The eighth and ninth ranked defense in terms of points and yards allowed. That’s what awaits Las Vegas Raiders interim offensive coordinator Bo Hardegree in the team’s Sunday night matchup with the visiting New York Jets.
Gang Green has quality talent at all levels of its defense and it’s coached by two of the better defensive minds in the league in head coach Robert Saleh and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. Under those two, the Jets have limited opponents to 156 points total in eight games along with 2,496 yards.
The squad is basically a no-fly zone defense allowing the third-least touchdowns (eight) through the air and yards (1,398) in the league. The group is also ranked sixth in interceptions with eight.
Which will compound matters for Las Vegas as it boasts a rookie at quarterback in Aidan O’Connell and a neophyte in calling offensive plays in Hardegree. Standing in the way of the Raiders’ desire to get to .500 from their 4-5 overall record is a the stout Jets defense. And Saleh and Ulbrich are going to bring their respective A-games to limit another AFC West foe. While New York did lose to the Los Angeles Chargers 27-6, the Jets’ defense limited quarterback Justin Herbert to 136 yards passing and sacked him five times.
But where the Jets are suspectable is an area the Raiders are trying to gain traction at: The ground and pound game. New York has yielded 1,098 yards rushing which is the third worst run defense in the league. They’ve only surrendered five rushing touchdowns (ninth in the league) but opponents have run the most against the Jets and churned out the yards. The mentality Hardegree instilled in his offense heading into his first game as play caller (the Raiders 30-6 win over the New York Giants).
“I told the guys I want to win the line of scrimmage, be physical, get our running back going and get some confidence like we talked about all week,” Hardegree said during his mid-week press conference regarding the mentality in Week 9. “Get that going and then the rest will take care of itself.”
A consistent and effective ground game led by running back Josh Jacobs will help Las Vegas dictate the pace and set the tone rather than allowing New York to impose it’s will inside Allegiant Stadium under the primetime lights.
Offensive success will not only be predicated on besting Saleh’s and Ulbrich’s efforts, but Hardegree calling the plays that put his player’s in the best position to succeed and his players executing the calls. Hardegree did a good job asking for input from his players and that’s likely to continue in Week 10.
“I just want them to feel confident and comfortable. Like I told you, I went into everybody’s rooms when we hit the ground running on those first couple meetings and just let them know me, and then get some feedback from them,” Hardegree said. “Even during the game, I’m telling them what’s coming up, what I’m thinking, what are they seeing? Which is important, they’re the guys out there. I’m calling the plays, and I want to call plays that they feel confident about. And if there’s something that I really want to get out there to them, I’ll let them know it’s coming. It’s just constant communication with those guys.”
O’Connell, who gets his third start of the season, will play a large part in Hardegree’s success or failure as the extension of the coordinator on the field. Expect the Jets to disguise looks with the intent on confusing the rookie. You don’t become a top 10 defense int the league by being predictable, of course.
Against the Giants, O’Connell did a solid job identifying the pre-snap look and checking in and out of plays to put Las Vegas in the best position for success. He’ll have to do it Sunday night. And to hear him tell it, he’s looking forward to the opportunity.
“Definitely. I think it’s hard to do but it’s solving problems and I enjoy trying to solve problems,” O’Connell said during his media availability on Thursday. “I think the coaches do a really good job of preparing you for that I remember even back in OTAs Bo challenging me with, ‘Hey what you do if it’s blitz zero and we have a normal run play.” Like he probably told me that exact play and that exact run what would you do against blitz zero back in May when I first got here and back then I didn’t know what the heck he was talking about. But it’s cool to see that it’s come full circle and the coaches trust me and they’ve instilled confidence in me and the guys as well.”
Hardegree did well mixing up his calls and not being predicable last week. Las Vegas smartly used plays and pre-snap motions and signaling — something opponents dialed in on — and ran different plays. Such as the jet sweep wide receiver Jakobi Meyers scored on. Moving him in motion and having him point out defenders was a big indicator Las Vegas would run the ball under the previous play caller. Hardegree went with that same look and instead the ball went to Meyers who had blockers clear the way for him en route to the end zone.
That creativity is a must-do this week with one of the league’s best defenses hitting Las Vegas. The interim play caller did note that stretching the field remains a priority for his offense. And while the Jets boast a top-flight pass defense, it doesn’t mean you the Raiders can’t take their shots.
“There’s a fine line. You can’t be too wild, but it’s got to be calculated,” Hardegree said when it comes to being creative and his play calling. “Then understanding our players, understanding the why of something when it goes in is very important for them to know. And I try to do a good job of communicating that to them.”
What works in Hardegree’s favor is the Raiders are armed with quality skill position players in Jacobs, wide receiver Davante Adams, Meyers, and speedster Tre Tucker. There’s also young and promising rookie tight end Michael Mayer and savvy veteran Austin Hooper. But if the offensive line doesn’t own the line of scrimmage and O’Connell can’t distribute the ball, it’ll all be for naught.