The host Raiders (5-7) are in a must-win situation as they can’t afford to fall further in the AFC West if they want to keep their scant playoff hopes alive. Ditto for the Vikings who find themselves clustered with the Green Bay Packers at both .500 in the NFC North.
Las Vegas does have a two-game homestand the next two weeks with Minnesota up first and getting a much-needed win and ending a two-game skid requires a resurgence in effort and focus in all three phases of the game: Offense, defense, and special teams.
For defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, that means getting his defenders to properly execute and become the takeaway unit it had been before the 31-14 loss to the class of the AFC West Kansas City Chiefs before the bye week. Las Vegas defense had zero takeaways in that defeat after racking up a total of nine in the four games before the Week 12 matchup.
Against Minnesota, a team that boasts the sixth and fourth-best passing attack in terms of yardage (3,103) and touchdown passes (23), respectively, Las Vegas must showcase better eye discipline than it did against Kansas City. Add into the mix quarterback Joshua Dobbs’ penchant to make plays with this legs (three rushing touchdowns in his four games as the starting signal caller) and it’s imperative the Raiders defense be disciplined.
Graham will have a young secondary at his disposal after the Raiders released veteran cornerback Marcus Peters and the defensive boss provided what he’s looking for from his defenders this Sunday inside Allegiant Stadium against the Vikings.
“Same for every player, just compete. Compete in terms of pass coverage,” Graham began during his media availability on Tuesday. “Well, first, in terms of fundamentals, just tackle. Because you know how the run game is in this league, they’re trying to get the ball out to the corners, trying to get it out to the safeties with the crack replace. So, we have to do a good job of tackling and getting off of blocks.
“And then from a coverage standpoint, compete in terms of winning your leverage, timing, good vision, good eye discipline in zone coverage, and really just competing and trying to get the ball. That’s how I’d sum up defensive back play if I were to do it really quickly right there. But that’s what I’m looking for.”
Dobbs already has two productive pass catcher at his disposal in tight end T.J. Hockenson (80 catches for 768 yards and five touchdowns) and wide receiver Jordan Addison (54 catches for 686 yards and seven scores) but is getting a healthy Justin Jefferson back in the lineup. The wideout hauled in 36 passes for 571 yards and three touchdowns in the five starts he had this season before being shelved with hamstring issues.
In order for Las Vegas to disrupt Minnesota’s aerial assault, the Silver & Black need pass rusher Maxx Crosby (who is ailing with a knee issue) to be his usual frenetic self along with quality back end coverage from the linebacker spot and secondary.
“Malcolm Koonce is playing really good football right now. Tyree Wilson, he’s improving each week,” Graham said when asked of the importance of having other pass rushers stepping up help Crosby. “That’s all you can ask for from those guys, and the guys on the interior, I mean, they’re doing a good job in terms of defeating blocks, getting the middle push in the pass rush. I’ve been pleased with how they’ve competed each week, how they’ve improved. That’s the biggest thing I get as a coach to see their improvement throughout the season.”
The Denver Broncos and, most recently, Chicago Bears did a solid job of pressure and coverage against Minnesota. Las Vegas will need to do much of the same as Dobbs is coming off a 22 of 32 for 185 yards, one touchdown, and four interception performance against the Bears. He was also sacked two times in the 12-10 defeat. Chicago activated extra defenders to pressure Dobbs and it worked.
That’s potentially something the Raiders can do, but overall, the group is one of the least blitz-happy teams in the league. According to Pro Football Reference, Las Vegas has the third-least amount of blitzes — 89 — and the fourth-least blitz rate at 20 percent. Only the Indianapolis Colts (79) and New York Jets (70) have called the least amount of blitzes.
Against a mobile quarterback like Dobbs, Graham must be selective on when he activates other defenders and he knows it.
“Based on what we think is best against that team. I mean, again, whether you’re blitzing five, you’re blitzing six, or you’re simulating pressure, it’s all based on what we think is best for that team. And then when you get into the game, you got to adjust based on what you’re seeing.”
Linebackers Robert Spillane and Divine Deablo are the pair who have the most blitz calls under their belt at 24 and 18, respectively on the Raiders defense. Nickel cornerback Nate Hobbs and Tyler Hall, along with safety Marcus Epps are next with six apiece.