Nov 22, 2015; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) leaves the field after the game against the Oakland Raiders at Ford Field. Detroit won 18-13. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Lions traveled over 2,000 miles to kick off their preseason schedule as they take on the Oakland Raiders at the Oakland Coliseum tonight at 10:30 pm ET.

The Lions finished 2nd in the NFC North with a 9-7 record. But that was a season ago and the team looks different than it did last year. Jim Caldwell was fired after the Lions failed to make the playoffs and general manager Bob Quinn quickly jumped on Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to replace him.

Not only do the Lions have a new-look coaching staff with the exception of offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, the team also made some key free agent signings. It’s fair to wonder, though, are expectations a bit too low for this 2018 group?

Today, I will quickly preview both the Lions and Raiders standouts for the game offensively and defensively, along with one dark horse per team.

LIONS:

Jun 5, 2018; Allen Park, MI, USA; Detroit Lions running back Theo Riddick (right) and running back LeGarrette Blount (29) walk off the field after practice at the Lions Headquarters and Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Offensively, I believe the Lions running backs will be key to the team’s success. We have seen what Matthew Stafford has done with the wide receivers, but we have failed to see a successful run game since Reggie Bush in 2013.

The Lions signed veteran running back LeGarrette Blount and drafted Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson this offseason. Abdullah, Zenner, Washington and Riddick are all still on the roster, but that number will be cut down to four by the start of the season.

Abdullah has the talent to succeed but has failed to stay healthy and protect the ball since being drafted by Detroit. Since 2015, Abdullah has six fumbles and has played in 32 out of 48 games. But during that three-year span, Abdullah has recorded just over 1,250 yards.

I believe Abdullah will see a majority of his time playing as a return specialist but still has the skillset to contribute offensively. Signing LeGarrette Blount was a big pickup for the Lions. Blount has spent the past two seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots, both of which won Super Bowls during his time there.

In 2016, Blount managed to rush for 1,161 yards and 18 touchdowns as a member of the Patriots before signing with the Eagles for the 2017 season. In 2017, Blount ran for 766 yards and had two rushing touchdowns. Now I’m not saying LeGarrette Blount will be the answer to the Lions’ problems within the run game but he will definitely make an impact.

Everyone knows of what Theo Riddick is capable of and what he brings to the Lions offensively as one of the best pass-catching backs in the league, but the real question is rookie Kerryon Johnson. During Johnson’s three year career at Auburn, he ran for nearly 2,500 yards and recorded 32 touchdowns. Watching this group against the Raiders will be a key piece of how the team will succeed in moving forward.

Defensively, the Lions need help coming off the edge and creating pressure. We have seen what Ziggy Ansah has been capable of in the past. Plus the return of a healthy Kerry Hyder Jr. should help. Hyder was able to have a dominant season with the Lions in 2016 and flashed success after recording eight sacks. However, Hyder tore his Achilles during the first preseason game of the 2017 season.

The Lions’ dark horse this season will be their linebacker group. Each week I will be focusing on different guys as the offensive and defensive players to watch, along with my dark horse.

The Lions made a few free agent signings this offseason, which includes Jonathan Freeny, Devon Kennard, and Christian Jones.

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Freeny will likely be fighting alongside Bellore and Longa for a spot on special teams but will also serve as a depth player. Freeny previously spent a lot of time under Patricia, and with the added experience on the roster, the linebacking core should find a way to succeed. Kennard is a  versatile player who will see much more playing time as a pass rusher. Jones can play either inside or outside linebacker positions which gives the Lions more versatility.

If second-year LB Jaylen Reeves-Maybin can fight for a starting role alongside Jarrad Davis, Jones could likely compete for a special teams role. All three signings could benefit the Lions greatly this season if everything goes accordingly.

RAIDERS:

Raiders
Jul 30, 2018; Napa, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden (right) talks with quarterback Derek Carr (4) during training camp at Napa Valley Marriott. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Shifting focus away from the Lions, it’s now time to focus on the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders finished 3rd in the AFC West with a 6-10 record. But like I said before, that was a season ago and now things look different.

Offensively, the Raiders have Derek Carr, who has been absolutely dominant during his career in Oakland.

Since being drafted in 2014, Carr has recorded 14,690 yards, 103 touchdowns, 44 interceptions and 366 rushing yards. Carr is as tough player as he has missed just two games during his career. Carr also has a talented group of players around him in running back Marshawn Lynch, wide receivers Amari Cooper and newly acquired players Jordy Nelson and Martavis Bryant.

Ryan Switzer could make a splash for the Raiders. Previously with the Dallas Cowboys, Switzer has a legit chance to become a playmaker for the Raiders and if the good reviews about his performance at camp continue to pour in. I expect Switzer to quickly climb up the depth chart.

Defensively, the Raiders defensive line could be disruptive and maybe one of the biggest threats in the NFL this season. The Raiders drafted defensive end Kahlil Mack in 2014 out of Buffalo. As of the 2017 season, Mack has 304 tackles, 40.5 sacks, nine forced fumbles and one pick-six.

Fast forward to the 2018 NFL Draft where the Raiders picked up defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, defensive tackle PJ Hall and defensive end Arden Key. During his career at LSU, Key recorded 129 tackles, 20 sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

Both Mack and Key are highly talented players that will create chaos for quarterbacks this season. Shifting our focus now to the defensive tackles, we have Hurst and Hall. Maurice Hurst spent four seasons as a member of the Michigan football program, where he was able to record 130 tackles, 13.5 sacks, 32 TFL, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.

PJ Hall was a member of the Sam Houston football program, recording 284 tackles, 37 sacks, four interceptions, nine forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. The Raiders really bolstered the defensive line this past draft and it will ultimately lead to a highly talented and very disruptive defensive line in the near future.

The Raiders dark horse will likely be wide receiver Amari Cooper. Cooper has proven to be a dominant receiver but has had a problem with dropped passes since entering the league in 2015. During his rookie season, Cooper was targeted 130 times but only managed to successfully catch 72 passes for 1,070 yards and six touchdowns.

In 2016, Cooper was targeted 132 times and successfully caught 83 passes for 1,153 yards and five touchdowns. Now, this may not look like an issue to the naked eye but Cooper has had a serious problem with dropped passes. Last season was the worst for Cooper, catching 50% of his 96 targets for only 680 yards and seven touchdowns. If Cooper can overcome his issue with dropped balls this season, then I believe the Raiders could really dominate in the AFC.

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