• The NFL has changed a lot since Jon Gruden last coached. His Raiders will face a stiff challenge when they host the resurgent Los Angeles Rams, led by Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley.
By Scott Gramling
September 05, 2018

Los Angeles Rams at Oakland Raiders (+4.5)

Mon. 9/10, 10:20 p.m. ET

Three things you need to know before betting on Rams-Raiders:

1. One of the biggest stories this past offseason was Jon Gruden’s return to coaching after a nine-year hiatus. While it’s difficult to knock the credentials of a coach with a Super Bowl ring, it’s worth noting that Gruden inherited a Buccaneers team fresh off three straight playoff appearances, and he never got the offense above a middling level of production before he was let go. After leading the Buccaneers to victory in Super Bowl XXXVII, Gruden's Tampa Bay teams went 45-51 in the following six seasons.

The pro game has obviously evolved since Gruden was riding a bruising defense to a title 16 years ago. But the expectation in Oakland is that Gruden will rekindle the Raiders' success from 2016 when they went 12-4. It won't be easy to prove that 2016 wasn't a fluke since it was Oakland's only winning campaign in the past 15 years, and the Raiders regressed in 2017, finishing 6-10.

Gruden’s first test comes as he faces reigning Coach of the Year Sean McVay, who was able to help the Rams more than double their scoring output from 2016 to 2017. While McVay’s unique and dominant offense may take a step back after opponents have had an offseason to study the film, it’s difficult to imagine the unit falling that far off considering that the only significant personnel change was acquiring WR Brandin Cooks to take the place of the departed Sammy Watkins.

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2. Gruden has high hopes for quarterback Derek Carr, a legitimate MVP candidate in 2016 whose production fell off greatly in 2017. The only other potential star on Oakland’s offense is wide receiver Amari Cooper, who started his career with back-to-back trips to the Pro Bowl before slumping severely last season. In 2017, Cooper had just two games with more than 70 yards receiving and wasn't even starting by the end of the season.

Despite this being an interconference matchup, the Rams’ defense will have some familiarity with Carr. Los Angeles defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was previously with Denver. The three previous times Carr faced Phillips’s Broncos defenses, the QB managed just 5.7 yards per attempt while being sacked nine times. New Rams cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib are also AFC West alums (Peters has picked off Carr twice). Even with Carr's ability to get rid of the ball quickly, it won't be easy for him to get the offense going against an L.A. defensive front anchored by Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh. The challenge is compounded by the Raiders' lack of receivers who can consistently create separation.

3. It’s been well documented that the 2017 Rams became the first team in the Super Bowl era to go from last to first in scoring from one season to the next. That was due in large part to the effectiveness of running back Todd Gurley, who was named AP Offensive Player of the Year. What makes Gurley so great goes beyond his 13 rushing TDs last season. Just the threat of Gurley kept defenses honest and allowed McVay to build an effective play-action passing attack. Jared Goff’s QB rating jumped from 63.6 as a rookie to 100.5 in 2017, which was the NFL’s fifth-best mark. Goff also probably breathed a huge sigh of relief when DE Khalil Mack was dealt from Oakland to Chicago. Mack and OLB Bruce Irvin combined for 18.5 sacks last season, but Oakland received little production from the rest of its front seven.

The young Raiders secondary was also problematic last season, and playing at home won't help much against this week's opponent. The Rams' production actually jumped when it was on the road last season. Los Angeles averaged 24.5 points per game at home and 32.8 on the road, which was best in the NFL.

Pick: Rams -4.5

Confidence Level: High (on a scale of Low/Moderate/High/Very High/Extremely High)

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