While it might feel like the Las Vegas Raiders have accomplished their goals by making the NFL playoffs, but as the late Kobe Bryant said — and Derek Carr reiterated after the Raiders win on Sunday night — “the job’s not finished.”
Now that they’re in the tournament, Las Vegas has a new goal: bring a bright and shiny new Lombardi Trophy back to the City of Lights. However, the first step in that goal is to beat the Cincinnati Bengals as 5 1/2-point road underdogs on DraftKings Sportsbook this weekend.
It’s going to be an uphill battle for the Silver and Black, but if they can get key contributions from the players below, they’ll have a good chance at pulling off the upset.
Brandon Facyson & Desmond Trufant
Originally, I was going to leave this one as just Brandon Facyson but the Raiders have been using more of a committee approach for their No. 2 cornerback spot in recent weeks.
Desmond Trufant has participated in 177 defensive snaps since joining the team in Week 7, with 118 or about 67 percent of his total snaps coming in the last three weeks. When Facyson was on the reserve/COVID-19 list against the Broncos, Trufant stepped in as the starter. In the two contests since then, the midseason acquisitions split time with Facyson serving as the starter but Trufant has a slight lead in the rep count, 77 to 74, and they complement each other pretty well.
The former Charger has excellent ball skills, evidenced by his 11 forced incompletions that rank just outside the top 10 for corners this season, despite that he’s played in a minimum of three fewer games and has fewer targets than all but one player in the top 10. Meanwhile, the former Falcon is stickier in coverage and a sure tackler who has only allowed nine yards after the catch since moving to Las Vegas. And the Raiders are going to need both to show up on Saturday.
Record-setter Ja’Marr Chase grabs the headlines of the receiving corps, but what makes Cincinnati's passing attack so lethal is they have an abundance of other weapons like fellow wideout Tee Higgins.
Higgins has 74 catches for 1,091 yards and six touchdowns on the year and owns a PFF receiving grade of 83.8 that ranks 11th among receivers, one spot and 0.2 points behind Chase. Part of what makes the 2020 second-round pick so dangerous is he’s excellent in contested catch situations. He’s tied for fifth among wideouts with 16 contested grabs this season, and while he’s only sitting at a 44.4 percent success rate on such targets, he’s hauled in eight of the last ten from starting quarterback Joe Burrow.
That poses a significant threat for the Raiders seeing as Facyson struggles to stay attached to receivers, as he’s allowed the most receiving yards on the team (546) and has the highest frequency of receptions allowed with one every 8.2 coverage snaps. Meanwhile, Trufant has only two forced incompletions at an eight percent rate since joining the team.
So, this can go one of a few ways. Las Vegas deploys the perfect one-two punch to stick with Higgins in coverage and defend against his contested-catch skills with pass breakups at the catch point, or one, or both of the corners’ weaknesses gets exposed and it’s a long day for the secondary.
For the entire year, and especially in the last few weeks, Quinton Jefferson’s pass rush production has gone relatively unnoticed. That isn’t to say he hasn’t been productive, but he isn’t getting the recognition he deserves.
Jefferson has accumulated 46 pressures on the campaign, which is not only a career-high but also ranks 13th among defensive tackles and more than a few big names like Dexter Lawrence, Vita Vea and Fletcher Cox. Also, the free-agent signing finished the regular season tied for 15th with a 6.1 PRP rating — one of PFF’s pass-rushing productivity metrics.
Over the last three weeks of the Raiders’ impressive run, Jefferson has been even better. He leads all interior defensive linemen with 18 pressures, which is four more than Jonathan Allen in second place and six more than Aaron Donald in third. As far as PRP goes, Jefferson is the top dog in that metric as well with a 13.9 mark, 1.7 points greater than the guy one spot behind him during that timeframe.
That should come in handy against the Bengals interior offensive line, Trey Hopkins, Quinton Spain and Hakeem Adeniji, who rank 47th, 59th and 112th, respectively, in PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency rating out of 128 centers and guards.
However, Jefferson might need to step up the most as a run defender, especially now that Darius Philon is out for the playoffs.
That’s never been a strength for the six-year veteran and he has a career-low 42.4 run defense grade this season, which is 125th out of 152 qualifying defensive tackles. He’s also in the bottom 25 for average depth of tackle against the run at 3.3 yards.
Slowing down Joe Mixon and Cincy’s ground game was Vegas' biggest problem defensively in Week 11, so that will certainly be an emphasis for both sides this time around.
Speaking of running the ball and the Raiders’ resurgence over the last month, Josh Jacobs might have put together the biggest turnaround on the entire team during the winning streak.
