Ravens-Raiders: Five predictions for Monday night

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You never know exactly what to expect in Week 1, which makes for an exciting and nerve-wracking experience.

After a brutal summer of injuries that disrupted preparations and eliminated some key players for the entire 2021 season, the Ravens are a bit of mystery ahead of Monday’s tilt in Las Vegas, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. But we’ll finally get our first look at a team that’s aiming for a fourth straight trip to the playoffs and more despite the recent losses of running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards and three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters.

Having downgraded starting running back Josh Jacobs to questionable with an illness on Sunday night, the Raiders aren’t going to feel sorry for the Ravens’ injury woes.

“The biggest challenge is the unknown,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “You just don’t really know yourself until you play, and you don’t know your opponent because you haven’t seen them on tape. It’s one thing to watch them from last year, but they’re different. The preseason doesn’t tell you much, so you just kind of go into the game without much information.”

Of course, that unknown hasn’t prevented Baltimore from winning its last five season openers by a combined score of 177-26. With a clash against defending AFC champion Kansas City looming just six days later, the Ravens will take a victory however they can get it on Monday night with a short week to follow.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and the Raiders meet for the 12th time in the regular season and the second time in a season opener. The Ravens lead the all-time series by an 8-3 margin, which includes a 34-17 win in Baltimore in the last meeting between these teams in 2018.

Below are five predictions for Monday night:

1. Ty’Son Williams will lead Baltimore in carries, but Lamar Jackson will collect the most rushing yards. The speculation about the backfield will continue in the coming weeks, but expecting any combination of Latavius Murray, Trenton Cannon, Le’Veon Bell, and Devonta Freeman to know enough of the playbook and have the necessary rapport with Jackson on mesh-point exchanges is a bit too ambitious for this week. Williams will have an ample workload in his NFL debut — with Murray getting a few touches — but the key will be an offensive line that didn’t have a ton of time together as a complete and healthy unit this summer. Still, the Raiders were brutal against the run last year, and Greg Roman won’t shy away from trying to isolate ex-Raven Yannick Ngakoue on the edge. Jackson ran for 71 yards on 11 carries in his second NFL start against the Raiders three years ago, and he’ll surpass those numbers on Monday night.

2. Darren Waller will catch a touchdown and go over 80 receiving yards against his former team. The 2020 Pro Bowl tight end was already a matchup problem before the Peters injury, a loss that may force Wink Martindale to revisit how he mixes and matches in the secondary and how often he can move Marlon Humphrey around in sub packages. The 6-foot-6, 255-pound Waller will line up in the slot and out wide, but Raiders coach Jon Gruden still used him as an inline tight end for more than 600 snaps last year, meaning it’s not as simple as just designating one defender to travel with him. After making nearly 200 catches over the last two seasons, Waller is going to get his catches and targets from veteran quarterback Derek Carr. The Ravens just can’t allow him to wreck the game.

3. Justin Houston and Odafe Oweh will each register a sack in their Ravens debut. Eric DeCosta hopes the 32-year-old Houston has another 10-sack season left in his impressive career, but he’s also served as a mentor to the rookie Oweh, who affectionately calls the four-time Pro Bowl selection Yoda for sharing his extensive football knowledge and lessons. The Ravens would love for that tutelage to help transform the talented Oweh into Luke Skywalker to make life difficult for Raiders offensive tackles Kolton Miller and Alex Leatherwood. You can expect Martindale to test the shaky interior line for Las Vegas with blitzes and stunts, which could rush throws from Carr and flush him into the arms of Baltimore edge rushers.

4. A big play on special teams will swing momentum in Baltimore’s favor at an important juncture. We know special teams have long been a strength in the Harbaugh era, but brilliance in that phase has often flashed in Week 1, whether it was stuffing a fake punt against Cleveland last year or Anthony Levine running 60 yards on a fake at Miami in 2019. Given the challenges facing the offense after a challenging summer and hectic game week, you’d expect Harbaugh and special teams coordinator Chris Horton to have something cooked up and ready if needed. Or, maybe it’s as simple as Justin Tucker nailing a 60-yard field goal.

5. As he so often does, Jackson will prove to be the difference with three touchdowns in a 27-20 victory. Losing Dobbins and Edwards hurts the running game’s ceiling and there were too many absences at wide receiver and along the offensive line this summer to expect the passing attack to be polished out of the gate, but Jackson’s mere presence brings both relief and confidence that the Ravens will figure it out in the short term and the long run, which is why they’re 31-8 in the regular season since he became the starting quarterback in 2018. Critics will continue to point to his January shortcomings, but we’re four months away from Jackson and the Ravens being able to do anything about that. The Raiders may hope for a playoff-like atmosphere with fans in Allegiant Stadium for the first time, but this is the regular season where Jackson has proven to be too much to handle for most defenses, especially those that don’t seen him often.