Given the complete overhaul of the Carolina coaching staff this offseason, the Raiders enter Sunday’s season opener not quite sure what they will see from the Panthers.
Head coach Matt Rhule and coordinators Phil Snow on defense and Joe Brady on offense are all new, so it might take the Raiders a little while to get a handle on things.
But even with all that uncertainty, the Raiders know these three matchups will go a long way to determining the game’s outcome.
Cory Littleton vs. Christian McCaffrey
Part of the challenge in defending McCaffrey, the Panthers’ all-purpose back, is understanding you don’t necessarily stop him, you just try to make sure he doesn’t go off in a way that destroys you. Given his NFL-leading 2,392 yards from scrimmage in 2019 — the third-best mark in league history — and 19 touchdowns, he is the ultimate game-wrecker.
Minimizing the damage he does will take an ultimate team effort, as McCaffrey will be deployed all over the field in the Panthers’ search for favorable matchups. So expect to see the former Stanford star lined up in the backfield, in the slot and out wide while also being put in motion to confuse the Raiders.
Littleton, an agile linebacker, figures to be involved in covering McCaffrey more than anyone else. In fact, the Raiders targeted him in free agency specifically for these types of matchups,
The Raiders will switch things up throughout the game, but Littleton’s ability as an effective pass and run defender will be critical. McCaffrey does so much damage after initial contact, breaking tackles, whether on a run or after a reception, that getting him to the ground before he chews up big chunks of yards is a key.
Kolton Miller vs. Brian Burns
While Miller, the Raiders’ left tackle, showed continued growth in his second NFL season last year, the seven sacks and 37 quarterback pressures he gave up on 588 pass-block snaps reveal a susceptibility to speed and quickness.
Despite being a rotational player as a rookie last year, Burns came up with eight sacks, 30 pressures and eight quarterback hits. By mid-November, his 0.72-second get-off across the line of scrimmage was the fastest in the NFL ,according to Next Gen Stats.
Burns didn’t maintain that level throughout the course of the season, but he’s considered an up-and-coming NFL pass rusher So against him, it’s critical for Miller to be fundamentally sound, especially with his footwork. He will have to play fast to counter Burns but also avoid the sloppiness that sometimes comes with having to play at a faster pace.
The size, power and strength advantages Miller has on Burns certainly work in his favor. But first and foremost, he has to play even with Burns off the line of scrimmage.
Damon Arnette/Trayvon Mullen vs. Robby Anderson
Anderson’s 15.63 MPH average top speed with the ball in his hands trailed only A.J. Brown of the Titans, Deebo Samuel of the 49ers and Tyreek Hill of the Chiefs in that category last season, according to Next Gen Stats.
With the Panthers’ wide receiver’s speed such a factor, it’s incumbent that the Raiders’ young cornerbacks, the rookie Arnette and second-year player Mullen, are sound fundamentally in coverage and physical off the line of scrimmage.
There will be completions given up. But Arnette, in particular, must be prepared to compete at the point of reception and be an effective tackler to minimize the damage Anderson can cause with the ball in his hands.