Oakland Raiders-St. Louis Rams Preview: 5 things to watch


May 19, 2015; Alameda, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio at organized team activities at the Raiders practice facility. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Preseason is upon us and FINALLY we get to watch some Raiders football – or at least some mutant, watered down form of it. However, preseason can lend itself to many a viewer/analyst pitfall if one doesn’t really know what to look for. While it’s easy to get caught up in silly things like wins, passer rating, sacks, etc., more often than not those are the things which matter least.

This early in the season the team is intentionally experimenting with assignments, personnel groupings, and (super basic) play-calling. While this experimentation isn’t particularly conducive to immediate victory, it gives the coaches an idea about player strengths and weaknesses so that they may better construct the team and scheme for the length of the season. Now, with warning signs and disclaimers flashing, here are 5 things to look for in today’s game against St. Louis.

1. Carr Under Pressure

We might only get a chance to watch QB Derek Carr drop back 10 times before his number is called for the night. Even fewer of those will be attempts under pressure – where Carr has been highly criticized. The key here isn’t to watch for accuracy or completions. This early in preseason, wise quarterbacks are looking to test receivers. Sometimes they just want to know if a guy can get that low pass, that super back shoulder, or the jump ball when covered.

The most important thing to watch for with Carr is how calm he looks under pressure. This is the first time he’ll really be opened up to legit contact. While it’s far too early to be taking a hit for the team, his initial reaction to pressure will give us a clue where he’s at. Does he hesitate and lose his footwork? Does he lower his eyes and immediately check down to the shortest/safest pass when a better option is open? Can he step up appropriately in a collapsing pocket?

2. Run Blocking Chemistry

In 2014, the Raiders offensive line was fairly solid at protecting Derek Carr on passing plays – for the under 3 seconds he would hold the ball on average. Run blocking? Not so hot. Oakland consistently found difficulty opening up running lanes and correctly identifying assignments, leaving the running backs little opportunity to make a play.

With so few on the roster, starting offensive linemen generally play more snaps in preseason games compared to other positions. The main things to look for with them concern communication and chemistry. What groupings of linemen seem to know all their assignments? Alternatively, look to see if who stands out as blowing assignments. Does someone unnecessarily double-team and let a defender through? Does someone miss an obvious double-team? Are there any groupings (full line or otherwise) which seem to always be on the same page?

3. Options at Kick/Punt Returner

The Raiders specifically brought in Trindon Holliday to help with getting better field position on the returns. But who are the other options? The next two or three people in line might be players on the cusp of getting cut, but have the chance to stay on the team if they can show some value in the return game.

Actually, apply that to all of special teams. Look out for depth skills players that bust their ass and make plays as gunners on punts and in kickoff coverage. These guys might be edging out their colleagues for a roster spot.

4. Hayden vs. McGill

The corner position opposite TJ Carrie is still very much up for grabs. This battle has been well documented up to this point, but the actual game experience gives one of these guys an opportunity to really take a commanding lead. Everyone is going to freak out about who actually gets on the field first play, but I think it’s more important to see how and where each player is used. Then the focus moves to how each player performs.

Are they ever on the field at the same time? Who gets more reps at slot corner? Does one player perform better in the slot – thus displaying versatility? Who looks most comfortable in their assignments? Who is the more willing run support player? Ball skills when thrown at? Are they switched out in particular down/distance situations (which might indicate a strength or weakness)?

5. Sideline Swag

We’re at the dawn of the Del Rio Era in Oakland. Tons of new players, tons of returning players, and an entirely new coaching staff mash together to form the new roster. The demeanor and interaction on the sidelines will be a huge indicator, highlighting how the players are responding to the new coaches and to each other.

What’s the energy on the sidelines? How do the players respond to the teaching moments from the coaches? Are there veteran players helping out the youngsters? Are the coaches operating fluidly with each other, communicating and falling in line?

Game Time

It’s an exciting time for Raider Nation. We’re at the cusp of a very promising season for the new regime. With the arrival of preseason we’ll finally get to see the positional battles, personnel groupings, and chemistry play out on the field. These five things should give Raiders fans a jump on the Saturday morning knee-jerk reaction news cycle and a little bit of insight on the true importance of the preseason.