The Las Vegas Raiders clinched a losing record for the season with their ninth loss of the year on Christmas Eve last week. Unfortunately, this Sunday won’t be any easier for the Raiders as the red-hot San Francisco 49ers come into town as a touchdown favorite according to our friends at DraftKings Sportbook.
That being said, with the playoffs virtually out of the question, Las Vegas’ attention should shift more toward next season and developing the younger players on their roster, which will be the focus of our Week 17 X-factors column.
After suffering an elbow injury against the Steelers last week, The Athletic’s Tashan Reed tweeted that edge defender Chandler Jones could be done for the year. The smart move would be to sit him for the next two games seeing as the Raiders have nothing to play for, and Jones is an established veteran who doesn’t need extra/unnecessary reps.
However, someone like Malcolm Koonce could benefit from more playing time. Granted, Clelin Ferrell will likely be the starter opposite of Maxx Crosby, but Koonce should finally get the opportunity he’s been waiting for since the end of August.
During the preseason, the 2021 third-round pick racked up seven pressures on just 45 pass rushes, including two sacks and one quarterback hit. It looked like he had an opportunity to carve out a role as the team’s third pass-rusher, but he’s only been on the field for 54 snaps in the regular season and 13 of those came last week.
Koonce has only registered a double-digit snap count in two games this season, meaning he’s in line for a much bigger opportunity to prove himself this Sunday than he’s had all season. So putting some pressure on the quarterback will help elevate his status heading into the 2023 campaign, however, San Francisco’s tackles have been stingy in pass protection.
Future Hall of Famer Trent Williams has only allowed 13 pressures (one sack) in 12 games this season while right tackle Mike McGlinchey has surrendered 22 in 15. That being said, McGlinchey has given up five sacks and been flagged eight times in pass protection, so his pressure total is slightly deflated, meaning Koonce could find success on that side of the line.
Darien Butler is in a similar situation as Koonce. Reed’s tweet referenced above also mentioned that starting linebacker Denzel Perryman, who suffered a shoulder injury in Pittsburgh, could also be done for the rest of the season. That paves the way for Butler, another preseason standout, to get more playing time in the next two weeks.
In August, the former Sun Devil ranked tied for second among all linebackers with 10 defensive stops, per Pro Football Focus. However, he’s primarily been a special teamer and has only taken 20 defensive snaps in the four months since then.
Butler will get more opportunities over the next two weeks, but he’ll need to clean up his tackling as PFF credited him with nine missed tackles during the preseason, and now, Christian McCaffrey and the 49ers’ run-heavy offense await. And let’s not forget George Kittle, who has made a name for himself as one of the best tight ends after the catch throughout his career and currently ranks sixth at the position with 7.0 YAC per reception.
If Butler can put together a strong performance against a potent offense like San Francisco’s, he’ll catch the coaching staff’s and front office’s eyes as a potential starter heading into the offseason.
To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if Jerry Tillery’s goose is already cooked. He’s gotten a lot of credit for helping the team’s pass-rush improve as a whole by helping to free up other pass-rushers, but he’s had minimal production of his own.
Outside of his revenge game against the Chargers where he had six pressures, Tillery has managed to produce just one pressure in five games. To make matters worse, he’s been one of the worst defensive tackles against the run in the entire league since joining the Raiders, tieing for the second-worst PFF run defense grade (28.8) at the position from Weeks 11 to 16.
So, while discussions in Las Vegas this time of year are about the future, it’s going to be hard to justify keeping a guy who is historically bad against the run and has only put one strong individual performance as a pass-rusher in six opportunities with the club.
There’s still time for Tillery to prove himself but this weekend will be his biggest opportunity to show that he still has potential as a run defender. Logging a few more pressures wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.
In a sense, Alex Bars has already taken advantage of his circumstance. He was cut at the end of training camp, signed to the practice squad, got called up by Week 2 and has been a starter since the end of September. But to take that next step and solidify his future with the team, Bars has to improve in pass protection.
Among guards this season, he ranks in the bottom 15 for pressures allowed with 27 — and that’s with three fewer games played than the majority of players in that group — and is tied for the 16th-worst pass-blocking efficiency rating (96.4), per PFF. Unfortunately, Bars’ assignment won’t get any easier this weekend.
While injuries have held Arik Armstead back this season, he’s starting to hit his stride as a pass-rusher at the right time. Armstead has racked up 12 pressures in the last two weeks after having just six in his five previous games. The former figure is tied for the third-most among defensive tackles during that timeframe and one behind Cameron Hayward and DeForest Buckner, while Buckner has rushed the passer 20 more times.
This matchup can go one of two ways for Bars. Either he shows growth by shutting down a good interior rusher, or his flaws continue to be highlighted and Las Vegas spends the offseason looking for his replacement.
Kolton Miller/Jermaine Eluemunor
According to DraftKings Sportsbook, San Francisco’s edge defender Nick Bosa is the heavy favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year with -1200 odds heading into the final two weeks of the regular season, and the stats back that up.
Bosa currently leads the NFL in sacks with 17.5, two more than Matthew Judon in second place, and is tied for second with 78 pressures, one behind Micah Parsons. Part of what makes the 49ers’ pass-rusher so difficult to keep away from the quarterback is he can play on both sides of the center.
About 62.4 percent of his snaps have come on the left edge and about 36.3 percent have been on the right edge. So if he’s not having success against one tackle, he has the versatility to switch sides and try the other, meaning Kolton Miller and Jermaine Eluemunor will both need to be on top of their games.
Eluemunor has held up against some notable pass rushers over the last few weeks, allowing just three pressures in the last two weeks while going up against guys like Judon, Josh Uche and T.J. Watt. So, despite beginning training camp as a reserve guard, he’s become a viable right tackle option for the Raiders moving forward, and stringing together another strong performance against the presumptive DPOY will only strengthen his case.
As for Miller, unlike everyone else on the list, his future with the Silver and Black is secure. However, he was snubbed of a Pro Bowl bid for the second year in a row despite being the highest-graded offensive tackle (82.4) in the AFC. Shutting Bosa down and finishing the year strong will be the best way for Miller to start earning more respect.