Marcus Mariota is a student of the Derek Carr School of Media Relations. The Tennessee Titans quarterback is the consummate face of the franchise, measured, humble and fast to heap praise on his opposition.
But even the former Oregon Duck and chief antagonist of the Raiders in Week 1 acknowledged the leading narrative heading into Sunday’s matchup at Nissan Stadium — the Oakland defense, especially the secondary — is a total liability.
Asked about the task of facing the Raiders defensive unit, Mariota chose his words wisely.
“Upfront, they’ve got some really good guys, some really good players — some of probably the best players in the league,” Mariota told reporters in Nashville, a not-so-veiled reference to Khalil Mack, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
“So, upfront we’ve got a challenge,” Mariota continued. “And then moreover, we’ve just got to play our game. Do what we do and hopefully we’ll be able to sustain drives and score points.”
The maligned defense, which allowed 257.5 yards/game last season (No. 24 in the league), was supposed to be bolstered by cornerback Gareon Conley and hybrid safety/linebacker Obi Melifonwu — the club’s top two picks in the draft at No. 24 and No. 56, respectively.
Instead, Melifonwu (knee) isn’t eligible to return from the injured reserve list until Week 9 and Conley (shin) is a virtual lock to miss the opener — even if head coach Jack Del Rio danced around the topic.
“We’ll see how the week goes,” Del Rio told reporters at the team’s Alameda headquarters during his midweek press conference. “We’ll know more about Sunday as we go through the week.”
Greg Papa, who as the longtime radio voice of the Raiders is as plugged into the team as anyone in the media, offered a more forthright injury report.
“I don’t expect Gareon to play,” Papa said on 95.7 The Game. “I don’t think he’ll play at all. I don’t think he’ll be active for this game. I just don’t think he’s ready. It’s been slow to heal and watching him warm up before the preseason game against Seattle a week ago, his movement skills are just not there.
“It’s going to be a while for him,” Papa added. “I mean, when he was right, he was moving so effortlessly. It’s just like he was gliding, just a special athlete. And he’s going to have to build back up.”
As Conley continues to work his way back from the shin injury that has plagued him all summer, the Raiders ranks in the secondary are thin.
David Amerson and T.J. Carrie will start at corner with Sean Smith rotating in when the team goes to the nickel defense.
Captain Reggie Nelson and Karl Joseph will start at safety, while Shalom Luani, a one-time City College of San Francisco star and seventh-round pick, acts as their primary cover.
Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., the fan base’s favored fall guy, played dumb when asked about the most prominent storyline swirling around the team, insisting he isn’t using the slights as fodder to motivate his troops.
“I’m not sure what the outside perception you’re talking about [is],” Norton told reporters. “But I know what’s going on on the inside and what we’re working on. And we just need to worry about us, getting ourselves ready at the highest level.”
The outside perception is that the Raiders, who gave up the third-most yards in the AFC last season, have done little to fortify the group. And the help that has been added — namely Conley and Melinfonwu — is unlikely to contribute imminently in any meaningful way.
Del Rio, often reluctant to offer much of anything when he takes the podium, was more willing to engage when asked his defensive assessment heading into the opener.
“I’m more confident than a lot of people,” Del Rio said. “But again, you get the chance to prove it. I think talk is cheap. [There’s] no sense in trying to proclaim anything. We’ll get to see. I think we’ve put in a lot of good, hard work. We’ve got a good group of guys that are really looking forward to the challenges that are in front of us.”
That challenge begins with a test against Mariota and the Titans when Del Rio and Norton will find out if the understrength defense can do enough not to get in the way of Carr, Marshawn Lynch and Co. and help the Raiders open 2017 on a winning note.
“There are several stories out there and at some point we’ll start writing those chapters,” Del Rio said. “And at the end of the year there will be a book on what it was.”