More than any other level of football, the NFL is all about matchups. The coach’s job, and specifically that of the play caller, is primarily to find the best matchups to exploit.
In the case of the matchup in Arrowhead, the Kansas City Chiefs do not have many weaknesses. Sure, their linebackers and corners leave something to be desired, but their front four and safeties stack up favorably with any team in the league. With that said, those matchups don’t matter a whole lot if the Raiders’ defense can’t slow down Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ explosive offense at least a bit.
Here are three matchups the Raiders need to find a way to neutralize if they have any chance to leave Kansas City with a win:
WR Tyreek Hill vs. CB Trayvon Mullen
The rookie second-round pick has really come into his own the past couple weeks, but like any corner, regardless of age and experience, he is going to have ebbs and flows.
Sunday presents possibly his toughest challenge to date. He has played enough snaps now in his first year in the league that Andy Reid and the Chiefs know his strengths and weaknesses.
That it also means he’s seen some upper-echelon wide receiver play. His ability to read opponents’ patterns and tendencies should be improving each week. The key against Hill, or even Sammy Watkins, should he find himself on the bigger receiver at times, is to play fast.
Mullen doesn’t have to dominate Hill. He doesn’t have to end the day giving up zero catches, or under 20 yards. Even giving up one touchdown would be okay as long as the damage is no more.
TE Travis Kelce vs. SLB Tahir Whitehead/S Lamarcus Joyner
In reality, the Raiders do not have a player on their defense they are comfortable matching up with the matchup nightmare tight end.
As much as Hill’s electric speed opens things up for the rest of the Kansas City offense, Kelce’s blend of size, physicality, and speed at the tight end position make him nearly impossible to slow down.
Most defenses have play bracket coverage like they did to Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski in the past. That is likely what the Raiders will do on Sunday, hoping that the corners can do a good enough job working in concert with deep safety Erik Harris.
Whitehead needs to be physical and give Joyner a chance to make plays on the ball. Kelce is good enough to win against two defenders on occasion.
As much as Jon Gruden and his staff don’t want penalties, sometimes a holding or hands-to-the-face penalty is better than giving up a long completion.
It sounds a bit pessimistic, but the Raiders are really in a tough position given the personnel present on both squads.
RT Mitchell Schwartz vs. DE Clelin Ferrell
The Raiders need to get some push in the pocket and that will require the entire defensive line working in harmony to force an up-field push so that Mahomes cannot escape the pocket. An interior push will make sure he can’t take off and scramble down the middle of the field.
Still, no matchup is more important than the one likely to take place on left side of the Raiders’ defensive line. Of course, this won’t always be the matchup. Paul Guenther would like to move Ferrell inside some on passing downs, especially to pair him with Dion Jordan.
But in possible run situations, Ferrell needs to create a stalwart situation on that side. He needs to play physical and hold the edge to protect against the Chiefs’ jet sweeps, reverses, and bootlegs.
And against the pass, Ferrell needs to get some push while making sure he doesn’t get too far up field, lest Mahomes get outside where he is most dangerous.
There’s a reason why defensive end is often thought to be one of the more difficult positions in the league to play. Not only does it require superior athleticism and strength, but it requires a good deal of football intelligence and discipline.
Ferrell has all those traits, but it’s going to be quite a challenge lining up snap-by-snap against the veteran Schwartz.