A big thank you to Matt Holder of Silver & Black Pride for answering this week’s questions!
He left no stone unturned so I hope you all have some time to kill before diving in!
Let’s not waste any time and get right into it!
1.) The Raiders are one of the hottest teams in the NFL right now with a 3-0 record heading into this week. How is the fan base feeling at the moment? Are there any reservations on whether or not this Raiders team is for real or is their hot start aided by the weak opening stretch of the schedule?
Well, some people may call it loyalty and others may say it’s blind optimism, but Raider fans have had a problem being confident regardless of what the team’s record is. But in all seriousness, yes, Raider Nation collectively is puffing its chest out more than normal and deservedly so, in my opinion.
Las Vegas is not only 3-0, but they’ve beaten two teams that are fixtures in the AFC Playoff picture every year, the Ravens and Steelers, and a team that was 10-6 and a tie-breaker away from going to the postseason last season in the Dolphins. While I’ve seen the FPIs and other statistical equations that have downplayed the Raiders’ schedule so far this season, those same metrics also had the Raiders starting 0-5 about a month ago so it doesn’t make that much sense to how their schedule has all of a sudden become weak.
Baltimore is 2-1 with a big win against Kansas City, who everyone agrees is good despite being 1-2 and could easily be 0-3, and Pittsburgh beat a very good Buffalo team on the road the week before hosting Las Vegas. The Miami game last week was definitely closer than it should have been, but that had more to do with the Raiders beating themselves by spotting the Dolphins a 14-0 lead with a miscommunication that led to a pick-six and a questionable decision early on to go for it fourth down in their own territory.
However, you do have a point about having reservations. The Raiders have started the season off hot the last couple of years with 6-4 records heading into the home stretch of the season, but they failed to make the playoffs both times despite having the “easiest remaining schedule” in the league. Another reason why I’m hesitant to trust those metrics, lol. So I definitely think that’s in the back of every Raider fan’s mind, including mine, which gives more cautious optimism to the team’s hot start.
2.) What’s been the biggest reason for this team’s undefeated record through three weeks? Should that reason also play a role in this week’s game against the Chargers? Why or why not?
This might be a cop-out since it’s very general and not specific, but the defense.
Over the last few years, the Raiders offense has been far from the problem, but they couldn’t stop anyone and had little to no pass rush with sub-par coverage behind it, a disastrous combination. I think part of that had to do with former defensive coordinator Paul Guenther’s scheme, as players have talked about how complicated his system was and he would even say that prioritizes stopping the run ahead of defending the pass, which is kind of backward in today’s NFL.
Gus Bradley has come in and brought over his much simpler, pass-first scheme, to go along with a few of his former players that have made a big impact like Yannick Ngakoue, Casey Hayward and Denzel Perryman. Bradley’s philosophy has also allowed Maxx Crosby to blossom into a dominant pass rusher. Crosby has always been a quality rusher, but now that he gets to prioritize being a pass rusher and react to the run instead of the other way around, his athleticism is shining through and I think that’s a big reason why he’s leading the league in pressures so far this season.
I definitely think that will play a factor on Monday night. The Chargers have beefed up their offensive line this offseason, but with Brian Bulaga out, I like Crosby’s chances to create havoc in the backfield against a backup tackle.
3.) If you were Chargers defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill, how would you go about stopping this Raiders offense? How would you go about defending a player like Darren Waller? Is that even possible?
It’s always been a head-scratcher to me as to why teams like to blitz Derek Carr. He’s always put up good numbers against blitzes and that’s especially true this year. In my opinion, the best way to defend Carr is to sit back and play coverage and just let your front get pressure.
Outside of left tackle Kolton Miller, the Raiders are weak up front, especially in pass protection. They’re starting two backup guards, a center who is still learning the position and has four starts to his name, and a rookie right tackle who a lot of people thought should play guard coming out of college because he struggles as a pass-blocker. In other words, there’s really no reason to try to manufacture pressure.
As far as Darren Waller goes, that’s a tough question to answer and one that NFL defensive coordinators have struggled with over the last couple of years. The best way teams have been able to contain Waller is by using bracket coverage on him, so that defenses can have someone who’s bigger and stronger get their hands on him early on in the route and throw him off track a bit, and then have a defensive back who can run with him take care of the deep routes. The problem with that is now you’re relying on someone to keep pace with Henry Ruggs one-on-one or stay in front of shifty Hunter Renfrow in the slot.
A good example of everything I’m talking about is the play below from the Steelers game. Pittsburgh brings pressure from the slot corner, but Carr knows the slot receiver will chip the corner so he has more time. On the back end, the Steelers are bracketing Waller and Minkah Fitzpatrick is clearly favoring Waller, so Carr manipulates the safety with his eyes and a subtle ball fake. That gets Fitzpatrick to bite for a second and Carr drops a dime to Ruggs for a huge touchdown to seal the win, where the cornerback just couldn’t keep up with Ruggs.
As Ted Nguyen points out in the video, Renfrow is also wide open in the slot for what would have been an easy first down, too. If the Raiders’ offense keeps clicking like this and Carr keeps spreading the ball around, they’re going to be hard to stop.
Ruggs late TD is a good example of Carr's aggressive mindset that he's taken this season pic.twitter.com/o3HndYVlPA— Ted Nguyen (@FB_FilmAnalysis) September 20, 2021
4.) Similar question as #3 but flipped around. If you were Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, how would you go about attacking Gus Bradley’s defense? Where are they weakest? Are there any players on this defense that the offense should avoid?
As I’m sure you and Chargers’ fans know, Bradley’s scheme isn’t very complicated. He’s going to sit back and play a lot of cover three and rarely blitz. I think where offensive coordinators and/or quarterbacks have gone wrong, is they get bored or frustrated just taking simple dink and dunk passes play after play, so they try and push the ball down the field and that’s exactly what Bradley wants them to do. The Raiders’ defensive backs have done a good job either creating turnovers or preventing explosive plays to either get off the field or force offenses to play behind the sticks.
So if I’m Lombardi, I’m telling Justin Herbert, and myself, to stay patient and pick and choose when to take your shots. I’d start the game by targeting Austin Ekeler out of the backfield and Keenan Allen on short routes in the slot to see if you can make something happen after the catch and reverse the script, make Las Vegas get frustrated and overaggressive. Linebacker Cory Littleton had a good game last week, but he’s struggled to cover running backs and make open-field tackles in the past, and the Raiders are starting fifth-round pick, Nate Hobbs, as their slot corner, who has been good but is still a rookie going against arguably the best slot receiver in the game.
I also think Los Angeles could have some success running the ball as Las Vegas is built to stop the pass, and I’d say run defense is their biggest weakness overall right now.
The one player I’d say to avoid would be someone else that the Chargers know well, Casey Hayward. He’s been phenomenal for the Silver and Black so far and is one of Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded corners right now. Also, Hayward will probably be playing with a little extra motivation this week so I wouldn’t risk poking the bear.
5.) Go ahead and give us a final score prediction along with a few sentences on how you believe this game will play out.
With a 3-0 start, I have to be a homer and say the Raiders will keep things rolling and win. I do think this will be a high-scoring affair and a tight ball game, though.
Given the Chargers’ players’ familiarity with Bradley, his tendencies and scheme overall, I think that will work in Herbert and Co.’s favor more than it will the other way around. However, I also think Carr and the rest of the offense are more than capable of winning in a shootout, so I’ll say 31-28 Raiders.