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5 potential X-factors for the Raiders against Titans

Big week — this is time for some guys to step up

Las Vegas Raiders v Los Angeles Chargers
Denzel Perryman
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Typically, there aren’t a whole lot of “must-win” games in Week 3 for both teams. But with two 0-2 teams who were in the postseason last year and have aspirations of getting back there this season, Sunday might as well be a playoff game between the Las Vegas Raiders and Tennessee Titans.

The Raiders will walk into the matchup as 2.5-point favorites on the road, via DraftKings Sportsbook, despite suffering an embarrassing letdown loss to the Cardinals last week. Granted, the Titans got humiliated on Monday Night Football too, just in a slightly different fashion as the Bills ran them out of town. In other words, both teams are in desperate need of a bounce-back performance.

The odds are in Las Vegas’ favor, but if they are going to salvage and turn their season around, they’re going to need big performances from the guys below.

Andrew Billings

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Los Angeles Chargers
Andrew Billings
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

While he hasn’t been filling up the box score with a bunch of eye-popping stats — six total tackles, no TFL or sacks — Billings has quietly put together a solid start to the campaign, especially against the run.

He ranks sixth among defensive tackles with an 82.7 PFF run defense grade and has registered three defensive stops against the run. For perspective, his grade is over nine points higher than Aaron Donald’s, and he’s logged one more stop than Leonard Williams, two premier players at the position.

That’s exactly what Billings was brought in to do on this defense — eat up space in the middle and be and rock against the run — and games like this Sunday’s are where he can be the most impactful.

If you haven’t picked up on it by now, the Titans’ offense runs through (literally) Derrick Henry. I don’t think you need me to waste your time with a bunch of stats that show how great he is and how important it will be for the Raiders to stop the run, which Billings will play a big factor in.

Carving the way for Henry is center Ben Jones who is a bit of an “under the radar” run blocker. Jones ranked seventh at his position with a 79.9 run-blocking grade last season, and he’s graded out in the 70s in nine of his ten career seasons. The lone outlier was 2014 when he earned a 67.6 mark, and he’s been in the mid-70s for about half of his career.

That sets up for a dogfight in the trenches and one that could be the biggest key toward the Raiders’ defensive success.

Denzel Perryman/Divine Deablo

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Las Vegas Raiders
Divine Deablo
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

I know I just said I won’t share any Henry stats, but I do want to pass one along to highlight just how important it is that Las Vegas gets him on the ground this weekend. Last season, 728 of his 937 total rushing yards came after contact, and he ranked tied for sixth in yards after getting hit despite only playing in eight games. The five running backs ahead of him played in at least 11 regular-season contests, and Antonio Gibson, who he was tied with, had about 40 more carries and about 100 more total rushing yards.

In other words, Henry can break a defense’s back after first contact so the Raiders’ tackling form must be on point, especially from the linebacker corps.

With Denzel Perryman missing the Cardinals game and his status for this Sunday in question, I’ll go with the cop-out of listing him and Deablo as one X-factor this week. And even if both play, they’ll both need to bring their “A-games”.

Deablo was certainly active against the run last week with five solo tackles and three assists on such plays, but a lot of those came well past the line of scrimmage. He ended with a 4.8 average depth of tackle that ranked 38th among linebackers in Week two, and he only logged one defensive stop for a run defense grade of 58.2. Granted, the second-year pro earned a 74.9 grade in the season opener and was a standout as a run defender last year, so this Sunday is more about him shaking off a sub-par performance.

As for Perryman, he’s only played in nine snaps against the run this season but was a tackle machine in 2021 who only missed on 3.8 percent of his attempts, tied for the eighth-lowest rate at the position. That will be put to the test in Nashville with Henry on the other side of the line of scrimmage.

Interior Offensive line

NFL: Hall of Fame Game-Jacksonville Jaguars at Las Vegas Raiders
Dylan Parham
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Another position where I wish I could single one guy out, but it’s going to take a full-fledged effort as defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons has become a superstar for the Titans.

Last season, he racked up 8.5 sacks and had the fifth-most pressures among interior defenders with 62. Clearly, he knows how to get to the quarterback, and even when he doesn’t get there, he can still impact the passing game with five batted passes a year ago — second-most among DTs — and four in 2020. It’s been more of the same this season with two sacks, eight pressures and one BP through two games.

