Since Monday became a night of Bears becoming ex-Bears, we begin our preview of Sunday's matchup with Oakland with this: J'Marcus Webb is the Raiders' starting right guard. For offensive line coach Mike Tice. More on that later.
While John Fox, Adam Gase and Jeff Rodgers were last year's head coach and two of three coordinators in Denver, the Broncos' defensive boss got his second NFL head coaching opportunity in his virtual hometown. Jack Del Rio, who tied Tom Coughlin for most wins and longest tenure in Jacksonville Jaguars coaching history, became Oakland's eighth head coach since 2004. They haven't made the playoffs since losing in the Super Bowl 13 years ago. They come to town coming off their first back-to-back wins in three years, during which they totaled 11 wins. They're above .500 for the first time in four seasons, as they begin to finally bear fruit from GM Reggie McKenzie's most recent drafts. Sound like a blueprint Ryan Pace hopes to follow?
The offense ranked last overall in the NFL a year ago, also ranking 32nd rushing and 26th passing. Through their 2-1 start, those respective rankings are seventh, 17th, and seventh. Their comeback win two Sundays ago vs. Baltimore on a last-minute touchdown drive represented the first time in five years they've scored as much as 37 points a game.
Last year's second-round pick Derek Carr started every game as a rookie, with 21 touchdowns and a dozen interceptions, but a league-low 5.46 yards per attempt. He had one 300-yard passing game. He's doubled that already this year, thanks to the arrival of April's fourth overall pick Amari Cooper, performing as expected. It's been a decade since the Raiders last had a 1,000-yard receiver (Randy Moss). Cooper has 20 catches for 290 yards thus far, eight of those for 134 Sunday against a pretty good cornerback, Joe Haden. The other targets are ex-49er Michael Crabtree, who signed a one-year deal late in the offseason to go across the Bay, 6-foot-4 jump-ball specialist Andre Holmes and Seth Roberts, an undrafted free agent a year ago who has two touchdowns among his first seven NFL receptions this season. Those are the kinds of uncovered contributors Pace and Fox need to find moving forward.
As the ground game sputtered a year ago behind Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew, 6-foot-3, 230-pound Latavius Murray was given a shot in December and the former sixth-round pick (yes, sixth) showed something - just as he did Sunday in Cleveland, with his career-high 139 yards, landing him fourth among league rushing leaders entering Monday night. The 587 combined passing-receiving-rushing totals by Carr, Cooper and Murray is the largest by an under-25 trio in NFL history.
Tice inherited a line in which left tackle Donald Penn excelled last season after Tampa Bay dumped him after 2013 (yes, excelled coming off the scrap heap). He lines up next to Gabe Jackson, whom McKenzie selected in the third-round a year ago, and they solidified center by stealing Rodney Hudson away from division rival Kansas City in free agency. When right tackle Menelik Watson tore his ACL in training camp, Austin Howard slid over to the outside and was replaced at guard by Webb, reunited with Tice. The Raiders have allowed three sacks in three games.
Khalil Mack was too good to last until the fifth pick of the 2014 draft. But he did, and Oakland's gift proved it by being Pro Football Focus' top-rated outside linebacker in his rookie campaign. Del Rio, like Vic Fangio, is in the process of turning the Raiders' 4-3 into a 3-4, and using Mack more in outside rushing mode, a la Von Miller in Denver. The recently-signed Aldon Smith is being gradually worked into the system as he awaits word on NFL discipline for his numerous off-field issues, but IF he ever finds a way to clean up his act, looms as a scary edge rushing complement to Mack. Two free agent signees hold down the other linebacker spots: tackling machine Curtis Lofton (at least 100 in each of his first seven seasons in New Orleans and Atlanta) and Super Bowl MVP castoff Malcolm Smith.
Another important free agent signing came up front, as run-stuffer Dan Williams was snatched from Arizona to pair with last year's impressive fourth-rounder, Justin Ellis (that draft/uncovered gem theme again). Ex-Giant and Golden Domer Justin Tuck led the lagging pass rush a year ago with five sacks, but Mario Edwards, Jr. - drafted four picks before the Bears chose ex-Florida State teammate Eddie Goldman - is pushing for playing time under defensive coordinator Ken Norton, Jr., the former Seahawks linebackers coach.
He hopes this is the year 2013 first-round pick D.J. Hayden plays a full season after the corner played in just eight games his first two seasons. He lines up opposite another draft success story. T.J. Carrie was a seventh-rounder last year, moved into the starting lineup late, and forms a "D.J. and T.J." cornerback tandem. But the secondary's shots are called by 18-year veteran safety Charles Woodson. With his game-sealing pick Sunday, he has an interception in every season, dating back to 1998, and 61 for his career. Only Hall of Famer Darrell Green has more consecutive seasons with an interception (19). It was after Jay Cutler's four-interception performance in 2012 when Woodson played for the Packers that he said afterwards, "It's the same old Jay. We just need to be in position. Jay will throw us the ball."
[NBC SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]
Uh-oh. Rookie returners have burned the Bears each of the first three weeks, so what did the Raiders decide to do Sunday? Use Cooper on punt returns. The results were ordinary but Del Rio indicated Monday he may stay there after Carrie was the primary returner with backup running back Taiwan Jones returning kickoffs (fifth in the league with a 30.3-yard average). Sixteen-year veteran kicker Sebastian Janikowski needs five more field goals of 50-plus yards to take the all-time lead in that category, but while his kickoff distance has slipped, his overall accuracy has improved (24-of-27) since the start of last season.
**Get the latest weekday Bears news on Comcast SportsNet Wednesday and Thursday afternoons at 4:30 p.m. Join Chris and Dan Jiggetts for "Bears Huddle" Wednesday, as we hear from Vic Fangio, special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers and various players. Adam Gase highlights "Bears Blitz" on Thursdays, along with the starting quarterback and other players.**