It might have taken a few extra days than expected but the Las Vegas Raiders managed to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Granted, the Raiders’ chances are still slim but the 16-14 victory over the Cleveland Browns yesterday gives Las Vegas some hope for clinching a postseason berth. The Silver and Black currently sit in 10th place for the conference, but they’re only a game behind a four-way tie - Indianapolis Colts, Los Angeles Chargers, Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Ravens - for one of the AFC’s three wild card spots and a half-game back of the ninth-place Pittsburgh Steelers.
That’s not a terrible spot to be in seeing as the Raiders own head-to-head wins over the Ravens and Steelers, and have the Colts and Chargers left on the schedule.
But before we dive into the playoff scenarios, let’s take a look at who helped propel the team into this spot yesterday and who was holding them back.
WINNER: Keisean Nixon
The Raiders didn’t need any other reasons to be mad at the NFL for postponing the game and Nate Hobbs testing positive for COVID-19 on Monday morning certainly added fuel to the fire. However, the defense didn’t skip a beat without Hobbs in the lineup as Keisean Nixon stepped up and delivered.
Nixon filled in as the defense’s slot corner and ended up being the team’s highest-graded player (81.6) player, per Pro Football Focus. He even ranks just outside the top-10 at the position for the week across the entire league.
While Nixon was targeted three times and allowed all three to go for completions, those catches only netted 17 yards and he was credited with stops on two of them, tied for the third-most among corners this week.
The third-year defensive back also added a tackle against the run and a QB hit as a pass rusher, rounding out what was an unexpectedly active day.
These are the types of performances the coaching staff - or next coaching staff - loves to see from young players this time of year. It was an adverse situation where a reserve player needs to step up when his number is called, and that’s exactly what Nixon did to help the team get a much-needed victory.
LOSER: DeSean Jackson
It’s gotten to a point where I’m not even sure what DeSean Jackson is doing on the Raiders’ roster anymore.
If you take away the Cowboys game, which is proving to be an outlier, Jackson has four catches on seven targets for 82 yards and no touchdowns in five games. Plus, 38 of those yards were nullified by an inexplicable fumble against the Chiefs.
Yesterday was more of the same as his struggles continued, catching just one pass on three targets for 11 yards with a drop mixed in. It’s getting to the point where he has more negative plays than positive ones and at 35-years-old, he can’t be part of the team’s future plans.
So, if Jackson isn’t producing and helping the Raiders make a playoff push while also having little to no value beyond this season, it begs the question of why he’s still on the field? Hopefully, the coaching staff tweaks the depth chart and gives more opportunities to some younger wideouts like Tyron Johnson moving forward.
WINNER: Johnathan Abram
Monday was arguably the best game of Johnathan Abram’s career. As far as PFF grades go, he set personal-bests in overall defense (75.4) and coverage (73.6) and had his third-highest single-game grade as a run defender (70.7).
Abram also set a career-high with five defensive stops and led the team with nine total tackles yesterday. Of those five stops, two came in coverage - tied for the second-most among safeties for the week - and the other three were against the run - also tied for second at the position.
What might be most impressive about his play as a run defender is he was able to make an impact with every tackle. He had three tackles against Cleveland’s ground game and all three were stops, giving him a run stop rate of 15.8 percent, which is third-best among safeties for the week, and a -1.3-yard average depth of tackle that ranked second.
However, Abram’s play in coverage might have been even more impressive. He was targeted five times and did allow all five to be completed, but for only 26 yards, an 88.3 passer rating and just one first down.
We’ve come to expect solid run defense from the hard-hitting defensive back but the growth he showed in coverage yesterday is what’s really encouraging. Granted, he did leave the game early with a separated shoulder and will undergo an MRI, so his status for the final three games of this season is in question. Nonetheless, Monday’s game was one Abram can build off moving forward.
LOSER: Cory Littleton
To be fair, Littleton lands on this week’s losers list not necessarily for what he did or didn’t do on the field, but because he was barely on it.
Since joining the Silver and Black last season, Littleton has played in 28 games and started 27 of them. The lone outlier being yesterday’s contest in Cleveland.
Not only did the 2020 free agent signing play a second-string role, but also only registered five defensive snaps. That’s his lowest total in a regular-season game since Week 13 in 2017 and the fewest of any Raider defender that saw the field yesterday. Even Marquel Lee (22 snaps), who played a reserve linebacker role as well, got more playing time than Littleton did.
Littleton wasn’t listed on the injury report all week so this was a benching and one that has been coming for a few weeks now. He registered 53 defensive snaps on Thanksgiving four weeks ago, however, he’s only participated in 47 plays in the three games combined since then.
Part of the linebacker’s issues is missed tackles. He had 14 whiffs at a 15.4 percent rate last season and is at 11 and 10.4 percent this season after managing to add one missed tackle in limited action yesterday. That’s a mistake you just can’t have if you’re already in the doghouse.
WINNER: Alex Leatherwood
A week ago, Alex Leatherwood landed on the losers list for an abysmal performance in pass protection. Well, a lot changes in a week as he’s a winner this time around for his efforts as a pass blocker.
Leatherwood went from allowing nine pressures and earning a 0.0 PFF pass-blocking grade to pitching the first shutout of his career - 0 pressures allowed - and 84.0 grade in pass protection. That would be what we call a dramatic improvement.
That grade was good enough for a top-10 ranking among guards for the week - and was one spot higher than Quenton Nelson’s - and, as I’m sure you could have imagined, zero pressures surrendered was the fewest in the NFL. Not bad for a guy that was literally at the bottom of both lists a week ago.
While one good game as in pass protection doesn’t erase all of the rookie’s struggles this year, it is a step in the right direction and a sign that he’s putting the work in to get better. Now it’s just a matter of stacking these types of outings on top of each other.
WINNER: Yannick Ngakoue
Don’t get me wrong, Yannick Ngakoue has been fantastic for the majority of the season. He leads the team in sacks with nine and is widely regarded as one of the best free-agent signings of the year, league-wide. However, he was a ghost yesterday.
Ngakoue played 40 snaps against the Browns and didn’t record a single tackle - solo or assisted - and only managed to generate one pressure. To make matters worse, Cleveland was missing three offensive tackles and moved guard Joel Bitonio to the outside, a position he had never played before in the NFL.
While Ngakoue has never been known for his prowess as a run defender, the Raiders are going to need to get more out of him than what he showed in that department yesterday. Getting blanked on the stat sheet is one thing, but recording the lowest PFF run-defense grade (28.8) among EDGEs is inexcusable and detrimental to the team’s efforts.
A grade that low means he was getting beaten badly and frequently as the Browns rushed for 6.3 yards per attempt towards the left (defense’s right) B-gap or wider. For comparison’s sake, they averaged 1.9 yards a carry in every other direction combined.
Again, the Raiders knew what they were getting when they signed the former Raven and Viking this offseason, a good pass rusher who struggles against the run. But his issues against the ground game become amplified when they aren’t met with success in putting the pressure on the quarterback. That will be especially true during the team’s next two games against the Broncos and Colts, both of whom have run-first offenses.