We are nearly halfway through the 2021 season and the Las Vegas Raiders are primed to make a playoff run. As the current AFC West division leader and two-seed in the AFC, the Raiders are in control of their own destiny for the final 10 games of the regular season.
This week, the New York Giants stand in their way. On paper, Las Vegas is the much better team and should win this game, but New York is more than capable of pulling off an upset after falling just three points short of taking down the Chiefs in Kansas City on Monday.
The Raiders will need to win several one-on-one battles but keeping some of the Giants’ most dangerous players in check will be of the utmost importance.
Derek Carr vs James Bradberry
Derek Carr has faced plenty of criticism in the past but there’s no denying that he’s playing like an MVP candidate this season.
So far this season, Carr has completed 67.7 percent of his passes for 2,269 and 12 touchdowns to just five interceptions. Per Pro Football Focus, he’s made 24 “big-time throws”, which is tied for the most in the NFL, and has earned the second-highest passing grade (89.9), all while dealing with a shaky offensive line and off the field drama surrounding the head coach.
What’s impressive about all of the numbers above is the signal-caller has seemingly found the balance between the over-aggressive gunslinger he was at the beginning of his career, and the ultra-conservative check-down artist he’s been over the last few years.
Carr has more deep passing attempts (43) than any other quarterback in the league, while also ranking tied for the seventh-lowest turnover worthy play rate (2.0%). However, that will be put to the test on Sunday.
Giants’ cornerback James Bradberry has been an absolute ball-hawk over the last couple of years. In 2020, he ranked tied for second at the position with 14 pass breakups and finished tied for ninth with three interceptions. So far in 2021, he’s tied for third and tied for second in those two categories, batting down six passes and picking off three more.
So, this will be a matter of who gives in first.
Sunday will also be the first time this season that Carr will be playing without Henry Ruggs III, meaning he’ll have to attack Bradberry and the rest of New Yorks’ secondary differently than how he was planning on during the team’s bye week. Also, without Ruggs’ speed, Bradberry will be able to play closer to the line of scrimmage and more aggressively than he otherwise would have.
The Raiders’ captain has led the way for the entire season so far, so there’s no reason to think he can’t overcome this most recent adversity, but it will undoubtedly be a huge challenge both as a quarterback and as a leader.
John Simpson vs Leonard Williams
I’ll be brutally honest, this is a mismatch that heavily favors the Giants.
Leonard Williams is a former top-10 pick and Pro Bowler who has established himself as one of the best young defensive tackles in the league. So much so that New York gave him a 3-year $63 million contract extension in the offseason, making him the second-highest-paid interior defensive lineman on a dollar per year basis. He’s making $1 million more per year than Chris Jones, is tied with DeForest Bucker and is $1.5 million behind Aaron Donald.
As for as on-field production goes, Williams has been a beast this year. He boasts an 84.0 PFF run-defense grade, the fourth-highest at his position, and has generated 16 run stops which ranks tied for fourth.
While rushing the passer, the USC product has managed to accumulate 5.5 sacks, tied for the 15th-most regardless of position, and has generated 26 pressures which tied for sixth among defensive tackles.
Meanwhile, John Simpson has struggled for the majority of the season.
Simpson was supposed to be a backup heading into the year, but a training camp injury to Richie Incognito has thrust him into the starting lineup. The second-year pro has allowed 17 pressures in pass protection, which is tied for the 14th-most among guards, and he has an efficiency rating of 96.9, which ranks 47th out of 75 qualifying guards. Also, his PFF run-blocking grade of 46.8 is the third-worst at the position.
However, Simpson has been playing his best ball as of late.
Against the Eagles, he earned the highest single-game overall PFF grade of his young career at 76.8, due in large part to an 81.4 run-blocking mark that was the eighth-highest among guards for the week. He’s also coming off a performance in Denver where he earned a 74.1 grade in pass protection and pitched a shutout, allowing zero pressures in the contest.
The Raiders are going to need their 2020 fourth-round pick to continue on that trajectory this week. Williams lines up on the defense’s left about 80 percent of the time and is clearly more than capable of wrecking an offense’s game plan, so the Silver and Black are going to need Simpson to bring his “A-game” this weekend.
Casey Hayward vs Kenny Golladay
Not only has Casey Hayward been arguably the Raiders’ best free-agent signing from this offseason, but he’s also one of the best signings across the league.
Hayward has been targeted 22 times this year and has allowed only 10 catches for 108 yards, no touchdowns and a 60.4 passer rating. Those figures rank first, second, tied for first and third among corners with at least 182 coverage snaps, respectively. He also has the highest PFF coverage grade (83.3) at the position and has allowed 25.8 receptions per coverage snap, which is the fewest by over five snaps.
But this Sunday brings a new challenge for the veteran defensive back in the form of Kenny Golladay.
Now, Golladay has been injured and hasn’t played since Week 5, but there’s a good chance he’ll suit up against Las Vegas as New Yorks’ head coach Joe Judge said Golladay is closer to returning this week than last week. Judge and the Giants were originally eyeing last Monday as the return date for the wideout, so it’s reasonable to assume he’ll play on Sunday.
Over the past few years, Golladay has been one of the NFL’s best receivers on contested catches. He only played in five games with Detroit last season, but still ranked tied for 22nd among wide receivers with 10 contested catches. The year before that, the former Lion tied for the most in the league with 26, and he’s hauled in five of ten such targets in limited action this season.
Quarterback Daniel Jones and Golladay struggled to get on the same page at the beginning of the year, as the two never connected for more than 65 yards in the air in their first three games playing together. However, in Week 4, the game before the pass-catcher’s injury, Jones and Golladay connected on six of eight targets for 116 yards, so they’ve started to gel as more time has gone on.
While the wideout missing time could throw a wrench into the chemistry with his quarterback, it’s going to partially be up to Hayward to make sure that stays true. There should be plenty of opportunities to make momentum-changing plays at the catch point, so the Silver and Black will need their top cornerback to show up on Sunday.
Plus, it’s a battle of two 2021 free-agent signings, one high-profile and the other playing on close to the vet minimum.