In Weeks 1 through 14, Jacobs played in 11 games and had 133 carries for 496 yards — 3.7 per carry — and seven touchdowns, averaging out to about 45 yards per game and a score in roughly two out of every three contests. Since then, he’s had 84 rushes, 376 yards — 4.5 per attempt — and two touchdowns in four games, so averages of 94 yards per game and a rushing TD every other contest. Aside from the slight dip in scoring, that’s a massive improvement and has a lot to do with Jacobs’ ability to make defenders miss.
Using that same timeframe, the 2019 first-round pick forced 30 missed tackles in the beginning of the season compared to 27 in the last four outings. The latter is seven more than any other running back and elevated him from 15th to tied for third in that metric for the entire season.
Jacob’s uptick in production has come at the perfect time as Las Vegas is desperately going to need to get their rushing attack going this weekend, especially with how the game went last time against Cincinnati.
The Bengals dominated the time of possession battle by nearly an entire quarter — 37:20 to 22:40 — last time against the Raiders, and part of the reason was Jacobs was limited to just nine carries. That left the Silver and Black’s defense out on the field for way too long and led to the scoreboard looking much more lopsided than it should have.
This time around, Las Vegas needs to flip those numbers on their heads and feature their main back more in the offensive game plan. With how many weapons the Bengals have on offense, the Raiders don’t have enough ammunition to win in a shootout so they need to play ball control and try to shorten the game by focusing on the rushing attack.
Collectively, the Raiders earned their highest run-blocking grade (84.1) of the season against the Bengals, and Jacobs had his third-highest yards after contact per attempt (3.56), so the opportunities should be there on Saturday. It’s just a matter of if they can capitalize and maintain that rate of production with what should be a much bigger sample size.
While Las Vegas has had plenty of instability within its offensive line this season, Kolton Miller has been about as stable as they come.
He’s earned overall PFF grades of 70 or higher in 11 out of 17 games, compared to just two sub-60 marks, and he finished the regular season as the site’s eighth-highest graded offensive tackle (84.2). That’s a massive improvement from his rookie season four years ago.
Despite all of that and being the highest-graded tackle in the AFC, Miller hasn’t received very much recognition and was left off of the conference’s Pro Bowl roster. However, he has a chance to make a name for himself and prove a lot of people wrong by shutting down a top-tier pass rusher this weekend.
While playing for the New Orleans Saints a year ago, Trey Hendrickson managed to tie Aaron Donald for the second-most sacks in the league with 13.5. That was good enough to earn him a four-year, $60 million contract from the Bengals in the offseason, and he managed to replicate his efforts with 14 sacks in 16 games for 2021. Granted, his ranking did fall from second to fifth.
But Hendrickson is more than just a sack artist who pops up with a few flashy plays every now and again. He ranks third among all defenders with 75 pressures despite rushing the passer 89 fewer times than second-place finisher Myles Garrett, and 143 fewer times than Maxx Crosby who’s in first. Also, the Bengal boasts the fourth-best pass rush win rate (20.6 percent) and sixth-best pass-rush grade (83.9) among edge defenders.
In Week 11, Miller and Hendrickson had an epic back and forth battle where the pass rusher had the slight upper hand. The former surrendered three pressures — one sack and two hurries — to the former. Hopefully, it will be a different story this time around.
Cincinnati is one of the worst teams in the league at defending tight ends. They’ve allowed 96 catches, 1,083 yards and eight touchdowns to the position this season. Those numbers are the fourth-, fifth- and tied for the sixth-most, respectively, in the league.
While that might scream that a big day is coming for Darren Waller to some, Waller is still coming off an injury and didn’t look like himself in his first game back last week. Also, he caught eight of seven targets for 116 yards last time against Cincinnati, so the Raiders’ superstar will certainly have the defense’s attention this time, opening things up for other pass-catchers.
Foster Moreau had a solid outing in Week 11 too, he just only played in 17 snaps and was overshadowed by Waller.
Moreau saw just two targets in the last matchup but was able to cash in on one of them to the tune of a 19-yard touchdown on a contested catch. Las Vegas could certainly use some production from a pass-catcher not named Waller or Hunter Renfrow, so look for the team’s second tight end to get some opportunities on Saturday.
But beyond making as a receiver, Moreau’s blocking should play a big role this Saturday as well. In that same contest a couple of months ago, he earned his third-highest run-blocking grade of the season (72.3) and helped out in pass protection with a 70.6 mark in that realm.
Above, I mentioned how crucial the Silver and Black’s rushing attack will be this time around, and how Cincy has a good pass rush. So whether it’s in the air, on the ground or protecting the quarterback, expect to see Moreau get some more action and play a big role in this game.