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5 potential X-factors against Chiefs

Raiders need these five more than ever this week

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Las Vegas Raiders
Johnathan Abram
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

As if the Las Vegas Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs rivalry needed to add more fuel to the fire. The Raiders currently hold a half-game lead over the Chiefs in the AFC West standings and playoff picture, so the result of this week’s Sunday Night Football matchup could be a turning point in either direction for each squad.

Even with home-field advantage, Las Vegas is currently a 2.5-point underdog, per DraftKings Sportsbook, and it will take a full-fledged effort to pull off the upset. Kansas City certainly hasn’t been as successful as they have in the past, but it does feel like they are a sleeping giant in the NFL right now, and the last thing the Raiders want is to be their alarm clock.

Brandon Parker and Alex Leatherwood

NFL: Preseason-Green Bay Packers at Oakland Raiders
Brandon Parker
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

I’m going to cheat and combine two of my X-factors into one this week, partially, because I have no idea what the Chiefs are going to do with their defensive line.

Over the past few years, Chris Jones has become a household name as one of the best defensive tackles in the league, but Kansas City had him play on the outside more at the beginning of the season. Then, he missed a couple of weeks with an injury and has been back to lining up more on the interior since returning to action in Week 7.

To make matters more complicated, the Chiefs traded for edge defender Melvin Ingram right before last week’s deadline, so he’s only played one game for them and could completely change their defensive line rotation moving forward. Not to mention Frank Clark is still around but missed three games early in the season, making it even more difficult to predict what defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will do.

However, one thing is for certain, the Chiefs’ defensive line has plenty of talent especially as pass rushers.

Jones, Ingram and Clark have each missed at least two games this season - three for Clark - yet all three have over 20 pressures - 28, 22 and 21, respectively. Plus, Ingram was splitting time in Pittsburgh and still managed to be productive, and Jones and Clark have combined for over 20 pressures in just the last two weeks - 11 for Jones and nine for Clark.

So Alex Leatherwood and Brandon Parker are in for a major heavy-weight fight on Sunday, as all three players mentioned above will spend a decent amount on the offense’s right.

Since Week 5, Leatherwood and Parker have each surrendered 15 pressures. For the former, that’s the fourth-most among guards during that time frame and tied for the sixth-most among tackles for the latter. In other words, these two are going to need to turn things around in a hurry.

Now, the right side of Las Vegas’ offensive line could have some success as run blockers since that isn’t a strength of Kansas City’s defensive line. However, the Raiders offense is built to win through the air, so pass protection is still going to be a priority and something that needs to improve for them to put points on the board.

Johnathan Abram

Philadelphia Eagles v Las Vegas Raiders
Johnathan Abram
Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images

Originally, I was going to include Cory Littleton in this spot. However, ever since the Broncos game, Littleton hasn’t been the defender opponents have targeted when covering tight ends. Instead, that responsibility has fallen on Johnathan Abram’s shoulders.

Abram has been thrown at five times and allowed four receptions for 63 yards and a touchdown when covering tight ends over the last two weeks. Meanwhile, Littleton has only been targeted twice and both passes came while covering running backs.

That means we could be in for some one-on-one battles between Travis Kelce and Abram on Sunday.

Primarily because of the team’s lack of overall success, but this season has been looked at as a “down year” for Kelce since he isn’t putting up the godly numbers like he has in the past. However, he still leads all tight ends in receptions and yards with 54 for 628, and he’s tied for the lead in touchdowns with five.

Now, part of those numbers are volume stats since the Chiefs have been playing from behind for the majority of the season, but Kelce does still rank tied for 11th - with Darren Waller - in yards per route run at 1.72. So, he’s still someone the Raiders defense, especially Abram, needs to account for and figure out how to slow down.

In both games combined last season, Kelce was targeted three times with Abram as the primary coverage defender. All three of those passes were completed for either a first down or touchdown, including the game winner in Las Vegas where the defensive back’s lack of discipline in coverage reared it’s head. Obviously, that can’t happen this time around.

