The Las Vegas Raiders hope to clinch a playoff berth Sunday, but the division rival stands in the way. The Raiders are up against a team who is up and coming in the Los Angeles Chargers.
The Chargers are favorites of the football media because their head coach Brandon Staley makes the analytics crowd happy. The other choice is, of course, the QB out of Oregon Justin Herbert.
Herbert is off to a great start to his career. He has a combined 66 touchdowns his first two seasons as a starter and is third in ESPN's QBR metric in 2021. He has become a media darling and overtaken Patrick Mahomes for the AFC West's best QB in a few people's eyes.
Herbert has helped them become one of the most efficient offenses in the league. They are second in yards per drive, third in points per drive, and second, in football, outsiders drive success rate.
As the season played out, the Chargers could not remain consistent, and the offense had its up and downs late in the year. The Chargers have lost 2 out of their last three games, which had a 4-1 start in excellent playoff position down to 9-7.
How can the Raiders slow down Chargers? Let's take a look.
Stopping the run on first down.
At the beginning of the year, the Chargers barely ran the football, but that all changed late in the season. Austin Ekhler has become a focal point of the offense with a stronger focus on the running game. One of the changes has been the tendency to run on first down.
The offense for the Chargers has changed its philosophy from the first half of the season. On first down week 1-9, they ran the ball 43% of the time. That number has flipped to 56% of the time on first down, making them predictable.
However, it has been successful, with Ekhler averaging 4.8 yards per carry-on first down since Week 9. In their five wins down the stretch, the undrafted running back averages 5.34 YPC compared to 4.17 in their losses on the opening down.
The Raiders defense must focus, shut down the run game, and force the Chargers into 3rd and long situations.
Gus Bradley is known for just rushing four and not having a heavy blitz game at his disposal. When he does blitz, it usually catches teams off guard and gets home with examples last week vs. the Indianapolis Colts. Herbert is a different beast than Wentz, and rushing with just four could lead to disaster.
When facing pressure with four rushers or less, Herbert leads the league in passer rating with 99.1. When facing a blitz that gets home, it drops to 42.9, 27th. According to sports radar, his worst performances of the season feature a team that blitzed more than 26% of the time.
Why do the blitzes work against Herbert? Mainly by the design of their offense to feature running backs since it comes from the Gruden and Sean Peyton tree of the west coast. He can sometimes struggle with protections because he is still a second-year quarterback.
Check out the example below where the Raiders send five rushers, and since the running back didn't stay in the backfield, the shift of the line allows a free hit on the QB. Usually, a QB would slide to the right, which would allow an easy throw to Ekhler.
The Raiders blitzed 42% of the time in the second half vs the Chargers. Littleton points at Ekhler to fool Herbert and he doesn't slide the protection leaving a free rusher and an errant throw. pic.twitter.com/iMIpBHrQhJ— Marcus Johnson (@TheMarcJohnNFL) January 8, 2022
Raiders have to break tendencies to take this team down.
Batting down passes.
The finale of the keys to slow them down is one you wouldn't think for a tall QB. Since the Chargers are a quick passing offense, Herbert likes to get rid of the ball quickly. That is why if the Raiders don't get home, they have to get their hands up to knock down passes.
Herbert leads the league in batted passes with 15 on the year. It is an area the Raiders succeeded in the second half of their matchup with the Chargers from Week 4. They finished with two in the second half, which helped stall drives later in the matchup.
Herbert leads the league in BPs with 15 on the year. If the Raiders can't get home they have to watch his eyes and get their hands up. pic.twitter.com/BuGON89gSz— Marcus Johnson (@TheMarcJohnNFL) January 8, 2022
According to PFF, the Chargers only throw 20+ yards 8% of the time. The Raiders should not expect passes to go deep into the second level. As soon as they see Herbert start to wind up, it's time to jump.