A wise man once said: “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”
While the late, great Yogi Berra might not have been referencing the Las Vegas Raiders when he originally gave that great Yogi-ism, it certainly applies to the team now.
For the third year in a row, the Raiders have started the season off hot and generated some playoff buzz, only to falter down the stretch and miss the postseason. Granted, there is still plenty of time to turn things around this year, but back-to-back losses have pushed Las Vegas out of the playoff standings and into the ninth spot in the AFC.
However, the Silver and Black do have a great opportunity to get back on track against the Cincinnati Bengals, who are also 5-4 and currently are the eighth seed in the conference. While the Raiders will have home-field advantage this Sunday, they’re still one-point underdogs, per DraftKings Sportsbook, so they’ll need some big performances from the players below.
There’s no doubt that Brandon Facyson struggled and had his worst game as a Raider last week. He gave up six catches for 103 yards, two touchdowns and a 156.3 passer rating when targeted, and he landed on my losers list.
However, the Chiefs game was a bit of an anomaly for Facyson. Before last Sunday, he hadn’t allowed more than 60 receiving yards or a passer rating above 85 in a game this season and had only been scored on once in three contests.
That’s the good news, but the bad news is this Sunday won’t be much easier than last Sunday.
While there’s no Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce to worry about this time around, the Bengals have a very deep receiving corps that doesn’t lack any star power at the top.
Ja’Marr Chase is currently the favorite to win offensive rookie of the year, via DraftKings Sportsbook, as he’s hauled in 44 catches for 835 yards and seven touchdowns. He currently ranks fifth among wide receivers in yards, despite having the fewest targets in the top-five by at least 10 and trailing Cooper Kupp, the league leader in yards, by 44 targets.
It’s been Chase’s ability to make plays down the field that has made him so lethal this year. Through ten weeks, he leads the league in yards and touchdowns on targets 20 or more yards past the line of scrimmage with 375 and four. I’d imagine Cincinnati is going to try and isolate the LSU product on Facyson as much as possible, but even if they don’t, Facyson will still have his hands full.
Tee Higgins has taken a back seat to the rookie, but he’s still been a productive wideout with 35 receptions, 431 yards and two touchdowns while missing a couple of games early in the year. At 6’4” and 215 pounds, Higgins possesses a different type of threat as a possession receiver and chain mover. He has 19 first downs on the year so 60 percent of his catches have resulted in either a new set of downs or a score.
Contested catches are also a major factor in the 2020 second-round pick’s game. With seven contested grabs, he ranks tied for 18th at the position, and he clearly has quarterback Joe Burrow’s trust in that department. Higgins has the second-most contested targets (22) in the league so defending such throws needs to be a point of emphasis for Las Vegas’ secondary.
Even Tyler Boyd, who primarily operates out of the slot and has become the Bengals' third receiver, can be a playmaker on the outside.
The point is, regardless of who he lines up across from, the Raiders are going to desperately need Facyson to shake off his woes from last week and return to form. Otherwise, it could be another long day defensively.
Ever since Burrow suffered a nasty knee injury last November, Cincy’s offensive line has been a hot topic of discussion. While many pointed to the tackle spot as part of the problem, the interior of their line has been the bigger issue.
The Bengals were starting rookie second-round pick, Jackson Carman at right guard while Xavier Su’a-Filo recovers from a knee injury, but Carman has played his way onto the bench. Hakeem Adeniji got the nod in Week 9, the team’s most recent game, and “has the edge” to start in Week 11, according to offensive coordinator Brian Callahan.
Adeniji was a sixth-round pick out of Kansas last year and hasn’t been very impressive during the small sample size he’s played.
The former Jayhawk played in 10 games as a rookie, starting just four of them, and allowed 12 pressures - six of which were a sack or QB hit - and earned PFF grades of 53.3 and 53.6 in run and pass-blocking, respectively. This year, he’s only played in the one contest mentioned above and gave up four pressures with sub-50 grades across the board.
At center, the Bengals have had more stability but about the same level of play. Trey Hopkins has started all nine games but ranks dead last at the position in PFF’s overall and run-blocking grades and third to last as a pass protector. He’s also given up the third-most sacks at the position (3) and is just outside of the bottom-15 for pressures (11).
So, that’s good news for the Raiders’ interior pass rushers, the best of whom is Solomon Thomas. Thomas has been quiet these last two weeks with just one pressure in each game, but this Sunday is the perfect opportunity for a bounce-back week.
He won’t be facing as stiff of competition this week, and he’s collected 21 pressures on the year which is tied for 21st among defensive tackles. What’s most impressive about that ranking is he has the fewest pass rushes of any player in the top-25 and is only one of two players on the list with fewer than 200 snaps as a rusher.
