with their sudden nemesis, the San Diego Chargers, tonight at 7:15 pm PDT (10:15 pm EDT), there are, as always in a season opener, some questions that need to be answered.
Any season prior to the last four you could have asked any Raiders fan which team they'd most love to beat, and you'd get a smattering of "donkeys" and "chefs" in response.
We really didn't care about the Chargers (or "dolts" if you prefer), because they were never really relevant. Sure, they had the occasional nice season, but the all-time series was laughably one-sided and they were never a threat to win the Super Bowl, even when they made it there.
Over the last six years, not only have they become relevant, they've become pretty good, and our relationship has changed. Where once we were Michael Jordan to their Cleveland Cavaliers, we have now become Roger Federer to their Rafael Nadal.
We simply can't beat them.
Nobody on this great planet, with the exception of the citizens of the ever-optimistic Raider Nation, gives the Silver and Black a chance to be within two touchdowns tonight.
The Chargers are a good team, but they have weaknesses like anyone else.
Can the Raiders exploit those weaknesses? Or will they, themselves, be exploited?
I think the Raiders offense, with JaMarcus Russell improving and Darren McFadden healthy, will play fairly well tonight. The Chargers' defense can bring pressure, but their secondary can be shaky at times, and I truly believe the Raiders can put some points up on this defense.
My main concern is with the Oakland defense and how we are going to stop all the weapons on San Diego's offense.
San Diego has one of the best sets of skill players in the NFL, and how new defensive coordinator John Marshall plots and schemes to stop this explosive bunch is one of the keys to the game.
Let's take a look at some of our enemies.
Much to the chagrin of anyone who isn't a Chargers fan, or who doesn't have him as a fantasy quarterback, Philip Rivers has evolved into one of the best and most efficient QBs in the NFL.
Mr. Rivers may not be the most popular player around, but last season he was one of the best.
His completion percentage and TD-INT ratio last season were very impressive, despite the fact that his throwing motion looks akin to a middle-school shotputter having a seizure while putting. But no matter how ugly, it obviously works for him.
It is extremely important that the Raiders not just rush four linemen, as is their habit. They need to bring pressure from all areas of the field to rattle Rivers and get him off his game. If Rivers has time to throw, he's shown he can be equal to Brees, Brady, and Manning in his poise and decision-making.
The only way to get Rivers out of his comfort zone is to confuse him with multiple looks and various blitzes. Marshall needs to dial up the aggression and take advantage of what he called "the fastest defensive players I've ever seen."
This is possible with the Chargers' revamped offensive line, although it still needs to gel, not to mention the line is young and inexperienced.
There has never been a better time to get pressure on Rivers than now; the Raiders just have to use aggressive playcalling and take some risks. Blitzing, which the Raiders were allergic to under Rob Ryan, is also very important.
LT and Sproles
LaDainian Tomlinson is hell-bent on proving to everyone that despite reaching the death-knell age of 30 he can still be an elite back.
Whispers throughout football circles have been questioning how much LT has left, and he is itching to show everyone tonight against his favorite dance partner, the Oakland Raiders.
You see, LT tends to play the Raiders pretty well. But Darren Sproles worries me more.
Sproles, despite being quite a small guy, runs with the power of Zeus and the determination of the Little Engine That Could. The guy will not go down, despite the fact that he weighs as much as some linebackers' thighs. With the Raiders' tackling issues, Sproles is a dangerous enemy.
The key to stopping the running attack is simple: stay in your gaps, do your job, and wrap up when you tackle.
These are three areas the Raiders have been preaching this offseason, but in preseason, it didn't look like anything had improved. It is absolutely paramount that each player knows their role, accepts their role, and plays it accordingly.
Fundamentals are the key here, and with Richard Seymour joining the Raiders in time to play tonight, Marshall has the luxury of moving him around the line and creating mismatches. Seymour comes from a strong system in New England where fundamentals and discipline are stressed above all else. His presence alone improves the defense.
With Seymour taking blockers, Tommy Kelly won't be doubled any longer, and it'll also free up the law firm of Morrison, Howard, and Brown to shed blocks and make tackles. Wrapping up and making sure tackles is the biggest key to success in stopping the run tonight.
Gates, Jackson, and Co.
Vincent Jackson made some incredible, "did you see that?"-type plays during the preseason, and he looks poised for a breakout year. He's big (6'5", 230 pounds), fast, has improved his route-running considerably, and has freakish athleticism.
Still, the key here is not Jackson so much as Antonio Gates. Gates, a red-zone demon, always brings his A-game against the Raiders, and usually has big games against them. The much-maligned Michael Huff has shown success in coverage against Gates in the past, but it's a safe bet Huff will not see the field much tonight.
Nnamdi Asomugha is a little banged up, but good to go for tonight. He can play Jackson and has the size, speed, and strength to stay with him. But Marshall is in a pick-your-poison scenario here, as Gates is basically another wide receiver, and Chris Chambers and Craig Davis can also make some plays.
It would make sense to allow Thomas Howard, who is one of the fastest LBs in the NFL, to cover Antonio Gates, leaving the safeties free to provide double help on both Jackson and Gates. Howard has incredible coverage skills for a LB, and if he were able to play coverage in obvious passing situations, it would free up the nickel corner to roll double coverage to whomever is deemed most dangerous on any given play.
It's time we take advantage of this defense's speed and athleticism.
The biggest key tonight, and throughout the season, will be heart. The defense needs to come out, hit some people, play tough at the point of attack, and beat up the Chargers. It's always who wants it more, and the Raiders defense has not lacked talent in recent years.
But it has lacked heart, aggression, and discipline, and that's exactly why we brought in John Marshall. The Raiders needed new blood to kick these guys in the pants, bring them back to basics, and then unleash them and let them play.
I'm hoping Marshall is a big Bill Shakespeare fan, because I want to see the Raiders "Cry 'Havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war" tonight.
They also need to keep their heads up. If the Chargers break a big play early, and the Raiders slip back into hanging their heads and expecting the worst, it's going to be a long, long night.
Eleven losses in a row to the Chargers. Eleven.
Dial up the aggression, keep on their assess, and make sure it stops at 11.