With both teams coming off a bye week, there’s no excuse for the visiting Houston Texans and host Las Vegas Raiders to not be firing on all cylinders in Sunday’s upcoming clash in the desert. And what a contest it should be.
Despite both squads marching in with one victory into the game, the Texans (1-3-1 overall) present quite the challenge for the Raiders’ (1-4) defense — specifically run defense.
Houston showcases impressive rookie running back Dameon Pierce. The fourth-round pick (107th overall) out of Florida boasts a 412-yard, three-touchdown stat line on 86 carries (4.8 yards per carry average). Pierce found the end zone in each of the Texans’ last three games. The 5-foot-10, 212-pounder ranks eighth (before Thursday night’s game) in the league and is the youngest tailback in the top 10 in league rushing at 22 years old (the New York Jets Breece Hall, who is 21, ranks 14th).
Las Vegas, on the other hand, sports the No. 2 overall rushing defense in the league in terms of yards yielded (516). The Silver & Black is tied with the Tennessee Titans for that distinction. Only the Buffalo Bills (457) have allowed less. The Raiders are also ranked fifth in the league in yards per carry average at 5.0 and tied for fifth in rushing yards per game allowed (103.2). Las Vegas, however, is in a five-way tie at 14th for rushing touchdowns allowed with five. The Titans hold the league’s top distinction in that category with just one rushing touchdown yielded.
The Texans are likely going to feed Pierce early and often when they go toe-to-toe with the Raiders inside Allegiant Stadium. Houston’s offense overall is ranked 30th in the league in yards gained and 26th in points scored. Past performance is not always indicative of future contributions, however, in the Texans first win of the season — a 13-6 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars two weeks ago — Houston gave Pierce the rock 26 times and he churned out 99 yards and a touchdown. Flip it to the Raiders rush defense and the team comes out of the bye week hiatus allowing 103 rushing yards in the 30-29 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, two weeks ago.
Pierce is a tough inside runner who welcomes contact and looks to bounce off would-be tacklers. His vision is good for an NFL neophyte and he has the burst to break free and run away from defenders. He can take advantage of holes created by Houston’s offensive line or create something out of nothing.
Las Vegas’ ability to control the line of scrimmage looms large. A big part of the team’s ability to stymie the run is the defensive line — particularly the interior — dictating the pace. This frees up both edge rushers and linebackers to clean up the noise with blockers occupied by the big uglies on the interior. Maxx Crosby is a well-rounded edge for Las Vegas as he leads the team in not only sacks, but tackles for loss with 11.
The onus of bringing Pierce down if he breaks the initial level of the Raiders defense will be on linebackers Denzel Perryman (16 total tackles, four stops for loss), Divine Deablo (team-leading 48 total tackles) and Blake Martinez. The loss of cornerback Nate Hobbs (placed on injured reserve due to a broken hand and surgery) hurts Las Vegas defense as he’s a ready and willing defender who gets dirty defending the run as he’s a solid tackler (28 solo tackles, three stops for loss) from the defensive back spot.
What will be something to watch is when Pierce and hard-hitting Raiders safety Jonathan Abram collide. Las Vegas often deploys Abram near or at the line of scrimmage to help against the run and rush the passer. If Pierce builds speed and breaks free and Abram comes downhill from his safety spot full speed, the collision will be interesting to watch because both can provide a wallop.
Simply put, however, the Raiders must be sure tacklers against the punishing Pierce. According to Pro Football Reference, Las Vegas ranks 11th in the league in missed tackles with 34. The site charts Perryman with the most at four, Hobbs, Deablo, Rock Ya-Sin and Chandler Jones follow with three apiece.
Raiders defensive coordinator Patrick Graham was asked about the team’s missed tackles. the query was initially framed with “When you have guys in the right place and they just missed a tackle, that’s not on you” statement.
“I’m in charge of the defense, with the leadership and guidance of our head coach, and it is on me. That will never change,” Graham answered. “I know the players they put it on themselves at times and stuff like that, but it’s my job to have us prepared to stop what we got to stop and it’s my job to get them executing the way you need to execute. So, my answer won’t change on that. Appreciate the sentiment, but it’s always on me.”
Thus, it’s on Graham to ensure his defense is ready to combat the capable Pierce.