CHARLOTTE — Raiders general manager Mike Mayock has no idea what to expect from the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
Nor does his coaching staff.
The Panthers have a new head coach and two new coordinators — all coming from the college level — and a new quarterback. With no preseason games, the Raiders staff doesn’t have game tape to watch, no tendencies to focus on and thus no clear picture on how to game plan for Carolina.
“You start to try to meld all of that together to guess what you might be seeing. That’s a difficult challenge,” Mayock said. “It’s a huge challenge for any team Week 1, but when you’re talking about a college coach coming in, some pro coaches, other college coaches, new personnel, I think our coaching staff has one of the toughest challenges in Week 1.”
The Panthers hired Matt Rhule away from Baylor as head coach, and he brought defensive coordinator Phil Snow — and several other Bears assistants — along with him to Carolina as part of a rebuilding project. On offense, the Panthers hired coveted coordinator Joe Brady, who helped LSU to a national championship last season.
Raiders coach Jon Gruden said his staff has spent time watching past game film of the Baylor Bears and LSU Tigers, but adds it’s still going to be a challenge.
“No preseason, no history gives you very little chance to do the standard preparation — but we have to adapt,” Gruden said.
Panthers' 1,000-yard receiver D.J. Moore said the element of surprise may be an advantage for Carolina early in the season.
“Nobody knows what we are going to come out and do — and that’s the scary thing for an opposing team,” Moore said.
But Gruden added: “But we’ve added players of our own that they haven’t seen either.”
One thing the Raiders can expect is a full dose of Christian McCaffrey, the most used running back in the league over the past three seasons.
Carolina’s All-Pro running back became the third player in NFL history to surpass 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season in 2019 and established himself as one of the most dynamic players in the league.
“They’re going to get the ball to him any way they can,” Gruden said.
Here are some things to watch on Sunday:
Teddy Bridgewater finally has a permanent starting job again in the NFL four years after a devastating knee injury, replacing Cam Newton in Carolina. He has some solid playmakers to work with including McCaffrey, who caught a franchise-record 116 passes last season, Moore, and speedsters Curtis Samuel and ex-Jet Robby Anderson. Carolina’s offense should resemble that of the Saints, with Bridgewater looking to get the ball out quickly to his playmakers thus nullifying the opponent’s pass rush.
Brady coached Bridgewater in New Orleans in 2018, but he is sure to add a few wrinkles from his time at LSU. McCaffrey said it was fun to watch what Brady did at LSU and he’s “extremely excited” to see how he calls plays in Carolina.
Derek Carr is set to start his seventh straight season opener at quarterback for the Raiders, the longest streak in franchise history. Carr is coming off a season when he set career highs in completion rate (70.4%), yards (4,054), yards per attempt (7.9), and passer rating (100.8). But the Raiders scored fewer than 20 points per game for the third straight year, joining Buffalo and Miami as the only teams to do that. “I have a lot to prove to myself. I have a lot to prove to my organization,” Carr said. “I am going to be completely honest with you, I’m tired of being disrespected.”
The Raiders are set to start a pair of rookie receivers for the first time since 2009. With Tyrell Williams out for the season with a shoulder injury, third-rounder Bryan Edwards joins first-rounder Henry Ruggs III in the projected starting lineup. The only other time the Raiders started two rookie receivers in the opener was in 2009 when Darrius Heyward-Bey and Louis Murphy did it. The only other rookie receivers to start the opener for the Raiders since the merger are Cliff Branch (1972), Jessie Hester (1985), Rod Streater (2012) and Amari Cooper (2015).
RAIDERS' OVERHAULED DEFENSE
The Raiders have five new projected starters on a defense that has struggled at all levels since Paul Guenther took over as coordinator in 2018. The Raiders rank 31st in points per game allowed (28.7) and last in yards per play allowed (6.21) in that span. Maliek Collins was signed to bolster the inside rush, first-round cornerback Damon Arnette steps in as a starter and Johnathan Abram is back at strong safety after a season-ending injury in last year’s opener. The biggest changes came at linebacker where Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski were brought in to help improve the coverage against running backs and tight ends. “It looks like day and night, truthfully,” Abram said. “We’ve gotten faster on every single position on offense and defense. But the linebacker core does stick out.”
The Panthers allowed a league-high 5.2 yards per carry last season and an eye-popping 32 touchdowns on the ground. That prompted the Panthers to part ways with defensive tackles Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe and Vernon Butler and pass rush specialist Mario Addison. They also spent all seven draft picks on defensive players. Carolina gets two-time defensive tackle Kawann Short back from a shoulder injury in 2019 and will pair him with rookie first-round draft pick Derrick Brown inside. Promising second-year player Brian Burns has big-time potential and will join free agent pickup Stephen Weatherly as the starting defensive ends.
NO FANS ALLOWED
There will be no fans at the game because of the coronavirus.
