Saints vs. Raiders: Matchups to Watch
The Las Vegas Raiders christen their brand new stadium by hosting one of the NFL's best teams, the New Orleans Saints, on Monday Night Football. Both teams come into this contest with 1-0 records after the Saints defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 34-23 at home, and the Raiders emerged with a 34-30 win on the road at Carolina.
Here are some of the key matchups to watch on both sides of the ball as the Saints and Raiders wrap up Week 2 of the NFL season with this Monday Night Football clash.
SAINTS CORNERBACKS vs. RAIDERS WIDEOUTS
Las Vegas made an offseason focus on adding receiving weapons for QB Derek Carr. They signed former Cowboys TE Jason Witten to back up underrated TE Darren Waller and brought in a productive veteran in former Eagles WR Nelson Agholor. Vegas then turned their attention to the draft, selecting former Alabama speedster Henry Ruggs with the 12th overall pick, and followed that by drafting a physical wideout in Bryan Edwards of South Carolina in the 3rd round.
Ruggs, who is questionable for this game because of a knee injury, has rare speed difficult for defensive backs to match. Waller and WR Hunter Renfrow are productive through the middle of the field, and the additions of the experienced Agholor and the physical Edwards allow them to spread a defense.
New Orleans cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins are as good as any tandem in the league and can lock up the NFL's best receivers. Lattimore shut down Tampa Bay WR Mike Evans last Sunday, while Jenkins did the same to fellow Pro Bowler Chris Godwin, adding an interception return for a touchdown that broke the game open. The Saints hope for a return of defensive back P.J. Williams, who missed last week's game with a hamstring injury, to join safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson to take on slot coverage responsibilities.
They will also work with safety Malcolm Jenkins and linebackers Demario Davis and Alex Anzalone to contain Waller and Witten. At the same time, safety Marcus Williams will be responsible for shutting down the deep passes. Their efforts will be greatly aided if Lattimore and Jenkins can again handle one-on-one responsibility against the Raiders’ outside threats.
ALVIN KAMARA vs. RAIDERS LINEBACKERS
Las Vegas made three big additions to upgrade their LB corps this offseason, signing free agents Corey Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski and trading for Raekwon McMillan. The team hopes that the remade unit can prevent opponents from torching their pass defense with backs and tight ends as they did last year, but Kwiatkoski is questionable for Monday's game with a pectoral injury.
Saints RB Alvin Kamara received 17 touches against Tampa Bay, resulting in just 67 yards but two touchdowns. Kamara continues to be a huge part of the team’s offensive game plan, perhaps even more so in the passing game because of the ankle injury to All-Pro WR Michael Thomas. They targeted Kamara with eight passes against the Buccaneers, but most of them were screens or check-down throws. Expect New Orleans to use Kamara's dual-threat abilities split out wide, from the slot, or in motion out of the backfield to utilize his athletic advantage over the Vegas linebackers.
SAINTS INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINE vs. RAIDERS DEFENSIVE LINE
The Raiders had only 32 sacks last season and not one in their win over Carolina last week. Most of their pressure comes from the edge spots, via DEs Maxx Crosby, Clelin Farrell, and Carl Nassib. Las Vegas hopes for more interior pressure in 2020, especially after the offseason addition of DT Maliek Collins to go along with returning veterans Maurice Hurst and Johnathan Hankins. The Raiders did get some inside push from them against the Panthers, and will again look to this position to set the tone for a run defense that ranked 8th last season but allowed 129 rush yards against the Panthers.
New Orleans OTs Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead shut down a terrific Buccaneers edge rush of Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul last Sunday. They will look to replicate the feat against Maxx Crosby, Clelin Farrell, and Carl Nassib of Las Vegas. Pierre-Paul had the only sack of Brees last week, an inside rush where he beat New Orleans, left guard Andrus Peat. The New Orleans interior line allowed Brees to be pressured several times early in that game and had a tough time opening up much running room for Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray against a formidable Buccaneers run defense.
They hope for a bounce-back performance from Peat and second-year C Erik McCoy, which would be greatly boosted if 1st round pick RG Cesar Ruiz can play after missing last week with a knee injury. If Ruiz misses his second game, veteran Nick Easton will replace him. Still, this group must do a better job at giving Brees a clean pass pocket and opening lanes for their running attack to maintain better offensive balance.
SAINTS FRONT SEVEN vs. JOSH JACOBS
Running back, Josh Jacobs is the key to the Raiders offensive success. The 24th overall selection of the 2019 draft from Alabama, Jacobs had 1,150 yards and seven rushing touchdowns for Oakland last year, 93 yards rushing, and three scores against Carolina on Sunday. Used sparingly as a receiver as a rookie (just 20 receptions), Jacobs also added four catches for 46 yards last week. At 5'10" 220 lbs, he has the power to run between the tackles and the speed to get around the edge, with excellent elusiveness and burst in the open field.
New Orleans did not allow a 100-Yd rusher for the 44th consecutive game last week and surrendered 86 yards on the ground and 3.3 yards per carry against Tampa Bay. The key to a Saints run defense that has ranked top-five in both of the last two seasons is their talented front seven that dominates the line of scrimmage and has the athleticism to make plays sideline-to-sideline.
Led by perennial Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan, their defensive ends set the edge well against opposing runners. New Orleans has a great defensive tackle rotation with Sheldon Rankins, David Onyemata, Malcom Brown, Shy Tuttle, and Malcolm Roach. They can tie up blockers and get an outstanding push into the backfield but have the athletic ability to disengage from blockers and get outside to cut down a back before they turn the corner. Linebackers Demario Davis and Alex Anzalone expertly sift through traffic or shoot through gaps for big plays and also are terrific against running backs in pass coverage.
SAINTS WIDEOUTS vs. RAIDERS CORNERBACKS
The Raider defense ranked just 25th against the pass in 2019 and allowed 212 yards to Panthers wideouts last week. They have a promising pair of cornerbacks in 1st round pick Damon Arnette and second-year pro Trayvon Mullen, along with two seasoned vets in Lamarcus Joyner and Nevin Lawson. For Las Vegas to have any defensive success on Monday night, their secondary must eliminate the deep passes that plagued them last week and all of last year.
New Orleans might be without the services of All-Pro WR Michael Thomas, who injured his ankle on the game's last series against Tampa Bay. Even if Thomas plays, he could be limited, leaving the Saints to count on other players for receiving production. Offseason signee Emmanuel Sanders, who had three catches and a touchdown last Sunday, elevates to wide receivers top option and Kamara and TE Jared Cook. Sanders has a proven track record of success, but receivers Tre'Quan Smith, Deonte Harris, Bennie Fowler, and Marquez Callaway must show that they can get separation and be a trusted option for Drew Brees.
Michael Thomas accounted for almost 40% of the Saints passing production in 2019. If he is slowed or sidelined by injury, the onus will be on the offensive line protection for the New Orleans passing attack to be effective. Failure to do so will cause a Saints offense that sputtered last week to struggle again, perhaps being the difference between a win or a loss against a Raiders team with big-play offensive weapons.