For those wondering, Littleton was injured in the Week 11 matchup last year, but did give up four of four targets for 57 yards and two first downs to the Chiefs’ tight end in Week 5.

Abram has played much better and with more discipline in 2021 compared to 2020, so there’s reason to believe he can have more success against Kelce this weekend. But it’s certainly a tall task and one the Raiders can’t afford to fall short on.

Nate Hobbs

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Denver Broncos
Nate Hobbs
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

An underrated aspect of Tyreek Hill’s game is how effective he can be from the slot. That’s where about 56.9 percent of his snaps on passing plays have come from this season as well as about 55.6 percent of his targets. And it’s not just that he lines up there, he’s extremely productive on the inside, too.

From the slot, Hill is averaging 2.51 yards per route run which ranks seventh among wideouts with at least 13 slot targets. He’s also tied with Cooper Kupp for the most touchdowns (5) and first downs (30) from that alignment, and he ranks fourth with an 85.8 PFF receiving grade.

So, Nate Hobbs will likely be facing off against one of the most dynamic receivers in the league on Sunday.

Part of what has made Hill so successful in the slot this season is his ability to create yards after the catch. His 150 YAC is the seventh-most among slot receivers and that’s partially because of how Kansas City’s offense has adjusted to the way defenses have played them.

Opponents have been sitting back in coverage and forcing Mahomes to throw underneath, and in response, the Chiefs’ have emphasized the short to intermediate passing game in their gameplan recently. I’d expect both trends to continue this weekend, meaning the Raiders ability to rally and tackle will be tested.

The good news is that should play into Hobbs’ strengths. He has allowed the third-fewest yards per coverage snap (0.65) among corners in slot coverage this season, and while he has missed five tackles on the campaign, he’s had zero in the last three weeks. Tackling was always one of the Illinois product’s biggest strengths so I think his struggles early on in the season can be chalked up to transitioning to the league, but regardless, we’ll find out soon.

While the threat of the deep ball is still there, stopping or slowing down this Chiefs offense is going to be different this year and fall heavily on the rookie’s shoulders. If Hobbs can keep an explosive and elite receiver like Hill in check, he might walk out of Alliegant Stadium with the defensive rookie of the year trophy in hand. But that’s a lot easier said than done and many have failed along the way.

Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at New York Giants
Yannick Ngakoue
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Since I used a cop-out and combined two X-factors above, I figured it was only right to wrap things up with another one. Like the saying goes, two cop-outs make an extremely good and well-written article ... or something like that.

Ever since the Super Bowl, there has been an emphasis to get pressure on Mahomes and do so while only using four pass rushers. Luckily, that falls in line with Gus Bradley’s defensive philosophy.

Las Vegas is the only team in the league that has two edge rushers in the top-10 for pressures, Maxx Crosby (50, ranks first) and Yannick Ngakoue (37, ranks ninth), and the team has the second-lowest blitz rate at just 13.5 percent. In other words, Bradley doesn’t have to change a thing about his scheme to use this new game plan to stop the quarterback that has been terrorizing the NFL over the last couple of seasons.

Additionally, the Silver and Black’s pass rush should get a boost by playing against a couple of weak offensive tackles.

Orlando Brown Jr. has always been known for his skills a run blocker, but he’s struggled in pass protection this season. Brown has allowed 23 pressures which is tied for the 12th-most among tackles and has an efficiency rating that ranks tied for 37th at 96.9, per PFF.

On the other side, Lucas Niang and Mike Remmers have split time this season and have surrendered 26 pressures combined. To make matters worse for Kansas City, Remmers missed last week with an injury and Niang went down during the game and is expected to miss some time.

So, not only are the Chiefs tackles far from the best pass protectors, but they’ll also likely be diving into the depth chart for another starter this Sunday. Crosby and Ngakoue should be foaming at the mouth and could be in for another big day, much to the Raiders’ delight.