Well, I have some crow to eat and some apologizing to do.
After the Las Vegas Raiders got blown out by the Kansas City Chiefs for the second time this season, I gave up on the 2021-22 Raiders and started focusing my X-Factors column on players that might have a future with the team, rather than ones that will impact the outcome of the game. However, the Silver and Black have won each of their three games since then and will earn a playoff spot with one more W.
So, I’m sorry, I know you all are devastated and hopefully you all can find it in your hearts to forgive me!
With that, we’ll shift the focus back to the guys who will likely play a major role for the last week of the season, and the Raiders have a tough matchup on Sunday Night Football. They draw the Los Angeles Chargers, a team they’ve already lost to and are currently three-point home underdogs to on DraftKings Sportsbook.
That’s going tough battle for Las Vegas to win, but they have weapons in their arsenal if they can get major contributions from the players below.
Is listing Derek Carr, the starting quarterback, as an X-Factor a cop-out? Absolutely. But it’d be remiss of me to not mention how big and important this game is for Carr.
He’s said it, the owner of the team has said it, and both head coaches have said it, this season has always been playoffs or bust from the Raiders. And while I’m not a wins and losses are a quarterback stat guy, an eight-year veteran who has only led his team to the postseason once certainly has something to prove.
On the other side of the coin, the situation around Carr has undoubtedly been terrible over the years and this season has been no different. Yes, the Raiders did start the year with plenty of talent around him, but I don’t know of many quarterbacks that have had to deal with a mid-season scandal from their head coach, losing their best wide receiver halfway through the year, and playing without their top target for six games.
Yet despite all of that, Carr still has a chance to carry the team to the tournament, and overcoming it all would certainly bolster his legacy with the organization.
Now, he’ll have to do so against the team that held him to 196 yards last time around — his lowest total of the season — and that was with Jon Gruden on the sidelines and Henry Ruggs and Darren Waller on the field. Winning and losing on Sunday could be the difference between the franchise leader in passing yards and touchdowns sticking around or finding a new home in the offseason, especially if a new coaching staff is on the way.
I’ll start this section by addressing the Nate Hobbs’ situation. At this time, I have no idea if Hobbs will be playing on Sunday as it’s an ongoing legal matter. For now, I’ll assume he isn’t since Mark Davis could easily step in and suspend him, especially with the way this year has gone in regards to off-the-field issues for the organization.
In that case, and shifting the focus back to the field, the Raiders do have a formidable backup option in Keisean Nixon.
When Hobbs was on the reserve/COVID-19 list against the Browns and Broncos, Nixon stepped in and the defense barely skipped a beat. The backup was targeted four times in those two contests and allowed four receptions, but surrendered just 21 yards and a passer rating of 84.2 while taking nearly all of his defensive snaps as the team’s nickel corner. He also mixed in four stops - two in coverage and two against the run - so essentially, he perfectly executed what Gus Bradley’s system asks of a slot defender.
However, Nixon hasn’t faced a slot receiver quite like Keenan Allen.
Allen has made a name for himself as one of the best interior pass-catchers in the league over the years and this year has been no different. With his innate route running ability, the Cal product has 55 catches for 584 yards from the slot which ranks tied for ninth and ninth among all wideouts, respectively.
The good news is, he hasn’t been terribly effective after the catch this season. On the campaign, Allen has only forced three missed tackles — none since Week 2 — and only averages 3.2 yards after the catch per reception from the slot. The latter figure ranks 46th out of 55 qualifying receivers.
That bodes well for Nixon and the Raiders as the defensive back should be able to get the five-time Pro Bowler on the ground. However, he’ll still need to be at least somewhat sticky in coverage and prevent completions seeing as Allen has 63 first downs on the year, the fifth-most among wide receivers, despite not being prolific after the catch.
This year has been a tale of two seasons for Andre James.
One where was Pro Football Focus’ lowest-graded center (42.0) in Weeks 1-6, and another where he’s ranked seventh (76.9) for the same metric in the 10 games since then. Also, his pass-blocking efficiency rating improved from 97.9 - tied for 19th at the position - to 99.0 - tied for seventh.
The growth that James has shown over the course of the year has made him go from a questionable offseason decision to a potential building block for the organization moving forward. But he has consistently struggled when facing a dominant nose tackle like the one the Chargers have.
Linval Joseph might be 33 years old with the prime of his career well behind him, but make no mistake about it, he can still wreck an offense’s game plan.
