The AFC West clash between the Las Vegas Raiders and the visiting Denver Broncos is a classic “something’s gotta give” divisional matchup in terms of red zone performance. Both teams have their respective issues in the money zone and the dam is either going to break or continue to stymie the two squads.
Denver (2-1 overall) heads to Allegiant Stadium sporting a paltry red zone offense: Of seven trips into the red zone, it has only scored one touchdown for a 14.3 percentage (league-worst 32nd ranking). Defensively, Las Vegas (0-3) is the polar opposite. Opponents have scored eight red zone touchdowns on 10 trips for a staggering 80 percent rate (30th ranking). Flip it and the Raiders offense has gotten to the red zone 13 times and scored touchdowns on six of those trips (46.2 percentage; 26th overall). The Broncos defense allowed opponents only four red zone trips and only one touchdown allowed (a meager 25 percent; top-ranked red zone defense).
Hence, something’s gotta give.
Either the Raiders continue to roll the red carpet out in the red zone, this time for a Broncos offense seemingly allergic to the end zone, or the defense makes a stand. Flip side: Las Vegas’ offense puts it all together and executes by scoring touchdowns or Denver continues to prove it’s the leagues stingiest defenses by preventing both red zone trips and touchdowns.
What’s compounding the Raiders is their inability to get out of their own way in the red zone. The execution the team exhibited to get within the opponent’s 20-yard line evaporates resulting in field goals instead of end zone visits. Executing in the red zone remains a high priority for both coaches and players in Las Vegas.
“We’re getting down there in the red area, which is a good thing. We just got to do a better job finishing drives, and I think the balance that we have on offense needs to continue down there,” Raiders offensive coordinator Mick Lombardi said during his Wednesday media session. “We got to do a better job executing and then do a better job of putting those players in a position to execute. So, when we get down there, we can’t fall behind in down distance, can’t have any penalties. And then we obviously have to execute the small, little details of that area of the field. Whether that’s run or pass, we got to try to make sure everybody does their job, and we execute the best play possible.
“You’re really searching for that perfect play and when you have those perfect plays, which we had some good ones, and everybody did their job and did it consistently – you saw some special things happen. We’re going to keep trying to make sure that happens on a play-to-play basis and happen more consistently.”
Lombardi and head coach (and play caller) Josh McDaniels are well-aware of what happens when kicker Daniel Carlson trots out onto the field for the short field goal — the Raiders are leaving points on the field despite scoring three.
“And then again, it comes down to four-point plays. I think Coach (McDaniels) talked about that here moving forward the other day, is when you get down there it’s third and goal at the four, you don’t get it, you kick a field goal – difference of four points,” Lombardi noted. “So, we got to make sure we focus on the four-point plays moving forward and make sure we’re ready to go for those. If we can improve on those, I think we’ll see improvement in the red zone.”
Las Vegas certainly doesn’t lack the weapons to become a red zone juggernaut with the likes of quarterback Derek Carr, running back Josh Jacobs, wide receivers Davante Adams, Mack Hollins and Hunter Renfrow (when healthy), and tight end Darren Waller. The revolving offensive line certainly doesn’t help, but then again, that’s the same group that’s helped the the offense get within striking distance.
Defensively for the Raiders, while they do draw a matchup with the offensively-challenged Broncos, if Patrick Graham’s unit isn’t on point, it could be a long day. Quarterback Russell Wilson hasn’t been the instant-game changer Denver thought he’d be but he’s still a veteran signal caller that’s capable. Las Vegas pass rusher Chandler Jones, who has yet to register a sack, does hold a whopping 16.5 career sacks on Wilson. And Las Vegas would surely love it if Jones returned to form this Sunday.
Rushing Wilson, who can still scramble and move the pocket, is going to be key whether it’s in the red zone or anywhere else on the field. The rush goes hand-in-hand with the coverage on the back end and the Raiders will need every bit of that. As is defending the run. That’s something Las Vegas must have from every defender, namely young linebacker Divine Deablo, a converted safety who profiled as a coverage-type but has struggled through the team’s first trio of games. Pro Football Reference charts the second-year linebacker with 14 completions on 17 targets (82.4 percent completion rate) for 129 yards and two touchdowns (to go along with his team-leading 30 total tackles).
“Deablo is a young player and he’s improving. I don’t know exactly what the numbers are, I don’t know what that is,” Graham said. “But I do know this, the guy has the ability to cover man, zone. That’s why he’s out there. But just like anybody beginning the season, trying to improve. I wouldn’t lean on those numbers too much. I know that Deablo is the type of backer that I want in our system, in terms of ability to cover, to play the run. I’m most impressed with how he’s playing the run right now in terms of the physicality and how he’s doing that, and I’m pleased with that.”