One could say the Raiders struggles last season were primarily due to their shaky defense. In 2019, the Raiders posted up a pass defense rating of 103.8. This rating sees the Silver and Black ranked at an abysmal 31st in the NFL. Their Offense was standard at best last season as well, as Derek Carr led the offensive line to rank 11th in yards per game but only 24th in points per game. With 21 touchdowns and 8 interceptions, the hype around Carr’s play began to die down and questions began popping up around both the trust Coach Jon Gruden has on his Quarterback and if Carr can be the face of a franchise and lead the Raiders to a Superbowl.
All of that can be null and voided when looking at the 2020-21 NFL season.
If there’s one thing that’s been proven time and time again throughout the past six months of sports, it’s that fans can be a huge distraction. Both the NBA and various soccer leagues and tournaments in Europe have carried on with their competitions in bubble-like settings that see empty stadiums and arenas. Already, we have seen teams who were expected to succeed fall flat on their face in the big moments. This of course does not apply to every single team that is favored to win their game, but the Champions League, for example, has seen both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s teams get knocked out of Europe’s biggest club tournament early. The teams suffered defeats to teams that are respectable in their own leagues, but have no place competing on the grandest stage of club soccer. This is by no means intended to be disrespectful, but is crucial to examine when we see teams overachieve in these bubble-like settings.
Another example would take us to Orlando, Florida where the NBA Bubble is hosting the 2020 playoffs. Granted, one could say the injury of Giannis Antetokounmpo derailed the entire postseason for the Bucks, but many analysts and fans around the NBA already had a hunch that the Eastern Conference Semifinal between the Bucks and the Miami Heat was over before Giannis picked up his ankle injury. The Milwaukee Bucks were the number one team not just in the Eastern Conference, but in the entire NBA and they were kicked out of the playoffs to the fifth seeded Miami Heat in five games.
This is now the speculation paragraph of this article. With the limited amount of fans, teams are both being able to communicate more effectively with one another and have less pressure on them. Athletes acknowledge fans all the time in sports and it can sometimes be a major distraction that favors the home team. In a world of sports during a pandemic, there really is no “home field advantage” and this could play in favor of a team that doesn’t have huge expectations on their shoulders. That team is of course the Las Vegas Raiders, and they may have the recipe for shocking the NFL season.
As mentioned earlier, the Raiders were practically the worst defensive team in all of pro football last season. This may not be the case this season because of the arrival of some new and familiar faces, like Jonathan Abram who in 2019 played just one game due to a shoulder injury keeping him out of the remainder of the season. The 27th pick in the 2019 draft has a very high upside and people within the Raiders have firm belief that he can be a cornerstone of the Vegas defense for years to come. The Raiders also pulled the trigger on signing former Dallas Cowboy Maliek Collins. The Defensive Tackle was able to post up 20 tackles and 4 sacks throughout the 2019 season and is a welcoming sight for the Raiders defense. Nick Kwiatkoski was another addition to the 2020 Raiders roster and again will serve as a solid defenseman especially due to his 76 tackles and 3 sacks in 2019 with the Chicago Bears. One could argue that the Raiders best piece of business on the defensive side was the acquisition of Cory Littleton who had a great season with the Los Angeles Rams with 133 tackles and 3.5 sacks last season.
With the Raiders making notable upgrades to their defense more than their offense, what are the Silver and Black looking forward to the most when it comes to their offensive line? Henry Ruggs III is the man that should strike joy and happiness to Raiders fans when he takes to the turf for his very first NFL game. The rookie from Alabama, taken 12th overall, is best known for his blistering speed that has caught the attention of the entire NFL. Current Raiders tight end Darren Waller even commented on Ruggs’s speed after he posted a 4.27 second time on his 40-yard dash, saying “It’s as advertised or even crazier in person. It looks effortless. I know it’s not, but I mean I haven’t seen anything like it”. Still, very little is known about how Ruggs will fare against NFL teams but with no fans in the stands, it could suit the rookie who is going to deal with his own level of anxiety when he steps on the field for the very first time.
So far, sports around the world have seen teams and individuals thrive in circumstances that would see the same teams or individuals underperform or be subpar in the previous seasons. The Raiders have acknowledged their largest flaw and have made transactions to boost their defensive ratings. Add to that the crop of young and hungry talent that can blossom into NFL regulars and you have yourself a team that could surprise a lot of teams that have very minimal intel on the Raiders. The fact that there is no pre-season is the cherry on top of this unpredictable cake the Raiders will be serving to teams they face for the next 4-6 months.
The limited amount of fans can work in favor of the Raiders. No home field advantage, no pre-season, and a far more upgraded team when compared to the fielded team in 2019 is a recipe for something tasty. If you are feeling hungry for Raiders football, don’t fret any longer because the 2020-21 regular season kicks off against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, September 13th at 10am PST.
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