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Mike Preston: Why this season opener is one of the most important in Ravens history | COMMENTARY

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh talks about having his team prepared to play on Monday Night Football.

The Ravens are about to play one of the most important season-opening games in team history.

NFL coaches like to downplay the importance of the first game because it can produce unnecessary pressure. But season openers are the culmination of seven to eight months of work in which teams address major needs through the draft and free agency.

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New schemes have been implemented and plays devised.

If you lose, it’s like having to stand in line for the restroom. If you win, there’s a big sigh of relief.

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If the Ravens beat the Las Vegas Raiders on Monday night, there will be a collective exhale in Baltimore. The Ravens’ roster has been decimated by injuries, including season-ending injuries to their top running backs J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill and another to Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters.

A win would show that they can still be competitive. A win gives them hope. A victory sends a signal that this team isn’t about to roll over and that, with time, it could still be a playoff contender.

Opening day has turned into a statement game for the Ravens.

“The biggest challenge is the unknown,” 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. You have a lot more information [for] Game 2, and it builds steadily throughout the season. So, the unknown is the biggest thing.”

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Even if the Ravens were completely healthy, this still would have been a tough game to win. The Raiders (8-8 in 2020) added free agents such as linebacker K.J. Wright, cornerback Casey Hayward Jr. and tackle Quinton Jefferson to build their defense and drafted offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood and safety Tre’von Moehrig in the first and second rounds to serve as starters.

Besides the new faces, the Raiders will be playing their first game in front of an expected sellout crowd of 65,000 at Allegiant Stadium, which opened last year amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“Yes, it’s going to be rocking in there,” Ravens center Bradley Bozeman said. “I mean, it’s going to be loud; we already know that. But we’re just going to continue to prepare. We’ve been working all week — the last two weeks on silent cadence and making sure that we’re good on that. We’ve been pumping in crowd noise out here. We’ve got our little speaker system going out. But we’re just going to continue to prep and prepare for it.”

To a degree, the Ravens know what to expect from Las Vegas. The Raiders finished 2020 ranked No. 8 in total offense, averaging 383.3 yards per game, and No. 7 in passing offense with 263.6 yards per game. They have a good quarterback in Derek Carr, who completed 67.3% of his passes for 4,103 yards in 2020, and they can go deep with former Ravens tight end Darren Waller, who had 107 receptions for 1,196 yards and nine touchdowns.

The Raiders have a lot of new personnel on defense because they were poor in both run and pass defense, finishing the season ranked 25th by allowing 389.1 yards per game.

This should be a good matchup for a Ravens defense that has been No. 1 in the league in points (18.2) and yards (307.8) allowed per game since Don “Wink” Martindale became coordinator in 2018.

In previous years, the Ravens might be able to secure a victory with a strong running game, but the offensive line is suspect with two new faces on the right side in tackle Alejandro Villanueva and guard Kevin Zeitler. The Ravens have had problems finding a starting left guard, and Pro Bowl left tackle Ronnie Stanley hasn’t played a game since last November because of an ankle injury.

It might be even worse at the running back position, where the Ravens have had to sign veterans Le’Veon Bell, Devonta Freeman and Latavius Murray to play behind starter Ty’Son Williams, who spent most of last season on the practice squad.

Who are these masked men? What is the Ravens’ offensive identity?

“We don’t know. We haven’t played the first game yet,” quarterback Lamar Jackson said. “I don’t know. I don’t want to lie to you and say something crazy, but I don’t know yet.”

Regardless, the Ravens’ running game should be effective because of the blocking scheme and system. Edwards was an undrafted rookie free agent who led the team in rushing with 718 yards in 2018. Former starting running back Mark Ingram II was considered too old in New Orleans before he came to the Ravens and rushed for 1,018 yards in 2019.

Few predicted Dobbins was headed to stardom as a rookie second-round pick last year, but he finished with 805 yards on 134 carries.

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh talks about playing the Raiders in the first game as well as the Ravens passing game.

The questions about this offense remain the same regardless of who starts at running back. Yes, there is a drop-off in talent, but can Jackson elevate the passing game with receivers Marquise Brown, Miles Boykin, Sammy Watkins and Rashod Bateman, all whom missed extensive playing time in the preseason because of injuries? Can this offensive line pass protect?

It all adds intrigue to this opener. In the past two years, the Ravens have outscored the opposition 97-16 in Week 1 games. This game won’t be as lopsided.

Every coach wants to win the opener because it helps set the tone. If you lose, your team is miserable for another week and the coach will point out that there are 16 games remaining.

If you win, all the offseason work is considered successful, at least for one week.

And that allows everyone to breathe a sigh of relief.

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