One year after making an unexpected leap, the Los Angeles Rams won’t be taking anyone by surprise this season.
From hunters to the hunted, the Rams are now dealing with great expectations after significantly improving their team with the addition of multiple big-name players.
The reigning NFC West champions, who went 11-5 last year, aren’t just considered favourites in their division – they’re seen as one of the best teams in the league and serious Super Bowl contenders.
Their Week 1 meeting with the Oakland Raiders won’t make or break their credentials, but it will serve as an initial test for a defence that has massively turned over.
Aaron Donald, the 2017 Defensive Player of the Year, will take his usual place on the defensive line, but he’ll now be joined by fellow pass rush dynamo Ndamukong Suh.
Oakland have one of the best interior lines in football – if not the very best – so the match-up will be a battle of strengths and showcase just how dominant the pairing of Donald and Suh can be.
In the secondary, new cornerback duo Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib will line up against Amari Cooper and Jordy Nelson as they try to limit Derek Carr and the Raiders’ passing attack.
Oakland’s offence as a whole took a step back last season after an impressive 2016, but they still possess the kind of talent that should challenge the revamped Rams defence’s chemistry in their first full game together.
Coping without Mack
On the other side of the ball, the Raiders were always going to have their hands full against last season’s top-scoring team, but after trading Khalil Mack to Chicago last week, they’re also now without one of the best defensive players in the league.
Los Angeles allowed just 28 sacks last year, fifth-fewest in the NFL, but as much as Mack’s pass rushing will be missed – he’s had at least 10.5 sacks in each of the past three seasons – so will his work in the running game and ability to drop into coverage.
Todd Gurley had 2,093 total yards from scrimmage last season and once again figures to be the focal point of the Rams’ offence as both a runner and receiver.
Oakland’s linebackers will have their work cut out trying to slow down Gurley, while the secondary has to contend with the trio of Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and Brandin Cooks.
The Rams paid a premium for Cooks, trading a first and sixth-round pick to the New England Patriots for the wide receiver and a fourth-round selection. And that was before they extended him with a five-year deal worth $81 million.
The speedster should bring many of the same elements Sammy Watkins did during his lone season in Los Angeles, but it will be interesting to see if he and Jared Goff can develop more of a chemistry and utilise the connection in other ways instead of just deep routes.
Return of Gruden
Along with the action on the field, there will be plenty of intrigue on the sidelines as Jon Gruden coaches his first regular season game since 2008.
Ten years in the NFL is a long time, so it’s unclear how Gruden’s coaching will be affected by his hiatus.
During his previous head coaching gigs, especially with the Raiders from 1998-2001, he leaned on the running game during an era that preceded the passing boom. The league is so much different now, which means Gruden may not have the same success in his return if he continues clutching to past principles.
There’s also some mystery in how Gruden’s players will respond to his coaching. The trade of Mack was a shock for many of them and could have created some mistrust in the locker room.
Whether or not Gruden can unite his team and have them playing hard will be somewhat telling for the rest of the season.
Know more about Sport360 Application