Josh McDaniels knows what awaits his offense this Sunday. Unprompted — in his opening statement during his Wednesday press conference, in fact — the Las Vegas Raiders head coach spoke highly of the incoming Denver Broncos defense.
“They’re playing well on defense right now, good pass rush, very good pass rush. They play a lot of tight coverage, they’re pretty good in the defensive backfield,” McDaniels said. “(Pat) Surtain and (Ronald) Darby may be one of the best duos that we’re going to see all year. They’ve been keeping people out of the end zone, creating turnovers, forced more fumbles than any team in the league so far. So, that’ll be a big challenge.”
Spotlighting the Broncos’ Surtain and Darby is apt. The cornerback duo is proving stout in coverage through three games allowing less than 50 yards, respectively, according to Pro Football Reference (PRF) and will be a great challenge for the Raiders’ seventh-ranked passing attack (in both attempts, 121, and yards, 800). Las Vegas is ranked eighth in touchdown passes with six. Denver’s pass defense, on the other hand, is ranked third in yards allowed (510) and touchdowns allowed (three).
Hence Denver’s secondary, particularly the top two cornerbacks, being a primary concern for Las Vegas. Surtain, at 6-foot-2, 202 pounds, is just as sticky in coverage as his father Patrick Surtain was during the senior’s playing days What separates the younger Surtain, however, is size and speed to shadow receivers. According to PFR, Surtain has drawn 15 targets allowing eight completions (53.3 percent) for 45 yards and zero touchdowns. Opposing quarterbacks sport a 59.0 rating going his way, and of that 45 yards, four are yards after the catch (YAC).
“Patrick Surtain obviously is a very good player in their back end,” said Raiders offensive coordinator Mick Lombardi. “He can change direction, he can play on the ball, he presses elite guys on the perimeter.”
Darby is equally effective in coverage. The 5-foot-11, 193-pound corner is charted with 13 targets and four completions (30.8 percent) for 42 yard and one touchdown. Opposing quarterbacks sport a 66.8 rating throwing at Darby and of those 42 yards, 13 are YAC.
Surtain and Darby are more than capable of covering the Raiders’ weaponry that boasts Davante Adams (189 yards and three touchdowns on 17 catches), Mack Hollins (240 yards and a score on 14 catches), and Darren Waller (151 yards and a touchdown on 13 receptions) — 1-on-1 even without help over the top, if need be. In addition, the Broncos’ duo is supported by a pass rush led by Bradley Chubb (three sacks, eight pressures), Dre’Mont Jones (two sacks, four pressures), and Randy Gregory (two sacks, six pressures).
“From top down, they’re a very talented group. And then the two edge players, Chubb and Gregory are very skilled players,” Lombardi said. “So, they have great speed, they have good quickness, and they can get up the field fast. They can play against the run and set the edge. When you look at the whole unit, they can cover, they can pass rush, and they can play against the run.”
On the Raiders’ side of things, the concern regarding their own secondary is warranted. Their top two corners — Nate Hobbs and Rock Ya-Sin — were dinged up against the Tennessee Titans last week. Hobbs suffered a concussion and is in protocol and hasn’t practiced. Ya-Sin, on the other hand, hurt his knee but is practicing but is listed as a limited participant. According to PRF, Hobbs drew 21 targets allowing 15 for completions (71.4 percent) for 96 yards and zero touchdowns. Quarterbacks sport an 80.7 rating going his way and of his yardage, 60 are YAC — not surprising since he’s played in the slot as well as outside. Ya-Sin, meanwhile, drew 18 targets and allowed eight to be caught (44.4 percent) for 79 yards and no scores. Opposing quarterbacks rate 57.4 throwing at him and of his yardage, 30 are YAC.
With Anthony Averett already on injured reserve and Hobbs recovering from the concussion (Hobbs did get a full practice in on Friday), that leaves Ya-Sin, Amik Robertson, rookie Sam Webb and perhaps a practice squad call up like slot specialist and veteran Nickell Robey-Coleman as the options at cornerback for Las Vegas against Denver this Sunday. That group faces the likes of Denver wide receivers Courtland Sutton (291 yards on 19 catches) and Jerry Jeudy (130 yards and a touchdown on seven catches).
“The thing about Sam, the improvements since he’s gotten here, has been really good in terms of just learning how to study,” Raiders defensive coordinator Patrick Graham said of the young cornerback. “The other thing is he’s big, he’s long, he’s fast, and he has the willingness to be physical. So, right there, those are a lot of the traits we’re looking for from that defensive back position. As he gets more and more opportunities, he’s just got to take advantage of it.”
If Hobbs is a no-go, expect Webb and others to be given opportunities out of sheer necessity.