For some players, a devastating knee injury can be crushing. For Teddy Bridgewater, it was an awakening.
On the four-year anniversary of suffering a torn ACL and shattered kneecap which essentially left his left leg dangling by one ligament and his budding NFL career in serious doubt, the Panthers quarterback took time for a moment of reflection, offering thanks to the day he got hurt.
“While riding in back of that ambulance, I didn’t know what my football future had in store for me,” . “In the midst of so much uncertainty and pain, I found peace and my purpose in life. Dear August 30, 2016..... Thank you.”
Bridgewater makes his return as an NFL opening day starter Sunday when Carolina plays host to the Las Vegas Raiders. Sure, he started five games last season with the Saints — and won them all — but this is different. He’s no longer just a temporary fill-in for Drew Brees.
He now has a second chance to be the No. 1 quarterback again.
The Panthers invested $63 million over three years in Bridgewater, and the QB has proclaimed, “this definitely feels like my team.”
His comeback story is the culmination of a whirlwind four years during which Bridgewater, once a promising young NFL QB who won 17 games his first two seasons with the Vikings, spent nearly 18 months rehabilitating a shredded knee, was let go by Minnesota, signed with the Jets and then got traded to the Saints.
It was enough adversity to challenge any player’s faith, but Bridgewater said the injury has given him a new perspective and appreciation for playing in the NFL.
And a new, deeper desire to win.
“They told me I wouldn’t play football ever again,” Bridgewater said. “They told me it’d take 18 months to come back from my injury and I came back faster….they told me I wouldn’t win last year and we won five games. So for me, it’s just approaching every day with that mindset to win.”
Wide receiver Stefon Diggs was at Vikings training camp practice on Aug. 30, 2016 when Bridgewater went down during a non-contact drill. Diggs was the intended receiver on a post route, but when he turned to find the ball it was nowhere to be found.
Instead, he saw his quarterback on the ground.
“You kind of could hear a pin drop in the middle of a grass field at that moment. That’s how quiet it was,” said Diggs, who now plays for the Bills.
Normally when a player goes down with an injury, teams will switch spots on the field and continue working while the trainer attends to the fallen player.
Not that day.
The ambulance pulled onto the field and practice was called off as Bridgewater was rushed to the hospital. While in the ambulance Bridgewater knew things were bad when the trainer implored the driver to speed up.
Bridgewater was experiencing a loss of feeling in his feet, and the concern was permanent nerve damage.
Back on the field, Vikings players were distraught. Some dejectedly threw their helmets and others knelt on the ground to pray for a young leader they’d come respect after leading the Vikings to an 11-5 record in 2015.
“To know that a guy that does everything right, a guy that grinds and works his butt off. ... I remember everybody was hurting in practice,” Diggs said. “Everyone was in the locker room like, ‘damn, that’s the season.’”
Bridgewater has a difficult task in Carolina of replacing Cam Newton, one of the most popular players in franchise history. But he learned from playing behind Brees in New Orleans that he just has to be himself.
The Panthers want him to make quick decisions and get the ball out fast to playmakers.
Offensive coordinator Joe Brady, who worked with Bridgewater while with the Saints, is confident Bridgewater can be thrive in Carolina. Brady said he is the type of player who “makes everybody better.” Brady said Bridgewater has a football IQ that is “through the roof” and lights up a room with an infectious personality, making him a natural leader.
Panthers coach Matt Rhule believes he is a “perfect fit.”
It’s an inspiring second chance for Bridgewater.
“To see this come full circle, for him to get his chance again. ... is definitely a story to remember and something that we can take heed to just keep pushing and stay motivated,” Diggs said.
Said Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey: “What he’s been through, the resilience he’s shown and the will to come back and fight — that’s a guy you want to fight for as well.”
Bridgewater is a firm believer that the injury happened for a reason — and he’s better because of it.
“Knowing what I know now, I would just go back and tell myself the moment I was on the ground screaming in pain, ‘life is just a race,’” Bridgewater said. “We all have to run our own race and within that race, we have to focus on what is in our lane. For me, at the time, I stumbled in my lane. It’s a race that I have to finish, and I’m not finished yet.”
Then, he added, “but at least I’m back in the race.”
Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, CBS
OPENING LINE - Raiders by 3
RECORD VS. SPREAD - Raiders 8-8; Panthers 6-9-1
SERIES RECORD - Series tied 3-3
LAST MEETING - Raiders beat Panthers 35-32 on Nov. 27, 2016 in Oakland
RAIDERS OFFENSE - OVERALL (11), RUSH (13), PASS (9)
RAIDERS DEFENSE - OVERALL (19), RUSH (8), PASS (28)
PANTHERS OFFENSE - OVERALL (19), RUSH (14), PASS (13)
PANTHERS DEFENSE - OVERALL (23), RUSH (28), PASS (25)
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