The Las Vegas Raiders head to New Jersey to take on the New York Jets on Sunday and there’s a lot at stake. Will this Raiders team rid Raider Nation of the negative feelings of late-season collapses of the past?
The Las Vegas Raiders have had exactly six winning seasons in the last 30 years.
Once again the Raiders find themselves at familiar crossroads. With a 6-5 record, the Raiders are in a position to capitalize on a good start to the season and still in control of their own destiny to the playoffs. Las Vegas also has head-to-head matchups against both the Indianapolis Colts and Miami Dolphins, both of who are in current possession of the last two wild card playoff slots.
From in Control to On a Wing and a Prayer
Two weeks ago the Raiders were 6-3 and riding high. The team was enjoying a three-game winning streak and getting set to host the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs at Allegiant Stadium. A win against the Chiefs would sweep their division rivals for the first time since 2010. Not necessarily placing them in first place, due to overall record, but it would leave them a game back and in possession of the tie-breaker.
When the Raiders lost against the Chiefs, it took late-game heroics from Patrick Mahomes to down the Raiders at home. A defensive coverage breakdown gave Travis Kelce the go-ahead score needed to secure the win. Many on the Chiefs sidelined expressed respect for the best Raiders team they had faced thus far, nonetheless, the Raiders fell to 6-4.
However, the Raiders most recent defeat has them trending out of the playoffs. Losing to the Falcons hopefully should serve as a wakeup call to the organization. A game out of the final two playoff spots and having lost three of five games against conference opponents, the tie breaking scenario’s do not favor the Raiders unless they win out.
Beating both the Colts and Dolphins would improve their odds in a similar record situation, but another loss could result in a 10-6 record which could see them missing the playoffs.
Leaving Garbage on the Field
Quarterback Derek Carr has had an excellent year in 2020 enjoying career bests in nearly every major category. However, his fumbling when getting sacked is a major issue. It cost him a game against the Falcons, and whenever he does fumble, it completely takes him out of his element.
Under duress early and often, Carr played without a doubt his worst game of the season. Inaccuracy plagued Carr and the offense suffered because of it. Carr was out of sync, as was the rest of the offense. By the end of the game in Atlanta, Carr had accounted for four turnovers: three fumbles and a Pick-6.
Josh Jacobs after having strung together a series of good games, has put together two absolute duds. Jacobs only highlight play was a personal foul for lowering the crown of his helmet to initiate content. His vision was suspect, he had on his tap dancing shoes, and suffered an ankle injury which appeared worse than it actually is.
Free agency is like a crapshoot. Sometimes you win, sometimes you break even (push), and sometimes you crap out. Player-per-player, the Raiders have defensive free agents that fall into all of those categories.
Maliek Collins was touted as the answer to the lack of a pass rush up the middle. He was bought in most likely at the behest of defensive line coach Rod Marinelli for his familiarity with how Marinelli coaches the line. He was to be the double team beater, the tip of the spear, and “the key to our defense…he’s the straw that stirs the drink” for the Raiders defense, according to Gruden.
Signing a one-year deal for $6 million with $5.75 million fully guaranteed, Collins was made a captain and so far has produced absolutely nothing. Unfortunately, at this point his best contribution to the team would be to allow someone else to get more playing time. That came true as Collins was placed on the short-term injured reserve which means he’ll miss at least three weeks. Don’t expect Collins to play another snap in the Silver and Black.
Grade: Snake eyes – crapped out.
Nick Kwiatkoski has been an absolute godsend to the Raiders. Kwiatkoski has been one of their surest tacklers. With 59 tackles on the year, 41 of them solo, 3 tackles for losses, 4 passes defended, 1 sack, fumble forced, and an interception, Kwiatkoski has far and away been the free-agent score of the offseason.
He’s been involved in more positive crunch time defensive plays than anyone else on the team. When defensive coordinator Paul Guenther stopped taking him off the field in passing situations, it was the moment the defense started taking a turn for the better. Kwiatkoski has shown remarkable hands for a defender and his ability to stop the ball carrier in their tracks is impeccable. All he needs to do is be consistent throughout the rest of the season.
Grade: Big Winner.
Cory Littleton – does anyone remember the fact that this was supposed to be one of the top five offseason acquisitions? So far the biggest winner of this move has been the diversification of Littleton’s portfolio. Since signing a three- year $35.25 million deal with $22 million guaranteed, Littleton has struggled to find his place in the defense.
