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Raiders reliant on young LBs to sort out Titans’ malarkey

ALAMEDA, Calif. — Last September, Phillip Supernaw crouched into a three-point stance outside his left tackle.

He had no intention of staying there.

The Tennessee Titans tight end awaited a signal from quarterback Marcus Mariota. A couple seconds later, Mariota lifted his arms above his shoulders and shouted a code word. That was it. Supernaw motioned to the other side, now standing outside his right tackle. Fullback Jalston Fowler, who was behind Mariota, followed Supernaw but stopped 2 yards behind the right tackle.

Mariota tapped his left foot on the grass. Another signal. Supernaw flash-motioned inside to behind center before motioning back to behind tackle.

Then, it began.

The first play of the game.

The Raiders faced the Titans in Week 3 of last season, tasked with processing in real-time a series of pre-snap movement that is designed to cause defenders to play out of position. An experienced linebacker or two can help sort out Titans coach Mike Mularkey’s malarkey. The Raiders lack this luxury entering Sunday’s season opener in Nashville.

Marquel Lee, a rookie fifth-round pick, is the starting inside linebacker. He’ll be at the controls in his first career NFL start.

“They try to get you riled up and get your communication all messed up,” Lee, 21, said. “That’s the main thing of what I feel it is. With us being a young linebacker corps, we have to make sure we make all our checks and get those shifts and everything down correctly, which we’ve been doing (in practice) and continue to stress.”

Or else.

“They’ll break a big one,” Lee said.

These high stakes are what make this an intriguing defensive matchup for the Raiders. All offseason, linebacker has been an oft-discussed position, highlighted for its need of outside reinforcements.

In March, the team was thought maybe to add a veteran free agent of consequence. It didn’t. In April, the team was thought maybe to invest an early-round draft pick on one. It didn’t. No linebacker transactions followed until this month when the team was thought maybe to trade for, sign or claim a linebacker off waivers during the craze surrounding the league-wide roster cutdown from 90 to 53 players.

It didn’t.

Now, Lee largely represents the cavalry.

He and undrafted rookie Xavier Woodson-Luster, who didn’t make the initial 53-man roster, are the only off-season linebacker additions still here. Jelani Jenkins signed a one-year contract in March, but he was cut following the preseason.

Oh well. The Raiders will play the Titans’ pre-snap game with who they have.

“You just have to make sure you know exactly what you’re doing in any situation,” defensive end James Cowser said. “They’re going to test you in every way and everywhere. It comes down to knowing what your defense is doing. … They’ll give you one formation, and then they’re going to switch to another formation and then motion into a different one. Instead of just lining up and playing, you’ve got to go through a couple checks and then play.

“They’re hoping you’re not sure of yourself or sure of your defense, and then you’ll get exposed.”

The Raiders adjusted well in 2016 on the first play of the game.

Similar to Lee now, linebacker Cory James was a rookie sixth-round pick making his first career start. But he deferred to weak-side linebacker Malcolm Smith, a fourth-year veteran making his 35th. Smith changed the strength call. Smith had the two linebackers switch sides when Supernaw and Fowler motioned. Smith led the charge.

Lee won’t have that same safety net on Sunday.

It’s largely on him.

“You’ve got to be confident,” edge rusher Bruce Irvin said. “Marquel is the Mike, so he’s basically the DC (defensive coordinator) of the defense. … He calls the plays, strength calls. As a younger guy, being in charge of a defense, you have to be confident. You make a call, you go with the call. You can’t be out there confused. ‘Is it left? Is it right?’ If you make the call, we play the call. That’s the biggest thing.”

“I don’t feel too nervous at all,” Lee said. “I want to go out there and prove myself to this organization, prove myself to these guys in the locker room and show them I can be a middle linebacker.”

Contact reporter Michael Gehlken at mgehlken@reviewjournal.com. Follow @GehlkenNFL on Twitter.

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