Closing the show on the 2021 NFL Kickoff weekend is an interesting matchup that will be encompassed by an intense atmosphere when the Baltimore Ravens visit the Las Vegas Raiders on Monday night. The matchup offers several new facets between the two squads and features future stars of the NFL, but all that will be will be heightened as Raider Nation is finally able to fill Allegiant Stadium for the very first time.
Here are four things to watch Monday night when the Raiders host the Ravens:
1) Next men up. That will need to be the mentality for a Ravens team that suffered the hardest luck through the summer. Running backs J.K. Dobbins (ACL), Gus Edwards (ACL) and Justice Hill (Achilles) were all lost for the season within the span of the last two weeks, but no loss will be felt greater than that of cornerback Marcus Peters (ACL). Baltimore has cobbled together veteran RBs Latavius Murray, Le'Veon Bell and Devonta Freeman within the past few days in preparation for the road ahead, but second-year RB Ty'Son Williams has a great chance to make name for himself. The Ravens' run-happy offense -- by virtue of former MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson, around whom the entire scheme is built -- may very well be equipped to overcome such a massacre of a RB unit, but losing a three-time All-Pro CB won't be easy, if not impossible to replace. Since last year, Baltimore has been pining for a more balanced run-pass attack with Jackson at the helm and there's no better time than now to show he's improved in the passing game.
2) Is the Raiders' retooled O-line an improvement? With starting left guard Richie Incognito (calf) downgraded to out, the Raiders' offensive line will feature four new starters to open the 2021 season. A retooled O-line had already been in the cards after Las Vegas traded center Rodney Hudson, guard Gabe Jackson and tackle Trent Brown this offseason, but Monday night's unit may be deemed unsteady considering the lack of continuity. Left tackle Kolton Miller will be the only returning starter at his respective position as left guard John Simpson (two career starts), center Andre James (one career start), right guard Denzelle Good (last year's starting LG) and rookie right tackle Alex Leatherwood are called upon to protect quarterback Derek Carr against a consistently great Baltimore defense. Offense has never really been the issue for Jon Gruden's Raiders, but issues up front can easily unravel an balanced attack at the seams. With Gruden and Carr needing a successful season in 2021, this unit will be essential to their own preservation.
3) Getting defensive. New Raiders defensive coordinator Gus Bradley was hired to recalibrate a unit that was Las Vegas' Achilles heel a season ago. The 29.9 points per game the Raiders allowed in 2020 prevented a team that scored 27.1 PPG from even sniffing the playoffs. Pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue, who spent most of last season in Baltimore, was the big free-agent acquisition to help a pass rush that garnered just 21 sacks last year. Paired with Maxx Crosby, they now have an intriguing duo on the edge and the late addition of K.J. Wright only supports their effort. Bradley's aggressive scheme has proven to give Jackson fits in past matchups, and taking away his strengths will present great opportunity for a young, spry secondary with plenty of potential waiting to be untapped.
4) Beating the streak. Much was made about the Ravens’ ongoing win streak of 20 preseason games, but Baltimore carries another impressive streak that correlates to its success in August. Since 2016, the Ravens are 5-0 in the season opener and they’ve dominated in each win with a 177-26 scoring differential. Such imposing numbers reflect the tremendous coaching and scouting departments in Baltimore, and John Harbaugh has maintained excellent season debuts through his tenure with an 11-3 record on Week 1. Gruden's Raiders have shown the capacity to pull off early-season upsets, the latest being in Week 2 of last year when the Raiders beat the New Orleans Saints on Monday night, which was their Las Vegas debut. With Raider Nation now in attendance at Allegiant Stadium for the first time, Monday night's tilt against the Ravens is set up to be an enthralling affair.