NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Many rookies might be caught off-guard when, on the first play of the NFL season, the opposing team tries an onside kick in their direction.
Shalom Luani is not a typical rookie.
The Raiders safety and seventh-round pick successfully fielded an onside kick to begin Sunday’s 26-16 win over the Tennessee Titans, and Luani wasn’t surprised by the trickery. He knew it was coming, he said, having noticed the kicker’s mechanics before striking the ball.
While Luani is on the Raiders’ roster largely for his instincts in the secondary, he boasts a storied soccer background from his time on American Samoa’s national team. In 2011, he scored the game-winning goal for the U.S. territory’s first FIFA-sanctioned win.
Hence, Luani wasn’t fooled.
“His approach to the ball, he didn’t want to kick it,” Luani said of Ryan Succop. “That’s why I stayed back a little bit. He wasn’t going hard to kick the ball. If you’re a kicker, if you go hard, the ball is going (far). I’m a soccer player, so I can know when you’re kicking it hard or not.”
His recovery set up a strong start.
The Raiders assumed possession at the 50-yard line. Quarterback Derek Carr found wide receiver Amari Cooper on a 6-yard pass and tight end Jared Cook on a 22-yard pass with a 14-yard Marshawn Lynch run in between. The drive then culminated with a Cooper touchdown, as the two-time Pro Bowler kept his balance while being dragged toward the ground. He then barrelled through defenders into the end zone.
Having lost the pregame coin toss, the Titans tested a rookie in hopes of claiming the opening possession.
The wrong rookie.
“Just be a player,” Luani said. “Be a football player and go get it.”
Third down refocus
The Raiders had a terrible start Sunday on third down.
Tennessee converted five of six third-down attempts to begin the game. This included three straight in an opening touchdown drive that effectively answered Cooper’s score. The Raiders stopped the Titans on six of their ensuing eight attempts to end the game.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota, mobile in the pocket, is regarded for his accuracy on intermediate-depth throws.
The Raiders were keyed on containing tight end Delanie Walker.
“We know that’s his favorite target,” cornerback Sean Smith said. “When you do that, it allows other guys to get open behind guys. They were able to exploit that early on, but when we came in at halftime, we drew it up and said, ‘Look, this is where the ball is going. This is what he likes to do. Let’s just take that away and believe what we see.’ We made some adjustments, went out there and started playing some good ball.”
— Safety Karl Joseph stymied a potential touchdown drive with back-to-back plays inside the Raiders’ 10-yard line late in the second quarter. He first popped wide receiver Eric Decker with an open-field tackle off a quick-hit pass. On the next play, second down, he had an acrobatic, jumping breakup in the end zone with Decker the intended target. Mariota was tackled for a 1-yard gain on third down, setting up a field goal with 48 seconds remaining. The Raiders answered with a 52-yard field goal as the first half expired.
— Vadal Alexander rotated for Marshall Newhouse at right tackle on the Raiders’ third offensive series. He and running back Jalen Richard allowed a second-down sack. Alexander then ceded another sack on the next play. Newhouse returned to finish the game.
— Running back Marshawn Lynch seemed surprised when walking into the post-game media interview room, learning he had interrupted coach Jack Del Rio’s press conference. He said an expletive, stepped backward but then re-entered to speak to the Raiders’ media relations director. “I was available for three minutes,” Lynch said. “They didn’t holler at me. I’m good, right?” Indeed, Lynch had fulfilled his media obligations for the day.
Contact reporter Michael Gehlken at email@example.com. Follow @GehlkenNFL on Twitter.