In a year with no preseason, it’s a good time for NFL teams to be familiar with their personnel. For the Las Vegas Raiders, the offense is a known quantity, save for their rookie wide receivers.
The offense moved the football last season with an assortment of different wideouts, however, and none possessed the potential of Henry Ruggs III and Byran Edwards, which bodes well for this year’s situation. But I digress.
This year’s Raiders defense, as opposed to the offense, is more of an unknown entering Week 1. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has two new starters at linebacker, a rookie cornerback, a key addition on the defensive line and a second-year safety with much to prove in Johnathan Abram.
Further complicating matters, Guenther has no film of the Panthers, whom the Raiders will face on Sunday.
Perhaps the most striking change to the defense is the linebacking unit. After struggling at that position for years, the Raiders struck early in free agency in signing Cory Littleton, a former Pro Bowler who excels in pass coverage. Las Vegas also signed Nick Kwiatkoski to patrol the middle.
Littleton, who played for the Rams a season ago and enters his fifth year in the NFL, said the defense isn’t a finished product, but the key is limiting mistakes and outlasting the other team.
“I most certainly expect us not to be perfect, but what game ever is a perfect game?” he said to reporters on Wednesday. “All you got to do is try to limit the mistakes that you do have and make less mistakes than the other team.”
As for the secondary, the new look starts with cornerback Damon Arnette. The rookie first-round pick will start on the outside, opposite second-year CB Trayvon Mullen. Each will be tested relentlessly by opponents until they prove they can keep up, especially Arnette.
Guenther says games are won or lost in practice, and he likes what he’s seen from the young CB duo, so he isn’t nervous about the big reveal on Sunday. “It’s a player’s day. It’s a player’s game,” he said. “I have the utmost confidence in both guys. They’ve showed well, very well out here for the training camp. So, I’m excited to see them play.”
Abram isn’t a rookie like Arnette, but he played in just one game last year, injuring his shoulder after delivering a hit Week 1 against Denver. Himself a former first-round pick, he has much to prove, starting with avoiding another catastrophic injury without losing his edge.
Up front, Las Vegas is leaning heavily on former Cowboys defensive tackle Maliek Collins to unlock the potential of Guenther’s group. Joining the team as a free agent, Collins was labeled as a key to the Raiders defense by coach Jon Gruden, and he was named team co-captain of the club.
Though his career, which is entering its fifth year, is on the rise, Collins has yet to have a true breakout campaign. According to Guenther, the time is now for Collins. “He’s been voted a captain here for a reason,” Guenther said. “He’s a guy that’s a coach on the field, he’s a very good player.”
The Raiders will need as much on-field communication as possible. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said it’s the first time he’s had to prepare for an NFL offense without any film to look at. Plus, Las Vegas faces All-Pro running back, Christian McCaffrey
“You really just have to follow your rules of the defense,” Guenther said. “We have to follow our rules, play sound, play with sound eyes, rush the quarterback. I’m harping to our guys: play aggressive, don’t be worried about making mistakes and make sure we’re tackling good.”
Added Littleton, “Know where our help is. There is going to be a lot of situations where I‘ll have outside leverage on a back, hoping that I have somebody working across the middle of the field that’s going to protect me. And that’s what we do as a defense, protect our brothers.”
Abram is more comfortable directing traffic pre-snap, which should also help the defense stay on the same page and protect each other. But there will almost assuredly be a learning curve for the Raiders defense.
Sunday is just the start for this group, however. If they’re to set a foundation for greatness, they must bond quickly through solid effort, win or lose. “Right now, where we are, we’re not perfect but we’re really something special,” said Littleton. “I can see it, and I expect us to show that.”