With Week 16 being the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception, a lot of the talk ahead of the Las Vegas Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers Christmas Eve matchup will be about the past. However, we’re going to reverse course for this week’s X-factors and focus on the future by highlighting a few players who are looking to prove themselves.
The Raiders are a field-goal underdog heading into Saturday, according to our friends at DraftKings Sportsbook, so strong performances from the players listed below are going to be crucial to keep their small playoff hopes alive.
With Rock Ya-Sin out for roughly the last two and a half games, Amik Robertson’s role has expanded recently. Typically used as a slot corner, he’s taken 69 snaps on the inside over the last three weeks which isn’t unusual for him, but he’s also seen almost as many reps on the outside (61) during the same timeframe.
While Robertson did struggle against the Chargers, surrendering four catches for 75 yards and a touchdown, he’s been lights out the last two weeks by allowing just two catches on nine targets for three yards with three pass breakups.
That versatility should come in handy this week as the Steelers have three notable pass-catchers who can do some damage.
Diontae Johnson has emerged as Pittsburgh’s no. 1 wide receiver this season, leading the team in receptions (77) and receiving yards (735). Johnson has been known for his ability to create yards after the catch in the past and while his YAC per catch is down this season — 4.8 in 2021 to 2.3 in 2022 — he’s still a dangerous threat with the ball in his hands.
Johnson has forced 11 missed tackles this year which is tied for the 11th-most among wideouts and will test Robertson’s tackling skills, an issue he’s had since entering the league with a 23.0 percent missed tackle rate for his career.
Then there’s the rookie George Pickens, who has instantly become one of the league’s best receivers in contested catches, bringing in 16 of 23 contested targets or a 69.6 percent clip. That’s the ninth-highest rate at the position and only two of the eight guys ahead of Pickens have more than eight contested targets. Meaning, Robertson will have to be strong at the catch point this weekend, especially since he’ll be giving up seven inches to the 6’3” rookie.
The slot will pose another difficult matchup for Robertson as Pittsburgh’s leading slot receiver this season is tight end, Pat Freiermuth. Of Freiermuth's 53 catches and 630 yards on the season, 23 and 331 have come as an inside receiver. That will pose another physical mismatch that Robertson will have to have an answer for.
Long story short, this game can either show how much the third-year corner has grown or serve as an example of flaws in his game that’s struggles to overcome.
Similar to Roberston, Luke Masterson made the most of a great opportunity last week with Jayon Brown going on injured reserve. Masterson got the start and led the team in tackles with 11 while also surrendering just 10 yards on three catches in coverage.
He was tasked with keeping the Patriots’ running backs in check in both the running and passing games, which is something he’ll need to carry over this week.
Najee Harris had a slow start in the first half of the season with 108 rushing attempts for 361 yards (3.3 ypc) and just one touchdown, but he’s picked it up in the second half with 103 rushes for 429 yards (4.2 ypc) and five touchdowns. Harris is also coming off a career-high 10 missed tackles forced against the Panthers last week.
The Alabama product hasn’t been as involved in the passing game this season with just 32 catches, 165 receiving yards and two touchdowns, but he can still pose a threat to Masterson and the Raiders’ defense as a pass-catcher. Harris is only a year removed from leading all running backs with 74 catches during the regular season and ranking third with 467 yards.
Also, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Las Vegas put Masterson on Freiermuth at least a few times on Saturday, so the rookie will have his hands full in both coverage and against the run.
Dylan Parham/Jordan Meridith
Cameron Hayward has terrorized opposing offensive lines for more than a decade, and he hasn’t shown many signs of slowing down anytime soon. This season, he ranks as Pro Football Focus’ fifth-highest-graded defensive tackle (89.9), has logged the ninth-most pressures (44) and is eighth in defensive stops (33). Not bad for a 33-year-old.
Hayward also takes a large majority of his reps on the defense’s left, which will be a huge stress test for the Raiders’ shaky left guard situation.
If Dylan Parham can play, then he’ll have an opportunity to build some confidence and announce his presence in the league by competing against one of the league’s best. Parham had been playing well last week with a 71.9 PFF run-blocking grade and no pressures allowed before having to leave after 27 plays due to a leg injury.
That casts some doubt on the rookie’s status heading into Pittsburgh, which could mean Las Vegas has to turn to Jordan Meredith for the second game in a row. Meredith performed admirably off the bench against New England, however, a practice squad call-up against a perennial All-Pro isn’t exactly a favorable matchup for the Silver and Black. That being said, a strong showing by Meredith could help him earn a roster spot next season.
Also, don’t be surprised if Netane Muti gets some run now that he had more time to pick up the offense after getting claimed off the Broncos’ practice squad last week.
There’s no question that the Steelers have a strong run defense. As a team, they rank eighth in the NFL with a collective 69.7 PFF run defense grade and yield the fifth-lowest yards per carry (4.1) to opposing offenses. Conversely, their coverage unit is the 12th-worst in the league according to PFF (64.0 coverage grade) and gives up the fifth-highest yards per passing attempt (7.2).
So, the Raiders are going to need to move the ball through the air which, obviously, means Davante Adams will be heavily involved in the passing game. But, if last week proved anything, it's that the Raiders need a second wide receiver to step up and take advantage of when Adams is double-covered.
Mack Hollins had a solid performance against the Patriots with four grabs on eight targets for 40 yards and a score. However, he’s been rather quiet for the majority of the second half of the season and the team could use a strong performance from Hollins like he showed at the beginning of the year.
Luckily, outside of Cameron Sutton, Pittsburgh doesn’t have a starting corner with a PFF coverage grade north of 55, so the opportunities should be there for Hollins. If he can take advantage, that will help him earn a second contract with the Raiders and likely above the $2.7 million figure that he’s currently playing on.
Them: “Matt, you can’t list Jermaine Eluemunor as an X-factor every single week.” Me: “Well, when he stops going up against premier pass-rushers week in and week out, I will!”
Over the past month, Eluemunor has gone through a gauntlet of edge-rushers against guys like Uchenna Nwosu, Khalil Mack, Matthew Judon and Josh Uche, and Eluemunor has held his own. He didn’t allow a sack until this past Sunday and that was the only pressure he gave up in that game.
Unfortunately, this week doesn’t get any either as he’ll face another former Defensive Player of the Year.
Since he entered the league in 2017, T.J. Watt leads NFL with 76 sacks and averages a little less than one per game in his career. An injury about two-thirds of the way through Week 1 has kept his stat line in check this season with just four sacks so far, but he also has 3.5 in the last five weeks.
So, lump Eluemunor in with the other guys in this week’s column who will have to line up across from one of the league’s bests, giving him an opportunity to elevate his status heading into the postseason.
Side note, it will be fun rehashing Eluemunor again next week with Nick Bosa coming into town...