There’s no denying that the outlook for the rest of the Las Vegas Raiders’ season is grim. After starting 5-2, the Raiders have dug themselves into an enormous hole by losing three games in a row, and it feels like the team is in the midst of a late-season collapse for the third year in a row.
However, Las Vegas does have still have a chance to right the ship and turn things around with seven games left to play. Granted, that will be a difficult task as the Raiders are currently 7.5-point underdogs to the Dallas Cowboys, per DraftKings Sportsbook.
Pulling off the upset will take a Thanksgiving miracle that will likely come in the form of significant contributions from the players below.
The Cowboys will be playing without their No. 1 wide receiver in Amari Cooper and could also be missing their No. 2 after CeeDee Lamb suffered a concussion last Sunday, so his status for Thursday is in doubt. With their top wideouts likely sidelined, I’d expect Dallas to lean heavily on its rushing attack against Las Vegas.
It’s no secret that the Raiders' biggest defensive deficiency is stopping the run. They’ve allowed 1,335 rushing yards - the fourth-most in the NFL - and 4.5 yards per carry - tied for the seventh-most in the league. So, the team is going to need one of its best run defenders to step up and probably play his best game of the season, Johnathan Hankins.
Hankins hasn’t been very productive on the year as a whole, but he has been more active recently. In the last three games, he’s accumulated nine total tackles, three stops against the run - one of which was a TFL - and earned a 67.0 run defense grade from Pro Football Focus. Also, his average depth of tackle of 1.3 yards is tied for the best on the team during that time frame, so the big man has been one of the team’s few bright spots during this rough patch.
However, Hankins will be tested on Thanksgiving.
There aren’t many offensive linemen who are household names but Zack Martin is one of them. Martin has four first-team All-Pro selections to his name and will likely be in consideration for another one at the end of this year, as he currently has the highest run-blocking grade (93.7) among guards. Also, the Cowboys are averaging 5.2 yards per rush when running between the A- and B-gaps he’s responsible for.
Even beyond the perennial All-Pro, the Cowboys have some quality run-blockers on the interior of their offensive line.
Connor McGovern will likely be making his second start at left guard, and he boasts an impressive 82.3 run-blocking grade on the year. Granted, his two lowest grades have come in the last two weeks - 60.9 versus Atlanta and 59.6 against Kansas City - so McGovern might be someone Hankins can exploit if that trend continues.
At center, Tyler Biadasz is a second-year player who is starting to figure it out. He has a respectable 68.8 run-blocking grade for the season and in the last four weeks, he graded out in the high 60s twice and low 70s once, meaning he’s becoming more consistent with more playing time.
To summarize, the Raiders are going to need Hankins to be a space-eater more than ever this week, but Dallas’ interior offensive line will make that a significant challenge.
Denzel Perryman is a potential X-factor for essentially the same reason as Hankins, stopping the run.
The Cowboys have an impressive two-headed monster at running back with Ezekiel Elliot and Tony Pollard toting the rock.
Elliot has the higher profile of the two, in part because he’s been one of the best backs at creating first downs on the ground. He led all running backs in first-down runs in three out of his first five seasons, with the two outliers being last year when he finished fourth and 2017 where he was seventh and was suspended for six games. In 2021, he’s currently eighth with 36 chain moving rushes and is just four away from cracking the top-five.
Part of what makes Zeke such an effective runner is his ability to create yards after contact and fall forward when going to the ground to cross those last few chain links. Of his 695 rushing yards on the season, 437 have come after contact which is the eighth-most at the position.
As for Pollard, he doesn’t have the volume of touches that Elliot does, but he does have a higher rate of yards after contact per attempt than his running mate, 3.42 versus 2.89. In fact, the former ranks eighth among running backs this season for that metric.
The three-year pro’s biggest and best calling card is his ability to make defenders miss. He’s forced 21 missed tackles on the year and ranks seventh with an 83.3 elusive rating, per PFF. Surprisingly, this is a bit of a down year for Pollard as he lead the position with a 116.1 elusive rating in 2019, and finished second last year with a mark of 89.2.
In other words, Perryman is going to have his hands full on Thursday.