Burrow currently has the fifth-highest percentage of pressures that turned into sacks at 26 percent, so getting after him can lead to some drive-altering plays for the Silver and Black, and the best way to do that will be through the middle of the offensive line.
While the two players mentioned previously have struggled during their recent performances, that couldn’t be further from the case for Cory Littleton. He’s coming off not only his best game of the year but also arguably his best game as a Raider.
Littleton allowed just 18 yards in coverage and was PFF’s fifth-highest-graded linebacker in coverage (84.2) and earned the highest single-game overall grade he’s ever had with the Silver and Black. He was especially impressive in coverage against running backs, as Darrel Williams and Jerick McKinnon combined for three targets and two receptions for two yards with him as the primary defender.
However, the linebacker faces a much more difficult test this Sunday.
Throughout his career, Joe Mixon has proven to be a solid receiving running back. While his numbers aren’t terribly impressive this year - 22 receptions, 194 yards, two touchdowns - 14 of his catches, 163 of his yards and both touchdowns have come in the last four weeks. So, the Bengals have emphasized getting Mixon involved in the passing game recently.
Cincinnati also has an impressive tight end in C.J. Uzomah, whose five touchdowns rank tied for second with Dawson Knox and Travis Kelce at the position. Uzomah is lethal after the catch as ranks fifth among tight ends with 7.5 YAC per reception and is tied for fourth with six missed tackles forced. That’s going to be a big test for Littleton, who has struggled to cover tight ends and tackle in open space in the past.
Granted, Littleton only allowed one catch for 13 yards to Kelce last week and hasn’t missed a tackle since Week 6, so hopefully, those trends continue.
At the beginning of the season, Bengals’ linebacker Logan Wilson was receiving a ton of praise for his ability to make plays in coverage, and deservedly so.
From Weeks 1 to 6, Wilson allowed 22 receptions for 202 yards and no touchdowns with a passer rating of 59.5 when targeted, in addition to four interceptions. His 73.3 PFF coverage grade ranked ninth among linebackers, and it looked like he was blossoming into a future centerpiece of Cincinnati’s defense. However, it’s been a much different story ever since then.
In Cincy’s last three games combined, the second-year backer has allowed 17 catches, 239 yards, one touchdown and a 133.1 rating when targeted, with no interceptions or even a pass breakup. That’s caused his coverage grade to drop to 54.6 for the year, 50th out of 87 qualifying backers.
Wilson’s struggles in coverage were most evident a few weeks ago against the New York Jets, where he was targeted 16 times for 14 receptions, 190 yards and a touchdown. The Jets made it a point to pick on him while covering running backs, as Ty Johnson and Michael Carter combined for five grabs on seven targets and 75 yards, and all five catches went for either a first down or touchdown.
That’s where Kenyan Drake comes into play.
Drake currently boasts the fifth-highest PFF receiving grade (79.3) among running backs for the entire year, and ranks second behind Cordarrelle Patterson since Week 6 (90.7), when Greg Olson took over as offensive coordinator.
The sixth-year back also ranks tied for fifth with 2.63 yards per route run since Olson started calling the shots, and the Raiders’ offense just runs a lot smoother when he’s getting involved in the passing game. That needs to continue and maybe even be ramped up this week given the favorable matchup.
It’s been a rough season for Brandon Parker so far. He’s already allowed 20 pressures which is in the bottom-25 of offensive tackles and remember, he didn’t crack the starting lineup until Week 5. Also, that’s getting close to the same amount he gave up during his abysmal rookie year (43) and there’s eight games left to play.
To put it simply, that has to change and Parker faces another tough task on Sunday.
The Bengals have a couple of impressive edge rushers in Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard. While they may not be household names, both rank in the top-25 for pressures at the position with 42 for Hendrickson - ninth most - and 30 for Hubbard - tied for 25th. For now, we’ll focus on Hubbard since he lines up on the offense’s right about 97.4 percent of the time, and I’ll cover Hendrickson in my key matchups later this week.
While it may seem like Hubbard is just having a career year because he hasn’t received a whole lot of national attention until now, that simply isn’t true. He had six sacks as a rookie and eight and a half in year two before a down season in 2020 where he only had two, but he’s back to form with five so far in 2021.
What might be most impressive is the Ohio State product didn’t start a single game in year one and missed three games last year, but still managed to average about 36 pressures a season during the first three seasons of his career.
So, Hubbard has not only been a quality pass rusher for a while now, but he’s also putting together the best campaign of his career and is about one good game from already meeting his average pressures per year mark. Hopefully, that doesn’t happen against the Raiders but that means Parker will have to be at his best.