The only thing missing when the Las Vegas Raiders get the chance to show off their shiny new stadium will be the fans.
What was supposed to be a big celebration of the NFL’s arrival in Las Vegas has been dampened a bit by the decision not to allow fans at Raiders games this season in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the national TV audience will be there for a high-profile matchup against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints (1-0) on Monday night, the Raiders (1-0) won’t have anyone cheering for them in the empty $2 billion stadium near the Las Vegas Strip.
“It still is as a football fan a cool feeling to be able to play on Monday night,” quarterback Derek Carr said. “We wish our city here, Las Vegas, we wish they could experience it with us. I’m sure they will be around somewhere. I’m sure there is a certain street or strip that they’ll be on that our fans will be at. But I wish they could be there, but hopefully it still feels the same energy and all those kinds of things.”
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The Raiders have been waiting for this moment for years. They spent the past 25 seasons playing in the rundown Oakland Coliseum.
They were unable to get an agreement on a new stadium in the Bay Area and were blocked from moving to Los Angeles so ended up in the desert instead.
Owner Mark Davis pulled off what his father, Al, couldn’t by getting the Raiders their own stadium, but he has said he won’t attend games until the fans are allowed in next season.
“Mark Davis is the owner of this team and he’s very passionate about our fan base,” coach Jon Gruden said. “We were so excited to have our debut in front of Raider fans here in Vegas. It’s disappointing.”
The game marks the first time Saints coach Sean Payton and Gruden, who are old friends and colleagues, have been on opposite sidelines since Gruden left Tampa Bay after the 2008 season. Gruden was the Eagles offensive coordinator under coach Ray Rhodes when Payton was hired to his first NFL job as Philadelphia’s quarterbacks coach in 1997.
“My office was basically a little corner couch in his office and I had just a cell phone,” Payton recalled. “But it was a chance to learn, really.”
The two coached rival NFC South teams when Payton got his first and only head job with New Orleans in 2006. They met six times, splitting 3-3.
The Raiders’ offensive line did a stellar job protecting Carr in the opener despite losing starting right tackle Trent Brown after one series and backup Sam Young later in the first half. Backup guard Denzelle Good stepped in as the emergency tackle and fared well. Carr was under pressure on only 10% of his dropbacks for the game, the best rate in the league in Week 1, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Saints enter the game with a defensive front that has been among the NFL’s best against the run the past couple of seasons. New Orleans has not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 44 consecutive games, going back to when Samaje Perine eclipsed that mark in November 2017.
Payton expects his run defense to be tested against Las Vegas, calling Gruden “one of those coaches who does a great job staying committed to the running game … It’s something that’s kind of followed Jon wherever he’s been.
“I’ve worked with Jon and watched his preparation, the attention to detail in everything he does and there’s always going to be a presence physicality-wise, running the football,” Payton added.
Raiders back Josh Jacobs ran for 93 yards and three TDs and caught four passes for 46 yards in the opener.
While the Saints will be the first NFL team to have a road game in Las Vegas, Payton said that because of the coronavirus pandemic, he doesn’t have to even concern himself with discussing guidelines for players in casinos that virtually never close.
“I don’t have to make any rules. The league has done it, fortunately, for us,” Payton said, noting that teams are supposed to be in a “hard bubble” while on road trips. “We’ll be in a secure area, period. So, it’s not like you can just stroll down the lobby and roll some dice for an hour.”
The Raiders struggled to generate any sort of pass rush in the opener, getting just one sack and four quarterback pressures against Carolina. Free agent defensive tackle Maliek Collins was supposed to bolster the interior rush, but had little impact in his Raiders debut. Carolina also did a good job neutralizing Maxx Crosby off the edge. Vegas will need to be better this week up front to contain Drew Brees.