The good news is there’s no reason to believe the linebacker won’t be up for the task. He currently leads all players at his position with 27 run stops on the year and ranks seventh with an 11.2 percent run stop rate. Also, he’s only missed three tackles against the run which comes out to a 5.1 percent missed tackle percentage that’s inside the top-20 among qualifying linebackers.
So, no matter who is in the backfield for Dallas, Perryman will be in for a fight and Las Vegas desperately needs him to win.
Sticking with the theme of the Cowboys changing their offensive game plan potentially down their top two pass-catchers, I’d imagine offensive coordinator Kellen Moore is going to get the running backs more involved in the passing game than normal. That’s not and never has been one of Elliot’s strengths but is one of Pollard’s.
On the year, Pollard has been targeted 27 times for 25 catches, 224 yards - 9.0 YPC - and no touchdowns. While those numbers are about the middle of the pack among running backs, he’s been extremely efficient, ranking fifth with 2.26 yards per route run. In other words, he could be in for a big performance if he gets more opportunities in the passing game, like he’s expected to get this week.
That’s going to put a lot of stress on Corly Littleton but luckily, he’s been stingy in coverage against running backs lately.
Since the Raiders' bye week, the linebacker has been targeted five times when covering running backs and has allowed four completions, but for just seven yards and one first down. In fact, the Bengals didn’t even throw his way when he was covering a back out of the backfield.
Now, Littleton did break his streak of three games without a missed tackle by missing two against Cincinnati and, as previously mentioned, Pollard is extremely elusive in the open field. So, Littleton will need to return to form this week and if he does, that could throw a major wrench into Dallas’ game plan.
When the Raiders signed DeSean Jackson a few weeks ago, it was with the thought that he would fill in as the team’s deep threat. However, outside of a 38-yard catch that ended in a game-changing fumble, Jackson’s impact has been nonexistent.
That lone catch has been his only target with the Silver and Black, and he isn’t making much of a difference even beyond the stat sheet.
Out of 101 offensive plays since he moved to Las Vegas, Jackson has only participated in 25 of them or just less than 25 percent. There was a play in last week’s game where another receiver had to show him where to line up so it’s pretty clear the former Ram has struggled to pick up the Raiders’ playbook.
That’s part of the problem with Las Vegas’ offense right now.
Defenses aren’t worried about getting beat over the top so they play closer to the line of scrimmage and can bracket Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow, leading to fewer open windows in the short to intermediate areas. Even if Jackson doesn’t record a catch, he needs to at least be able to stay on the field and help open things up for everyone else.
Now ideally, he will get some targets against the Cowboys. It’s just a matter of when as Dallas could make him prove it early on by keeping their secondary low to start the game. Or the reverse, honoring Jackson’s speed early and playing back to front until they get frustrated, and then the speed demon can break loose.
The overall point here is the wideout needs to figure out how to stay on the field to put stress on the opposition.
Dallas’ secondary is susceptible to giving up big plays. They’ve allowed an explosive pass on about 10 percent of pass plays, which is the seventh-highest rate in the league. So, there should be opportunities for Jackson to finally make an impact, it’s just a matter of if he can capitalize.
I’ve avoided using Derek Carr as an X-factor all year on purpose. I think it’s a cop-out to say that the starting quarterback will have a major impact on the game. However, I’m making an exception this week because I think Carr’s influence over this week’s game will be bigger than it has been in any other contest this season.
The Cowboys have been excellent at creating turnovers, especially interceptions. They’re currently tied for second with 15 picks on the year and have played in one fewer game than the first-place team, the New England Patriots.
That’s my primary concern with Carr on Thanksgiving since he’s thrown four interceptions and had seven turnover-worthy plays in the last three games. During that timeframe, that’s tied for the third-most picks and his 5.7 percent turnover-worthy play rate is the eighth-highest among quarterbacks.
Obviously, the Raiders’ signal caller is going to have to be careful with the ball, but the good news is, as mentioned above, the Cowboys’ defense is a boom or bust unit.
Cornerback Trevon Diggs is probably the best example of that. Diggs leads the league in two major defensive categories this season, interceptions (8) and yards allowed (665).
So, not only is it going to be important for Car to take care of the ball, but he’ll also have opportunities to create big plays down the field, something that has been missing from Las Vegas’ offense over the last several weeks.