There are no delusions of grandeur when it comes to what awaits Patrick Graham’s Las Vegas Raiders defense Monday night. The long-time defensive coordinator has been in the game too long to make bombastic proclamations and instead kept it real on Tuesday.
Graham knows defending Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce is one hell of a task. It’s more about mitigation rather than elimination for Las Vegas’ defensive boss. And the Raiders get a date with the No. 10 ranked 2022 NFL Top 100 performer under the lights in Arrowhead, no less.
“I mean, an extreme challenge because whether it’s in the passing game, third down, red area, early down; he’s making plays all over the field,” Graham said Kelce during the coach’s his mid-week press conference. “And he’s done it for his whole career, so there is a track record of that, and what you got to do is figure out what your best plan is to try to help minimize it.
“I mean, you’re not going to stop him all the way. He’s too good of a player, but you got to try to minimize.”
Minimization of opposing tight ends is something the Silver & Black have been able to accomplish in the first four games of the season. The defense has yielded 19 catches, 218 yards, and two touchdowns to tight ends so far. That yardage total accounts for just 21 percent of the total 1,015 air yards the Raiders defense allows. The Arizona Cardinals’ Zach Erts holding the high-water mark with 8 catches for 75 yards back in Week 2. That’s the major caveat: None of the tight ends Las Vegas defended so far (be it the Cardinals, Las Angeles Chargers, Tennessee Titans, and Denver Broncos) are on the same level of Kelce.
The 33-year-old tight end is showing little signs of slowing down as the 6-foot-5, 256-pounder has 26 catches for 322 yards and three touchdowns for the 3-1 Chiefs. Kelce’s biggest game so far was the season-opener against the Cardinals where he caught eight passes for 121 yards and a score. His most recent outing, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this past Sunday night, saw Kelce snare nine passes for 92 yards and a touchdown.
For his career against the Raiders (16 games), Kelce’s racked up 1,226 yards and seven touchdowns on 87 catches (71.9 percent catch rate) in Kansas City’s 13-3 domination of the Silver & Black during that span. Fortunately for Las Vegas, the last time they faced Kelce, he was limited to three catches for 27 yards in Week 14 last season. The big caveat there however, is Kansas City won 48-9.
“Again, he’s fun to watch, and I think he plays with a certain joy or energy that you really look at and say, ‘I like this guy.’ Because he plays football,” Graham said of Kelce. “He enjoys being out there with his teammates and playing the game, and I respect that.”
Who’s Got Kelce?
Graham is no neophyte in defending Kelce. As the New York Giants defensive boss last season, Graham’s G-Men defenders limited the tight end to four catches for 27 yards and no scores in Week 8. Graham’s defense accomplished this by pitting then-Giants cornerback James Bradbury against Kelce. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound corner met both the tight end’s athleticism and physicality with ease.
Perhaps, Graham will do the same as Raiders defensive play caller? Matching up corners Nate Hobbs (6-feet, 195 pounds) and Rock Ya-Sin (6-feet, 190) on Kelce (just perhaps not Amik Robertson (5-foot-8 187 pounds)). Or safeties Johnathan Abram (6-feet, 205 pounds), Duron Harmon (6-feet, 205 pounds), and Tre’Von Moerhig (6-foot-2, 202 pounds) shadowing Kelce may be in order. Then there’s a combo of cornerbacks and safeties with linebacker Divine Deablo (6-foot-3, 226 pounds and a converted collegiate safety) roaming in the soft under belly of the Raiders defense, too.
Either way, Las Vegas faces a stout challenge with none of their defensive backs being equally as tall and athletic as Kelce. And there’s the issue of the Raiders secondary being banged up — although that matters little to Graham.
“Like they are supposed to, they’re professionals. Next man up. Nobody cares, nobody is going to say, ‘Oh, we feel bad for the Raiders.’” Graham noted. “No, so next man up and come in there and play. And I think guys last week, they challenged themselves and they went out there and they performed, and we got the victory. It will be the same thing this week, next week and whatever week it comes up, it’s next man up and let’s go.”
In October of 2017, the then-Oakland Raiders deployed an ingenious method of corralling Kelce: Smashing him at the line of scrimmage with edge rusher Bruce Irvin. It was the outside linebacker’s duty to seek out Kelce and chip him — the nice way of saying smash — for most of the game.
Perhaps Graham could deploy something similar with his linebackers, be it Deablo, Denzel Perryman (if he plays, is in concussion protocol), Jayon Brown or even sack-less edge rusher Chandler Jones. Have the more physical defenders chip Kelce to disrupt timing and his get-off. This would not only quell some of the synergy for the Chiefs offense but also give back-end defenders more time to cover Kelce.
Of course, if the Raiders pass rush is disruptive enough and hitting Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes constantly, then covering Kelce becomes that much more easier. But that’s definitely easier said than done.