Week Four feels a little late for the Las Vegas Raiders to have their first divisional matchup of the year, but the Raiders are headed to Southern California to take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Monday Night Football.
The Chargers are coming off their first AFC West game of the season, and it was a big one as they took down the Chiefs in Arrowhead. That adds some extra weight to this week’s bout as Los Angeles only trails Las Vegas and Denver by a game for the early division lead.
With the Broncos taking on the Ravens this Sunday, Monday’s game could easily determine who the top dog in the AFC West is through the first quarter of the season. It’s kind of expected with a rivalry game, but it will take a full-fledged effort for the Raiders to stay undefeated this week.
While Gus Bradley will likely never publicly admit it, this week’s game has to mean a little more to him than normal. He served as the Chargers’ defensive coordinator for four years and had a good amount of success, but was ultimately let go when the organization decided to make a change at the top.
Bradley hasn’t given any indication that he’s spiteful or wants to get back at his former team, but it’s human nature to want to “win the breakup” and show the other party that they made the wrong decision. The coach has familiarity with Los Angeles’ offensive weapons and surely has some knowledge about how to and how not to defend them, but that works the other way too, those players know him and his scheme.
In other words, the Raiders defense isn’t going to catch the Chargers’ offense by surprise if they don’t change the scheme up a little bit. That’s a huge advantage in the NFL since a lot of defenses succeed by catching quarterbacks off guard, especially against young ones.
So, how Bradley adjusts his game plan to give Justin Herbert and company different looks and keep them off balance will play a vital role in Las Vegas’ defensive success. Otherwise, if Herbert knows what to expect, it will be a lot easier for him to dink and dunk his way down the field.
Look for the Raiders to try and break some defensive tendencies this week.
Since we’re already on the topic of revenge games, why not talk about Casey Hayward?
To me, Hayward has a legitimate ax to grind with the Chargers. For four years, he played like a top-ten and maybe even top-five cornerback in the league, but he had one down year last season and they released him.
So, I’m sure the veteran is licking his chops at the opportunity to show his former employer that they made the wrong decision on national television.
Three games into the 2021 campaign, Hayward has been doing just that. His 82.8 overall PFF grade currently ranks second among corners with at least 47 snaps, and he’s in third with an 85.0 coverage grade. Also, the former Charger has allowed a reception once every 41.7 coverage snaps and a passer rating of 42.4 this season, both of which are third-best at the position.
However, this week will challenge Hayward, as I’m sure he knows.
Mike Williams is putting together a career year where his receiving grade (86.5) ranks fourth among wide receivers, mainly because of his 22 catches for 295 yards and four touchdowns. He’s also managed to find the end zone in every game. Williams is also coming off arguably the best game of his career after hauling in seven passes for 122 and two touchdowns in Kansas City.
Then there’s Keenan Allen, who has been terrorizing the Silver and Black for years. Granted, Allen does most of his work in the slot and Hayward is an outside corner, but Allen has lined up out wide 35.3 percent of the time this season and has been productive out there.
Of the veteran pass-catcher’s 21 receptions and 258 yards this year, nine and 121 have come out wide as well as his only touchdown on the year. That accounts for nearly half of his production as a whole, while he only spends about a third of his time out there.
As a Raider, Hayward has been up for every challenge that has been put before him so there’s no reason to think that will change anytime soon. But the stakes are certainly higher this week, for the team as a whole and him personally.
There’s no denying that Alex Leatherwood has struggled in pass protection so far this season. He’s allowed the fourth-most pressures among offensive tackles and has the sixth-worst pass-blocking efficiency rating. And while, yes, he’s faced some tough competition to begin his career, it’s not going to get any easier over these next few weeks.
The Raiders' next three opponents are the Chargers - obviously - Bears and Broncos, meaning Leatherwood will likely be going head-to-head with Joey Bosa, Khalil Mack and Von Miller, three premier pass rushers in the NFL.
We’ll take things one week at a time and focus on the rookie’s matchup with Bosa for now.
Since entering the league in 2016, Bosa has wreaked havoc on just about every team in the NFL, especially the Raiders. In seven games against the Silver and Black, he’s racked up six sacks, ten QB hits and eight tackles for loss. His sacks and tackles for loss numbers are the most and second-most he has against a single team during his six-year career.
Part of what makes Bosa such a great pass rusher is his use of hands. He’s like a ninja swiping away the arms of offensive linemen and that could cause problems for Leatherwood, who isn’t good with his hands.
The rookie is going to need to mix up and shore up the timing of his punches as well as making sure his footwork is down pat. Otherwise, it could be another long outing.
When Las Vegas signed Kenyan Drake, they made no secret that he was going to be the team’s receiving back. Jon Gruden even said that Drake might play some slot receiver at some point in the offseason.
So far, they’ve made good on that promise as Drake has almost as many targets (17) as he does carries (21). Plus, he’s fourth on the team in targets and receptions (13), ahead of starting wide receiver Bryan Edwards in both categories. Obviously, the running back is a big part of the Raiders passing attack, which could play a major role on Monday night.
The Chargers haven’t had much success stopping pass-catching backs so far this season. They’ve allowed 12 receptions on 16 targets for 95 yards and one touchdown, which might not seem like much on paper but is significant given their opponents.
Antonio Gibson, Tony Pollard and Clyde Edwards-Helaire are three running backs that Los Angeles has faced who currently have the most targets among running backs on their respective teams. However, none of them even rank in the top-20 for targets within the position group, while Drake ranks sixth, so the Bolts haven’t faced a passing attack that uses backs as the Raiders do.
Probably the closest or best comparison to how Las Vegas uses Drake among Los Angeles’ opponents would be how Dallas uses Pollard. Ezekiel Elliot is the Cowboys’ main back while Pollard is the receiving threat, similar to the dynamic between Josh Jacobs or Peyton Barber and Drake.
When Dallas went to Southern California, Pollard was targeted three times for three catches, 31 yards and two first downs. He also earned an elite PFF receiving grade for the game, so I think this is an area that hasn’t necessarily burned the Chargers just yet, but one the Raiders can attack and take advantage of.
From the moment he was drafted back in April, Nate Hobbs has answered the bell for the Raiders and won over the coaching staff.
He was the talk of training camp before preseason games even started because he was practicing so well, then when the games happened, he was as advertised and was one of the top performers league-wide during the preseason. Now, Hobbs has earned the fourth-highest coverage grade among cornerbacks via PFF and was extremely impressive against JuJu Smith-Schuster, a premier slot receiver in the league.
However, the rookie faces an even bigger test on Monday night as the aforementioned Allen awaits him.
As mentioned above, Allen lines up in the slot more times than not, and he’s one of the savviest route runners in the NFL. He can turn on a dime and has the innate ability to attack defensive back’s blind spots, giving even some of the best and most experienced corners trouble, which Las Vegas has plenty of first-hand experience dealing with.
In 13 games against the Silver and Black, the Cal product has 80 catches for 904 yards and five touchdowns, and that includes last year’s Week 14 matchup where he only played on about 35 percent of his team's offensive snaps.
So, Hobbs will certainly have his hands full once again this week, and the Raiders will need him to continue to step up and play the way he has all season. At this point, there’s no reason to think the fifth-round pick isn’t up for the challenge.