The Las Vegas Raiders are heading into Week 17 riding off a high of their biggest win of the season against the Kansas City Chiefs. There’s a new energy in Las Vegas as the Raiders’ postseason hopes are revived, primarily due to the midseason shift toward giving younger players on the roster more playing time.
The Silver and Black essentially have their first playoff game this Sunday as the Indianapolis Colts are also in the thick of the AFC Wild Card race, making the contest a “must-win.” And the Raiders head to Indianapolis as a field-goal underdog on DraftKings Sportsbook, so winning the key matchups below will be crucial to coming home with the victory.
Jack Jones vs. Michael Pittman Jr.
Jack Jones has turned his season around since getting claimed off of waivers by his high school head coach Antonio Pierce. With the Patriots, the corner earned a 48.2 coverage grade from Pro Football Focus this season. However, that figure is up to 82.6 since joining the Raiders, due in large part to recording pick-sixes in back-to-back weeks.
Beyond the highlight plays Jones has been lock down in coverage during the team’s last two games as he’s been targeted seven times and has allowed just two receptions for nine yards. However, the second-year pro hasn’t faced a receiver that is the same caliber as Michael Pittman Jr.
Pittman Jr. is arguably one of the most underrated receivers in the NFL as all he’s done is produce during his four-year career while the Colts have had a very unstable quarterback situation during his tenure. The wideout has had at least 88 catches, 900 yards and four touchdowns in each of the last three campaigns, including 99 grabs, 1,062 yards and four scores so far this season.
The USC product needs just one catch and 21 yards to set career highs in 2023 and will be a problem for Jones and Las Vegas’ secondary as a whole. However, Pittman Jr. did miss last Sunday’s contest with a concussion so his health will be something to monitor during the week.
iOL vs DeForest Buckner
During his eight-year career, DeForest Buckner has established himself as one of the better interior defensive linemen in the league, and he has continued to play at a high level this season.
Buckner currently sits as PFF’s 13th-highest-graded defensive tackle (81.3), primarily due to his success as a pass-rusher. His 44 pressures are tied for 16th at the position, his 15.1 percent win rate is seventh-best and he leads the position with six batted passes.
The Oregon product isn’t having as much success as a run defender in 2023—just a slightly above-average 63.7 PFF grade in that department—but he has strung together several impact tackles against the run with 28 defensive stops, tied for seventh at his position.
Part of what makes Buckner such an issue for opposing offensive lines is he lines up on both sides of the center and at different alignments. Of his 740 snaps, 232 reps have come at right defensive tackle, 220 at right defensive end, 146 as a left DT and another 98 at right end, per PFF.
So, Dylan Parham, Andre James and Greg Van Roten are going to have to bring their ‘A-games’ or Buckner will find the weak link and cause problems for the Raiders’ offense.
Malcolm Koonce vs. Bernhard Raimann
By now, everyone knows who Maxx Crosby is as he’s been one of the NFL’s best edge defenders over the last two years. But Crosby finally has a running mate who is on an impressive hot streak in Malcolm Koonce.
Since Week 10, Koonce has the sixth-highest PFF pass-rush grade (89.9) among edge-rushers which is just 0.8 points behind T.J. Watt, who ranks fifth, during that timeframe. While the third-year pro is only 12th in pressures with 30 in his last six games, he’s recorded fewer pass-rush snaps than anyone in the top 10 and is coming off of a career-best performance with nine pressures and three sacks in Kansas City.
Clearly, Koonce is a problem but the Colts have an ascending player as well in Bernhard Raimann.
Raimann was up and down as a rookie last season but has been playing pretty well in year two. His 81.6 overall PFF grade ranks seventh among offensive tackles, and he’s allowed 10 sacks and QB hits combined on 535 opportunities compared to 11 on 404 last season.
So, this should be a fun battle to watch between two up-and-coming players and the winner will have a direct impact on the success of Indianapolis’ passing game.