Despite missing three games, Joseph ranks tied for 22nd among interior defensive linemen with 27 defensive stops this season. That’s even more impressive considering that ranking includes three-technique defensive tackles who face fewer double teams than their zero- or one-technique counterparts.
The last time the Raiders and Chargers squared off, the 12-year veteran managed to rack up three stops — tied for his second-most in a single game this season — while James earned his second-lowest PFF run-blocking grade (45.4) of the year.
Beyond the ground game, Joseph has been effective as a pass rusher this season as well. His 83.0 pass-rush grade ranks seventh among defensive tackles and a 13.1 percent win rate is good enough to tie for 20th. Again, those rankings include three techniques.
So, James has his work cut out for him, but he also has an opportunity to show how much he’s grown on a national stage while simultaneously helping the organization clinch its second postseason berth since 2003.
With growing optimism that Darren Waller will return to action this week, Hunter Renfrow could be in for one hell of a one-on-one battle on Sunday.
The Chargers have allowed more yards and touchdowns to tight ends than any other team in the NFL this season, so I’d imagine they’ll deploy as many resources as possible to try and stop Waller. That should leave Renfrow and Chris Harris Jr. isolated in the slot.
Over his 11-year career, Harris has established himself as one of the best nickel corners in the league and it’s been more of the same in 2021-22. In the slot, he’s only been targeted once every 7.7 coverage snaps and allows one reception per 13.7 coverage snaps while surrendering a minuscule 0.86 yards per pass play. Those numbers rank tied for fifth, fourth and fifth, respectively.
Harris has blanketed slot receivers in the AFC West for years now, however, Renfrow is more than a worthy adversary as an up and comer.
On the inside this season, the 2019 fifth-round pick has 53 grabs — tied for 11th among wideouts — for 600 yards and an 84.2 receiving grade from PFF, both rank sixth. He’s become Carr’s top target, especially with Waller out the last five and a half weeks, and is now widely regarded as one of the best slots in the game.
Renfrow is a big reason why the team has managed to stay alive over the last month or so and for better or worse, that won’t change on Sunday. If he can find a way to break free from one of the best nickels in the NFL over the last decade, that’ll go a long way towards the Raiders’ final playoff push. Get your popcorn ready because this is about to be a heavyweight fight — figuratively, not literally.
I feel like a broken record because I think every week for the past four weeks I’ve listed Divine Deablo as a potential x-factor and here we are again. This time around, my rationale is more predicated on the matchup he’s facing as it will undoubtedly be a tough one.
Running back Austin Ekeler is another player for the Bolts that has established himself as one of the league’s best at his position. His 847 rushing yards are the 12th-most in the NFL and he boasts an impressive 4.5 yards per carry to go along with 11 rushing touchdowns, the fifth-most among running backs. Obviously, that’s something Deablo will have to contend with, and he’s more than capable of slowing Ekeler down on the ground.
Since Week 13, the rookie ranks 13th among linebackers with a 79.3 run defense grade and managed to accumulate seven-run stops. The latter ranks 9th among rookie backers for the entire season despite everyone else having essentially a 12-game head start. However, the ground game is only part of what makes Ekeler so great.
The five-year pro is an excellent receiver out of the backfield and leads all running backs in receiving yards (612) and touchdowns (seven) while ranking third in receptions (65) and seventh in yards per route run (1.7). This is where the assignment could get tricky for Deablo.
Coverage has been the one area where he’s struggled a bit. The third-round pick has been targeted 14 times and allowed 12 receptions for 156 yards and a 113.1 passer rating on the campaign. That’s resulted in a PFF coverage grade of 47.7, the sixth-lowest mark of any rookie linebacker.
The good news is, Deablo is coming off his best performance in coverage against the Colts, where he surrendered just one reception on three targets for six yards and a 44.2 passer rating. Those were the first two incompletions he’s seen when targeted, and he also was able to notch his first pass breakup of the season with a nice force out in the back of the endzone right before halftime.
LB Divine Deablo in coverage near goal line. Responsible for #3 if he runs across field, does good job getting eyes on the WR, get hands on, turns and runs to contest this catch leading to incompletion.#RaiderNation pic.twitter.com/GgWuAv2hHC— Ryan Holmes, MBA (@Rholm22) January 4, 2022
So, the question is can the rookie build off last week’s outstanding performance in coverage? The Raiders sure hope so.