Raiders Say Defense is Ready to Prove Itself

Coaches see improvements in maligned unit from 2016 and believe it will play at a higher level in Sunday's regular-season opener vs. the Titans

The offense of the Oakland Raiders should be explosive. With Derek Carr, a deep and talented receiving corps, a trio of fine running backs and a dominating offensive line, the Raiders should be able to put points on the scoreboard Sunday in the team’s season opener in Tennessee.

But the Raiders’ defense? Nobody really knows what to expect from a group that ranked 26th in total "D" in 2016.

Oakland’s weak link a year ago in a 12-4 playoff season, the defense has added some youth and a defensive mind in John Pagano, the assistant head coach/defense, to work with coordinator Ken Norton Jr.

But questions at linebacker and cornerback, in particular, linger for a team that hopes to make a run to the AFC championship. When the game kicks off at 10 a.m. (Bay Area time), two rookies will start, Marquel Lee at middle linebacker and Eddie Vanderdoes at defensive tackle.

This week, Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio told reporters that he’s confident the defense has been upgraded, even if plenty of NFL observers don’t believe it.

“I’m more confident than a lot of other people,” said Del Rio. “But, again, you get a chance to prove it. I think talk is cheap. There’s no sense in really trying to proclaim anything. I think we put in a lot of good, hard work. We have a good group of guys that are really looking forward to the challenges that are in front of us.”

Those challenges include containing young quarterback Marcus Mariota – who has shown he can be a difference maker with his arm and feet – running backs DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry and a group of wideouts that can get deep.

But Norton, for one, believes the Raiders will be up to their first challenge of 2017. He argues the Raiders' pass rush will be much better than it was last season and that the young talent added through the draft and free agency will make an impact.

He’s particularly eager to see Lee make his debut.

“Marquel, he’s very talented,” said Norton. “Big body, really smart, cares a lot and when you combine the care with the passion and the talent, and a guy who really wants to learn, my experience (is) you get a lot of good things from the players.”

Oddsmakers have listed the Raiders as 1-point favorites.

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