Just when I thought I was out on the Las Vegas Raiders, they pull me back in!
For the second year in a row, the Raiders have managed to salvage their playoff hopes with a late-season push. They’re currently two games behind the Jets for the AFC’s third Wild Card spot after winning three games in a row, which is part of the reason why DraftKings Sportsbook has Vegas as heavy favorites against the Los Angeles Rams.
In other words, Thursday Night Football will have some playoff drama for the Silver and Black so, as promised, we’ll shift the focus of our X-factors column away from the young guys on the roster and back to who will have an impact on the scoreboard.
Since it’s our first week back focusing on the more veteran players on the roster, why not kick things off by breaking one of my own rules by listing a clear and obvious X-factor?
Adams has played a big role in every game for the Raiders this season and will continue to do so every time he suits up, but this week is especially important for him for two reasons. One, the Rams have a really good run defense, and two, he’ll be matched up with a fellow All-Pro for the majority of the game.
Los Angeles’ defense has allowed 3.9 yards per carry this season which is the fourth-best in the NFL. They also boast Pro Football Focus’ highest run defense grade as a team (90.0) by about five points and kept the Seahawks to 22 rushes for 90 yards (4.1 ypc) without Aaron Donald last week. So, it could be tough sledding for Josh Jacobs and Vegas’ running game, meaning the passing attack, which is run through Adams, must be on point.
The challenging part about the passing game this Thursday will be finding out how to attack Jalen Ramsey. Ramsey has built a reputation as one of the league’s best corners and while he is having a down year, he still ranks 14th at the position with a 77.5 coverage grade from PFF.
Luckily, this won’t be the first rodeo for Adams against Ramsey as they’ve faced each other a few teams over the last couple of years. In 2020 and 2021 combined, the former Packer was targeted eight times with the Ram in coverage and caught all eight passes for 68 yards.
Hopefully, history will repeat itself on Thursday night and Derek Carr and Adams can connect for a few explosive plays early in the night, which could help open the running game later on.
Darren Waller/Foster Moreau
Waller is still on injured reserve, but he said last week on the Silver and Black Pride podcast that he’s hoping to return for this game. That would be great timing because, as mentioned above, the passing attack is going to be important for the Raiders' offense this week, and having options outside of Adams will be crucial, especially at tight end.
Los Angeles has allowed 49 receptions for 556 yards and five touchdowns against tight ends this year, which is fairly modest for this point in the season. However, they’ve really struggled to cover the position in the second half of the year.
In Weeks 8 through 13, the Rams have allowed 35 catches, 436 yards and five scores to tight ends, or nearly the entire production they’ve surrendered to the position for the entire campaign. So, that could mean a big return is in store for Waller, or Moreau will have some opportunities to make a few impact plays.
Moreau has shown flashes in the last three weeks with five catches for 98 yards and a touchdown, including a couple of receptions over 30 yards and one 17-yarder. However, he also has two drops in the last two games and has 11 targets to those five grabs, or just below a 50 percent catch rate.
Whoever lines up at tight end, it’s going to be crucial that they capitalize on every opportunity.
Sometimes old guys just take a while to warm up, and in Jones’ case, it took about three months but the Raiders are starting to see the guy with over 100 career sacks who they signed in the offseason.
In the first 10 games of the season, Jones only mustered 19 pressures but he’s doubled that in the last two weeks with 19 more pressures against the Seahawks and Chargers. That includes a three-sack performance last Sunday, and the veteran pass rusher has nearly doubled his win rate as well, going from 11.3 percent to 22.4 percent. That couldn’t be more perfect timing as the Rams have struggled at left tackle all year.
Replacing Andrew Whitworth has been more difficult than head coach Sean McVay and general manager Les Snead likely anticipated. They’ve used three different players at that spot and most recently settled on 37-year-old Ty Nsekhe.
Between picking up the offense as a mid-season acquisition and an injury, Nsekhe has only pass-blocked 90 times this season but has fared well with just three pressures yielded. That being said, those figures are far from a big enough sample size for him to hang his hat on.
So, it will be crucial for Jones to win this one-on-one matchup and put pressure on the Rams’ young quarterbacks, especially since Maxx Crosby might have a quieter evening against Rob Havenstein, hands down Los Angeles’ best offensive linemen.
Much like the rest of the team, it’s been a rough year for Moehrig but he has played well over the last three games. His overall PFF grade has gone from 52.5 in Weeks 1 through 10 to 70.0 in Weeks 11 through 13, while he’s also recorded two pass breakups in the two most recent contests, doubling his production for the season.
The second-year pro is also coming off a performance where he racked up three defensive stops which were tied for the fourth-most among safeties for the week. Building on that momentum will be key for him to finish the campaign. However, on Thursday night he’ll be tasked with slowing down a speedy receiver who has also been playing his best football lately.
Injuries marred the first year and a half of Tutu Atwell’s career, but he’s emerged as a legitimate deep threat over the last three weeks. He’s only had five catches during that timeframe but those have gone for 133 yards — 26.6 yards per catch — including a 62-yard touchdown reception against the Saints.
Atwell was clocked with a 4.39-second 40-yard dash time at his pro day a couple of years ago and is capable of flipping the momentum of a game on just one play. In addition to the numbers above, he also had a 54-yard catch against the Cowboys in Week 5.
Plus, while Baker Mayfield was just claimed, it’s not like the Rams have a plethora of quality healthy quarterbacks right now. He has a strong arm so there’s a chance McVay could dial up some deep shots with Mayfield and Atwell, assuming the quarterback is at least active tomorrow night. At 3-9 and without a first-round pick, they don’t have much to lose so why not see if they can catch lightning in a bottle once or twice?
At the end of the day, the wideout’s speed will test any safety so Moehrig will need to be on top of his game to win this one-on-one battle between a couple of second-rounders in the 2021 draft class.
Stopping Tyler Higbee
Between injuries, retirement and players leaving in free agency, the defending Super Bowl Champions’ offense will look vastly different this Thursday than it did a year ago. However, there will be one familiar face in tight end Tyler Higbee.
Higbee has hauled in 50 passes for 444 yards in 2022 both of which are second on the team behind Cooper Kupp. The tight end has also been one of the Rams’ most efficient receivers this season, ranking second among the team’s qualifying pass-catchers — also behind Kupp — with 1.36 yards per route run.
Against an offense that is lacking weapons, stopping the seven-year veteran should be defensive coordinator Patrick Graham’s focus.
Now, I wanted to single out an individual player for this assignment, but Graham has used a committee approach to defend against tight ends this year, especially lately. For example, Greg Dulcich was targeted five times against the Raiders with four different defenders in coverage, Noah Fant had three targets with three different matchups, and Gerald Everett had six with five. And it’s different players and different positions week by week, too.
That means it will take a full team effort to keep Higbee/one of the remaining weapons the Rams have in check.