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Las Vegas Raiders: 3 key matchups against Chargers

Big focus on the passing game this week

Los Angeles Chargers v Las Vegas Raiders
Darren Waller
Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images

A rivalry that dates back to the early days of professional football as two original AFL teams, the Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers, are set to square off against on Monday Night Football this week. Of course, both organizations were in different cities back then, but the pure hatred for one another has traveled.

The Raiders lead the series 66-55-2, but the teams split the two games they played against each other last season, and the Chargers have had the upper hand for the better part of the last decade. However, there’s even more on the line this year, even if it is only Week Four.

Las Vegas currently is tied for the AFC West lead with the Denver Broncos and Los Angeles is only one game behind them. That leaves the Kansas City Chiefs as the current cellar-dwellers, but they’re far too talented to stay there for long, raising the stakes for these early-season interdivisional matchups.

The division is up for grabs and every team in it is fighting for positioning, so while it’s still warm outside, this game between the Raiders and Chargers has a late-December/playoff-type of feel to it. That means the Silver and Black are going to need to win several one-on-one matchups.

Nate Hobbs vs Keenan Allen

Las Vegas Raiders v Pittsburgh Steelers
Nate Hobbs
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

I touched on this in my X-factors column the other day, Nate Hobbs draws another tough matchup this week as Keenan Allen awaits him in Los Angeles.

Over the last few years, Allen has established himself as one of the league’s premier slot receivers. In three of the last four seasons, he’s had a top-five receiving grade when in the slot, according to Pro Football Focus, and the one year he fell out of that category was 2019, when he finished 11th.

Allen hasn’t been as impressive through three games in 2021, as his grade currently ranks 13th among wideouts, but he’s still been productive. The former Golden Bear has been targeted 15 times on the inside, resulting in 12 catches for 137 yards, a passer rating of 104.7 and eight first downs.

He’s tied for fourth in moving the chains from the slot with Hunter Renfrow and Cooper Kupp, and is only one behind Tyreek Hill and Chris Godwin for second, so that’s some pretty good company to be in.

Obviously, Hobbs will have his handsfull on Monday, but he’s no slouch himself and has plenty of impressive numbers as well.

The rookie has allowed 0.48 yards per coverage snap when covering the slot, which is sixth-best among cornerbacks with at least 21 coverage snaps on the inside. Also, his 84.1 passer rating when targeted from said alignment ranks 12th, and he is PFF’s highest-graded rookie corner while allowing just 4.8 yards per catch.

It will be a classic promising rookie versus proven veteran matchup, and Allen has terrorized the Silver and Black for years so hopefully, Hobbs can go out and show that will be changing moving forward.

Darren Waller vs Derwin James

Miami Dolphins v Las Vegas Raiders
Darren Waller
Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images

Whether you’re Derwin James or Darren Waller, these are the types of matchups you live for in the NFL. Not only is it a matter of the Raiders’ best offensive player versus the Chargers’ best defender - maybe second-best to Joey Bosa - but also it’s a battle between one of the best tight ends in the league and one of the best safeties, when healthy. Hell, even as a fan this is extremely enticing.

When I talked with Michael Peterson from Bolts From The Blue, Michael said he thinks James and Waller will be one-on-one against each other frequently on Monday night. James is typically Los Angeles’ go-to guy when it comes to taking away tight ends, slot receivers or running backs out of the backfield, and he did pretty well against Travis Kelce last week.

With the versatile defender on him, Kelce was targeted once and the pass fell incomplete. On the year, the Charger has allowed just 37 receiving yards and a passer rating of 76.7 as the primary coverage defender.

Unfortunately, James and Waller have only faced each other once in the past so there’s not much history to glean on. In that lone contest, the tight end caught the only pass thrown his way with the safety on him, gaining just one yard. The Raiders did win 24-17, though.

So, not only is this matchup between two of the league’s best at their respective positions, but it’s also one we haven't really seen before. While, yes, 2019 was Waller’s breakout campaign, he certainly wasn’t what he is today. Now, it’s a much more even matchup and Las Vegas’ superstar gets an opportunity to show why he’s elite on national television.

Yannick Ngakoue vs Rashawn Slater

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Las Vegas Raiders
Yannick Ngakoue
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In year’s past, the Chargers’ offensive line has been their Achilies heel so they’ve prioritized the position group over the last two offseasons, most notably signing Bryan Bulaga in 2020 and drafting Rashawn Slater last April. However, Bulaga is on injured reserve and won’t suit up this week, catapulting XFL legend Storm Norton into the starting lineup at right tackle.

Maxx Crosby has primarily played the left defensive end spot this season, so I’d imagine Los Angeles’ coaching staff will give their backup tackle some help in pass protection against the league-leader in pressures. That means Yannick Ngakoue should draw a lot of one-on-one matchups with Slater.

At first glance, that should favor the veteran but the rookie has been impressive in pass protection so far. He’s yet to allow a sack and has only surrendered five pressures on the year and even pitched a shutout in his NFL debut against Chase Young, Montez Sweat and the Washington Football Team.

For comparison’s sake, Kolton Miller has only pass blocked five more times than Slater this season, but Miller has given up three more pressures and has a slightly lower efficiency rating - 97.2 versus 98.1 - so far this season. And that’s not meant to take from what Miller has done this year, in fact, it’s the opposite and meant to highlight how well both guys have been playing.

Of course, Ngakoue has been phenomenal this year as well. The veteran pass rusher has accumulated 16 pressures this season, which is currently tied for eighth among edge defenders, and his 84.6 PFF pass rush grade ranks 11th.

If Crosby is going to draw a lot of double teams, then the Raiders are going to need Ngakoue to win his one-on-ones with Slater to get pressure on Justin Herbert. There’s no reason to believe the free-agent signing won’t be able to, but if I was writing about the Chargers, I’d say the same thing about the 13th overall pick.

This should be a really fun individual matchup to keep tabs on, and one that could be the first of many for several years to come.