Against the run, Simmons ranked tied for seventh with 32 run stops and had an average depth of tackle of 1.4 yards a year ago, and he’s sitting at two and -1.5 yards for the current campaign. Part of the problem is he never stays in one spot, registering 40 snaps at right defensive tackle and 38 on the left this season. So, all three of the Raiders’ interior offensive linemen will need to be at their best, and the team’s depth will be tested again if Andre James is out.

Dylan Parham has been Las Vegas’ stalwart on the inside so far, surrendering just two pressures and earning a slightly above-average 62.7 run-blocking grade. Granted, the latter is held down by an ugly 51.2 performance against the Cardinals.

Lester Cotton has also been beaten just twice in pass protection really struggled in the ground game with a 43.8 mark. Meanwhile, John Simpon has been “Steady Eddy” with just three pressures yielded and the best run-blocking grade on Las Vegas’ line at 65.1.

Those three haven’t faced a defensive tackle of Simmons’ caliber yet, so Sunday will be their first big test of the season. Hopefully, they’re all up for the task because if there’s one weak link, I’ll let you guess where Tennessee lines up their best defensive player.

Darren Waller

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Las Vegas Raiders
Darren Waller
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Waller is finally getting paid like the premier tight end that he is and has looked sharp in the team’s first two games. He’s caught 10 of 14 targets for 129 yards and a touchdown while managing to avoid any drops, which became an issue last season as he had six with reduced playing time due to injuries. His efficiency is back to normal too, as his average yards per route run is up from 1.70 in 2021 to 2.15 in 2022, and the latter ranks fifth among tight ends.

But Waller will face a tough test this week as the Titans have two safeties who combined make $24 million per year and have certainly earned their keep.

Kevin Byard is coming off a year where he was excellent in coverage, forcing eight incompletions and intercepting five passes, both were tied for the second-most among safeties. He ended up leading the position group with an elite 90.9 coverage grade and has developed a reputation as one of the best in the league, and Amani Hooker wasn’t too far behind him with an 86.9 mark in coverage in 2021. That ranked fifth at the position and Hooker had six combined pass breakups and interceptions.

The good news for the Silver and Black is Byard has struggled so far this season. He’s allowed eight completions on eight targets for 82 yards and a score while his coverage grade has dropped to 48.1. However, it’s been more of the same from Hooker, who has surrendered a 42.9 completion percentage and just a 26.8 passer rating when targeted, posting a 79.8 grade.

The point is that Tennessee will have options when it comes to covering Waller, so it’s going to be up to him to figure out how to break free from a few different top-tier coverage defenders.

Hunter Renfrow

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Las Vegas Raiders
Hunter Renfrow
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Renfrow did suffer a concussion at the end of last week’s game so his status is something to monitor over the week, but if he does play, this Sunday will be all about redemption after a costly fumble sealed the Raiders’ fate against the Cardinals.

Ball security will undoubtedly be top of mind for him moving forward, but the slot machine’s efficiency has also been down this season. He’s currently recording the lowest average yards per route run of his career — 1.14 compared to 1.87, 1.75 and 2.09 in years one through three respectively. And his average yards per target is down by 3.1 points from 2021.

Part of that is having Davante Adams and a healthy Waller in the lineup, but this should be Renfrow’s week to bounce back.

The Titans have a lot of young talent with their outside corners, Roger McCreary and Caleb Farley, but they don’t have a great option to cover the slot. If Kristian Fulton is out for another week, that’ll push Ugo Amadi to the top of the depth chart at nickel.

Halfway through training camp, Amadi was traded from the Seahawks to the Eagles as he was likely going to get cut from Seattle. Less than two weeks later, Philadelphia sent him to Tennessee since he probably wasn’t going to make their roster either. So, Renfrow could be going against someone who was on the bubble for two other teams in the league.

Fulton primarily lines up on the outside so even if he does play, Renfrow will be guarded by either a rookie playing in his third NFL game or a second-year player suiting up for the sixth time. Either way, he should be able to get back on track.