For these next couple of weeks, the mission is pretty simple for the Las Vegas Raiders. Win both games and make the playoffs for the first time since 2016 and the second time in about the last 20 years.
Lose one of the two contests and completing said mission becomes a lot more difficult, as the Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Chargers stand in the Raiders’ way.
Indianapolis heads to Las Vegas as one of the hottest teams in the conference, winning eight of their last ten, and as seven-point favorites on DraftKings Sportsbook. So, the Silver and Black have a tough checkpoint to cross this Sunday.
You’ll have to bear with me a bit for this week’s x-factors as I’m going to take a slightly different approach and look at position battles rather than dive into details on specific players. With so many guys on the reserve/COIVD-19 list for each team, I figured it’d be more beneficial to touch on more key participants rather than focus on someone whose role might change in the next 24 hours.
In a perfect world, Darius Philon clears protocols and Johnathan Hankins is healthy enough to suit up. The Colts have a run-heavy offense with MVP-candidate Jonathan Taylor (+600) -second-best odds to win the award on DraftKings - toting the rock, and he should get even more opportunities as starting quarterback Carson Wentz is on the COVID list.
Philon had a career game last week while filling in for Hankins, with three run stops and the seventh-best PFF run-defense grade (75.7) among defensive tackles for the week. Even if the latter can go, I’d expect to see the two of them on the field at the same time this week as the former has the size and experience to play as a three-technique. The only problem is Philon needs to get off the daunted COVID list.
If he doesn't that would leave Quinton Jefferson in the starting lineup, who also had a good outing against the Broncos, but more as a pass rusher. The veteran defensive tackle had seven pressures which tied for the position lead last week with Aaron Donald and Tershawn Wharton.
However, Jefferson wasn’t as stout against the run and that’s never been his forte. Obviously, that could be an issue this weekend.
The Colts’ interior offensive line is made up of perennial All-Pro in Quenton Nelson, Danny Pinter who has shined in recent weeks while Ryan Kelly has been out, and Mark Glowinski. Pinter ranks tied for sixth among centers with a 77.3 run-blocking grade over the last four weeks, while Glowinski boasts a 71.1 mark for the entire season. It’s also worth noting that Kelly returned to the team this week, so Indy will have plenty of options to bolster its rushing attack.
For a lot of the same reasons as defensive tackle, most notably stopping the run, the Raiders’ linebackers will play a vital role against the Colts. The problem is, who is going to be suiting up?
Starters Denzel Perryman and K.J. Wright are on the reserve/COVID list while reserves Cory Littleton, Will Compton and Patrick Onwuasor are in the same boat. As things stand, that leaves rookie Divine Deablo as the only starter who is cleared to play on Sunday.
Deablo has been excellent against the run since he started receiving more playing time in Week 13. In the last four weeks, he has six stops against the run and ranks eighth with an 83.7 run defense grade, and that's after a quiet performance against Denver.
Other than the Virginia Tech product, the Raiders only have one linebacker who was active last week and is currently able to play on Sunday, Marquel Lee, who has only registered 34 defensive snaps this season.
The organization did bring in Kyle Wilber and Justin March-Lillard as reinforcements at the position. However, both have primarily been special teamers throughout their careers.
So, while linebacker will certainly be an important spot for Las Vegas this week, it’s also going to be a wildcard.
Interior offensive line
Unlike the previous two positions, the Silver and Black’s offensive line has managed to steer clear of any COVID protocols as backup guard Jordan Simmons is the only big ugly on the active roster listed on the reserve list. However, the team’s interior linemen will have their hands full on Sunday.
DeForest Buckner has become one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL and currently ranks eighth at the position with 45 pressures on the year. But beyond Buckner, Grover Stewart is also putting together a strong campaign with 21 pressures of his own and a respectable 69.0 PFF grade.
John Simpson, Andre James and Alex Leatherwood will have to be at their best when it comes to pass protection, which has been a weakness for the two guards. Leatherwood has allowed the most pressures at the position with 60 while Simpson isn’t too far behind him, tied for ninth-most with 34. Meanwhile, James sits in the middle of the pack among centers for that metric with 16 surrendered on the campaign.
However, what might make the biggest difference and go the furthest towards a Raiders win, is how they perform as run blockers.
Las Vegas set season-highs on the ground last week, due in large part to the play of Leatherwood and James. Also, Buckner currently has a career-low run defense grade - 58.0, 11.5 points lower than his previous worst season - for what it’s worth. Stewart has graded out higher but not by much with just a 65.3 mark.
So the Raiders could have a very similar game plan to last week, placing a strong emphasis on the ground game. In other words, expect an old-school, grind-it-out type of game from both squads, in honor of John Madden.