Jets may struggle to get out of first gear
New York Jets @ Detroit Lions
Start-time: Monday, 00:10
TV: Live on Sky Sports ActJarion
The Detroit Lions remain a riddle, wrapped in an enigma, fitted with oversized shoulder pads and a crash helmet. So often have they recruited well, worked hard and dared to dream, only to then fall flat on their faces. At least all that protective clobber came in handy for some ugly collisions with reality.
The temptation is to think that the planets must align one day for Matt Stafford and Co. Trouble is: the all-knowing Vegas line suggests mankind may not be around to witness it. Regardless, pipe-openers don't come more environmentally-friendly for a struggling pack of Lions than this weekend's curtain-raiser at home to the New York Jets.
It'll be an NFL debut for New York's Sam Darnold, the Jets' rookie quarterback, which offers the perfect situation for Detroit's doughty defense to reassert some authority. Darnold may represent the future (he was a first-round pick and third overall) but for all his precision passing, he was known for holding on the the ball too long at college and chancing his arm in the pocket. This league creates a rarefied air which a young QB has to be taught to breathe, and this effective Lions' pass rush will provide him with little oxygen for manouevre.
Conversely, this will be a tenth consecutive season-opener for Stafford, who is still possessed of all the athletic tools for elite status. To date, though, his offensive teammates haven't exactly served to free up his throwing arm. Historically, this has been because they've laboured to move the chains with the run game. As a result, an over-reliance on Stafford and his receiving crew has ensued for some predictable play-calling.
This year, however, the running-back roster arguably rivals that of Stafford's stellar receivers. Just take Kerryon Johnson, LeGarrette Blount, Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah, and you know Matt Patricia will simply love mixing it up in the backfield. Stafford and his wideouts will accordingly benefit from this balance, behind an offensive line which surely can't perform as poorly as it did last year.
The reason for that collective failure was a few key injuries, some rank amateurish play, and a distinct lack of cohesion which resulted in a staggering sack count of 47 and the worst rushing numbers in the NFL. TJ Lang still has his shoulder niggles, but a continuity of personnel and combined effort is returning. Taylor Decker and Graham Glasgow are back in rude health and their rallying ranks have also been bolstered by the arrival of college superstar Frank Ragnow at left guard. In short, Detroit's time could be now, were it not for a ridiculously stacked NFC North, where they must fight off the attentions of both Green Bay and Minnesota.
But all things in good time. For now, the Motor City brigade should be content with minimizing the mistakes and keeping the Jets grounded with a complete performance. Higher gears can wait for weeks to come. I'd expect Detroit to comfortably take care of business here on a few handicap lines.
Oakland could be in for a battering from the Rams
LA Rams @ Oakland Raiders
Start-time: Monday, 03:20
TV: Live on Sky Sports Action
The Silver and Black definitely lived down to expectations last season, and it was hard to see many reasons to be cheerful in their preseason outings. Quarterback Derek Carr made two cameos but hardly set the world alight, and it was a similar story for running man Jalen Richard. Of course, you should never read too much into these warm-up contests but it didn't appear that Oakland have embraced the inspirational play-for-your-place ethic that it was hoped would follow the return of head coach John Gruden.
This is the fifth time that Gruden will be at the helm of a Raiders' regular season - and his 11th overall - so the jury is out and very interested as to whether this old dog has learnt any new tricks that can be of service to an outfit which has recently failed to add up to the sum of its skilled individual parts. Parts which are admittedly missing one key cog, after the Raiders' best player, Khalil Mack, left for his bumper payday in Chicago. As I say, there's little to be overtly optimistic about in Oakland right now.
It's a completely different story in L.A. where the Rams are among the Super Bowl favourites. In fact, some pundits have them down as the best first-team squad, player-for-player, in the league. Instead, their main stumbling block appears to be their own ground of the Memorial Coliseum, whose size and poor attendance-levels appear to deliver one of the worst homefield 'advantages' in the league. As Rams owner Stan Kroenke admits, "the Coliseum is cavernous. It swallows of 65,000 people. It's not that the fans aren't supportive."
Well, while I'm not sure is the latter comment was true from the 2017 outset, the L.A. attendances have certainly swelled since the Rams posted an 11-5 record last year, having gone 4-12 for the previous campaign. Nevertheless, in a game of inches, the Rams' hometown cacophony rates a relative whisper for visiting teams. Not that it matters this week on the road to Oakland's own Coliseum, of course, but it does foster a focused, no-margin-for-error mentality to all the Rams' games. And that's no bad thing. A weakness could even become a strength as the season plays out, as this is a team that can hurt you anywhere in the postseason. Not merely a homefield bully like Seattle, Green Bay, New England et al.
So, more pressingly what's going to give here: Gruden's let's-bring-it-like-it's-1998 throwback offensive approach, or the progressive wise-beyond-their-years knockout combo of Jared Goff and Todd Gurley to light the fires and kick the tyres on another flying start? Goff continues to impress in his growing maturity, while Gurley led the league in scrimmage yards (2,093) and rushing scores (13) last season, averaging almost five yards-per-carry. It's hard to see that changing here. The only question is can Gruden establish the ground game under Marshawn Lynch to open up the possibilities for Carr (to the likes of Amari Cooper and his new mentor Jordy Neson)?
Well, in a word, no. Especially now that the Rams have agreed terms on making Aaron Donald the fat-cat defensive player in the league. Carr remains vulnerable in the pocket and, for the moment, lacking in confidence. The Rams, however, were 5-3 against the spread in their eight away games last term, and I can see them riding that belief on some generous lines here to silence a raucous Raiders crowd, fueled by new hope. The points spread looks towering (amongst the highest of the week) but that's no surprise, seeing as the Rams topped the charts for scoring last season. Best to leave it alone.