No one expected the Las Vegas Raiders to be searching for their first win of the season in Week 4, but here we are. It’s put up or shut up time for the Raiders as they take on the Denver Broncos as slight favorites according to our friends over at DraftKings Sportsbook.
To put it simply, Las Vegas can’t afford to drop this one if they want to keep their playoff hopes alive. The odds are already heavily against them and digging out of an 0-4 hole will be essentially impossible. In other words, if the players below don’t show up on Sunday, all of Raider Nation will be feeling a cool breeze for the rest of the year, if you catch my drift...
Yes, the Broncos’ offense has struggled to get off the ground so far this season, especially their passing game. However, that doesn’t mean they are devoid of talent in their receiving corps as they do have a good crop of wideouts who are destined to pop off at any moment.
Courtland Sutton is Denver’s top target and has been pretty productive despite the offense’s lack of success with 19 catches for 291 yards, and he’s had at least 72 yards in all three games. At 6’4” and 216 pounds, he’s the type of receiver who is open even when he isn’t as Sutton currently is tied for the most contested targets among wideouts with 10, and he’s managed to come down with five so far this year.
Then there’s the Alabama wide receiver that a lot of Raider fans wanted to draft in 2020, Jerry Jeudy. Outside of Week 1, he’s been unproductive this season — 102 yards in the first game and 28 in the next two combined — but Jeudy is an excellent route runner who can be lethal after the catch. That’s where 83 of his 130 receiving yards have come from this season.
Even K.J. Hamler, who has battled injuries throughout his career and the beginning of the year, can be a dangerous threat with his sub-4.3 speed.
The good news is Robertson has played well so far this season. He’s earned a 74.7 coverage grade from Pro Football Focus that ranks 17th among all cornerbacks and has only allowed 61 receiving yards. Also, he’s cut down on the missed tackles with only one in coverage and that was one of the biggest reasons he got benched last year.
This Sunday will also be about retribution for the three-year pro as last season’s aforementioned benching happened during the first matchup against the Broncos.
Thayer Munford/Jermaine Eluemunor
Interpret this as: “Whoever the hell is playing right tackle.” If last week’s rotation holds put, that would mean Munford is on the outside while Eluemunor holds it down on the interior, but who knows what Josh McDaniels will do this Sunday.
The rookie played well in his first start last week, earning a 66.2 overall grade from PFF. While he did allow a sack in pass protection, that was the only pressure he surrendered, and he earned a 97.8 pass-blocking efficiency rating that tied Kolton Miller for 20th among all tackles in Week 3. Now, Munford does need to improve on his 52.9 mark as a run blocker, but the Raiders will take someone who can keep Derek Carr clean at this point, especially this weekend.
With Bradley Chubb and Randy Gregory, the Broncos have a couple of top-tier edge rushers. The former ranks ninth at the position with an 85.4 pass-rush grade while the latter isn’t too far behind at 13th and 83.0. Chubb has hit home with two sacks and Gregory has two of his own, and they’ve combined for 23 pressures so far.
While Gregory typically lines up on the offense’s right, both rushers have spent a good amount of time on each side, so Munford, Eluemunor or whoever is playing right tackle will have to figure out how to handle both.
We’ll stay in the trenches for our next X-factor with Dylan Parham.
Considering everything the coaching staff has asked him to do in year one, Parham has played phenomenally. In three games, he’s logged starts at two different positions, including one, center, that he never played in college, and he hasn’t allowed a sack and has earned above-average PFF grades across the board — 61.0 overall, 63.5 run blocking and 60.9 in pass protection. For those wondering, 60 is an average or baseline grade for PFF.
That being said, the Broncos’ defensive tackles will be a big test for the rookie.
Nose tackle D.J. Jones has developed a reputation as a stout run defender over the years, highlighted by his 39 defensive stops against the run last season. That was tied for the second-most among interior defenders behind only Aaron Donald.
Now, Jones is currently in concussion protocol, but his backup, Mike Purcell, is a boulder versus the run as well. Purcell came off the bench against the 49ers and posted an 87.6 run defense grade to go along with four stops, tied for the second most at the position for the week. It also helps that he’s been in the league since 2014, so he has experience on his side as well.
As far as pass rush goes, Dre’Mont Jones came into his own last season with 40 pressures during the regular season, which was good enough to finish in the top 20 among defensive tackles. This season, he already has eight and is tied for 15th at the position.
In other words, the Raiders’ interior offensive line will have their handsful in both pass protection and in the ground game. I’d assume Andre James will be back this Sunday after he returned to practice last week — albeit, on a limited basis and he was inactive for the game — so Parham might be sliding back to guard. Regardless, he needs to be at his best if the offense is going to move the ball.
There’s no question that the Broncos are winning games because of their defense through the first three weeks of the year. The most points they’ve allowed was 17 in the season-opener and they’ve given up 19 points in the last two games combined.
So, how can the Raiders crack the code and light up the scoreboard? Old school football, baby!
Denver’s coverage unit is extremely strong as they’re averaging just 170.0 passing yards allowed per game and have logged the fourth-highest PFF coverage grade as a unit at 77.2. While they are only yielding 81.3 rushing yards per contest — sixth-best in the NFL — they drop down to the middle of the pack at 15th with 4.4 yards per carry surrendered and rank 20th with a 56.5 run defense grade as a team. In other words, they aren’t nearly as efficient at stopping the run.
That’s where Josh Jacobs comes in, who’s having an excellent campaign so far. Jacobs might have a modest stat line — 42 attempts for 192 rushing yards — but he’s been able to create a lot of yards on his own. The fourth-year back ranks fourth at the position with 14 missed tackles forced as a rusher, is tied for eighth with 160 yards after contact (YCO) and has the 10th-best YCO per attempt at 3.81.
With Vegas having to play from behind so much, they haven’t been able to pound the rock with Jacobs as he’s averaging 14 carries per game. The only time he’s even been close to 20 was the overtime bout against the Cardinals where he had 19 rushing attempts, but that needs to change this Sunday.
Since Denver has a strong coverage unit, expect McDaniels to feature the rushing attack early and often.
Andrew Billings/Johnathan Hankins
Circling back to the Broncos’ offense, one area that they have found some success in is running the football.
Javonte Williams had a strong rookie campaign with 203 rushes for 903 yards or 4.4 yards per attempt. He’s been even more efficient this year, toting the rock 37 times for 176 yards, 4.8 per clip. The biggest reason why he’s not putting up eye-popping numbers as a sophomore is that Denver seems hell-bent on giving Melvin Gordon touches, who is averaging nearly a full yard fewer per attempt.
Williams has also had to deal with some lackluster run-blocking from the Bronco’s offensive line, especially on the interior. Starting guards Graham Glasgow and Dalton Risner have both posted sub-par run blocking grades — 50.5 for Glasgow and 49.8 for Risner — while starting center Lloyd Cushenberry III hasn’t been much better at 54.5.
So, if the key to stopping Denver’s offense is to keep their rushing attack at bay, that means Las Vegas is going to need big performances from their big defensive tackles.
Johnathan Hankins has made a career out of being a stout run defender, however, it feels like his best days are behind him as he posted a 47.9 run defense grade last season and is on a similar trajectory this year at 46.3. Andrew Billings has taken over Hankins’ role and was strong in the first two games of the season, with marks of 80.6 and 74.0 against the run, but he dipped down to 37.0 against the Titans.
Regardless, the Raiders will need both to be on top of their games this week or the Broncos will be able to play ball control and continue to play in low-scoring affairs.