While many can only speculate as to what exactly he’s being asked to do, it definitely leaves fans wanting more. His 52 combined tackles are the fourth-highest on the team, but his 15 missed tackles (22.4%) is third-highest. He has no sacks while both Nicholas Morrow and Kwiatkoski have sacked the quarterback. Littleton also has not been able to force a turnover.
Littleton has been targeted 52 times in the passing game and surrendered 36 completions for 409 yards. The 69.2% completion rating is the lowest it’s ever been for the talented but struggling Littleton. Yards after the catch is what’s killing Littleton and the Raiders. Littleton’s average depth of target is about 3.3 yards and all 36 completions have traveled a grand total of 49 yards through the air. Meaning teams are heavily committed to rolling the dice on his inconsistency in making tackles in space, and wearing him out by making him run all over the field.
Moving forward, Guenther needs to find a way to seamlessly incorporate his strengths with the improved production of Kwiatkoski and Morrow. Without the benefit of a training camp gauging what he had on defense was difficult for Guenther. Littleton needs to improve his tackling, get his hands on the football and be more effective in the blitz. Out of 28 blitzes he only has 2 hurries no knockdowns or sacks.
Carl Nassib signed a three-year $25.5 million deal this offseason and has made a few lasting impressions, along with an impact. Nassib paired with Maurice Hurst has been the most productive interior pass-rushing combination upfront for the defensive line. He gets after the quarterback and has recorded a hit on 6 out of 11 quarterbacks this season. Nassib has registered 20 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 4 passes defended, and even recorded an interception.
Down this last stretch of games, the Raiders defensive line is nursing aches, pains, and injuries. Nassib is a healthy body and a productive one. Guenther needs to give him a larger role and he needs to finish his rushes with sacks. He’s done well against the run and provides pressure at a low cost.
Grade – Push
Jeff Heath is a curious case. Signing a two-year $6.75 million deal, Heath has produced the most turnovers and seems to have a nose for the football. But, when you look at the Raiders’ two most lopsided losses (Tampa Bay, and Atlanta), he was in on 94% and 100% of the defensive snaps respectively. His best production comes when in three safety packages, and is playing 40-50% or 30-40 snaps.
It’s a hard grade to make because at this point he is clearly a role player as a roving safety. When given the opportunity to hold down the starting role, he has proven to be less effective than Erik Harris. He’s shined in his role but disappointed when asked to do more.
Grade – Push
Cranking Up the Pressure
Interestingly enough, Marinelli has led a unit ranking 31st in sacks with 12, 3rd in hurries with 52, 25th in knockdowns with 35, and 13th in pressures with 99. Yet many wonder just how much of an impact, if any, his coaching has made. Eleven games into the season the Raiders are not drawing the proper amount of holding calls on their opponents. Which is a large part as to why pressure and hurries are up, and the knockdowns and sacks are down.
Defensively, the Raiders need to be better at finishing up front at the point of attack. They have brought in Vic Beasley, David Irving, Takk McKinley, and others to aide this pass rush. Guenther has only blitzed 89 times or 19.7% of the time, the third lowest rate in the NFL.
In a nutshell, the Match Cover 3 defense he typically employs is being dink and dunked and subjected to death by a thousand cuts. The lack of three or more linebackers places more emphasis on the front four to clog gaps and collapse pockets while maintaining contain. Soft zone cushions would normally prompt teams to make quicker throws, but the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the pass rush encourages opposing quarterbacks to stand tall and deliver a strike.
Now is Carr’s Time to Shine
When it comes to December and January in the NFL, leadership and a high level of play is what separates the contenders from the pretenders. At the top of that list is quarterback play. Derek Carr has enjoyed a Pro Bowl-caliber year but must now take it to another level for his team to reach the playoffs.
Carr has been at the forefront of telling his teammates, fans, and the media the Raiders have “no excuses” for any lack of performance. Yes, the team has been hit hard by COVID issues, injuries, and more. It’s 2020 and the entire NFL has experienced much of the same. Carr knows this team needs to take it to the next level in Year 3. Familiarity with the system and multitude of weapons means he’s had what he needs to be successful. This is why Carr has consistently taken responsibility and told the world this team will not give excuses for underperforming.
At this point, he has to command the team as he has before in 2020. Any showing of the team being flat through practice (or a game) in the middle of a playoff race is indicative of a lack of leadership. Carr has shown he’s been at the top of his leadership game in 2020. Yet the job, and his evaluation, will not be complete until we see how he and his teammates handle these last five weeks. Carr must will his team to win and demand his teammates follow him to glory – or at least a playoff berth.