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Opponent Scout: Raiders edge rushers can blow up a game plan

Las Vegas has the pass rush to make things harder than they already have been for the Kansas City passing game.

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

In this weekly opponent scout series, I’ll break down the Kansas City Chiefs’ upcoming opponent by examining their strengths, weaknesses and tendencies — and how those things affect their matchup with the Chiefs.

For the first of two matchups in four weeks, the Chiefs will travel to play the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium — Kansas City’s first game at the new stadium with fans in the stands.


Overview

The Raiders are 5-3, tied for first place in the AFC West with the Los Angeles Chargers. They’ve dropped three of their last five games— including last week’s 23-16 loss against the New York Giants.

Las Vegas scores 24.5 points per game, the league’s 16th-most; they’re sixth in total yards per game. They’ve been one of the most productive passing teams in the league, averaging the second-most yards per game and the fifth-highest net yards per attempt. Their passing success comes at the expense of their running game; they have the sixth-lowest rushing yards per attempt. The unit ranks 20th in total offensive DVOA.

Defensively, the Raiders allow 23.6 points per game — which ranks 15th among NFL defenses. They’ve allowed the 10th-fewest total yards per game. The Raiders’ pass defense has held opponents to 5.5 net yards per attempt — while against the run, they allow the fifth-most yards per game. They have the 14th-ranked defensive DVOA.

Offense

This season, quarterback Derek Carr has been one of the NFL’s most productive quarterbacks. He has always been talented, but he’s using his arm to its fullest extent this year: he leads the NFL pass attempts traveling 20 or more yards downfield. The Raiders’ offense doesn’t very often disguise its intentions with pre-snap motion, screens or play-action; they primarily trust Carr to drop back and let it rip.

Carr’s uptick in deep throws stems from his improvement against the blitz; instead of letting it negatively affect him, he is now taking advantage of a defense’s vulnerabilities while blitzing. He averages 9.9 yards per attempt — and, when blitzed, has an average depth of target of 11.2 yards. He lets it fly when coverages are at their most vulnerable.

Their most voluminous deep threat has been wide receiver Henry Ruggs III, who is no longer with the team. But they still have options they trust to make plays downfield.

Tight end Darren Waller leads the team in targets — and among pass-catching threats, he is still as significant a mismatch as there is. Similar to how the Chiefs use Travis Kelce, Waller will move all around the formation; 54% of his snaps come from a traditional tight end position, but 26% come from the slot and 19% have him lined up wide.

Las Vegas hasn’t been effective in the running game; none of the three running backs the team has played this year are averaging more than 4.1 yards per attempt. Following their offseason decisions to nearly completely overhaul it, their offensive line has regressed to barely average. This has affected their red-zone offense, where they rank 27th in touchdown-scoring percentage.

Defense

I always start the defensive section with the line — and here, it’s as appropriate as ever. Las Vegas boasts a dangerous duo of edge rushers: defensive ends Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue. Crosby leads the NFL in pressures and quarterback hits — but has only five sacks. Ngakoue has six sacks, while ranking 11th in pressures and 22nd in quarterback hits.

Both edge rushers can fly off the ball around the outside of a tackle; Crosby’s long arms and technical hand usage give him an ability to win in multiple ways. They also have complimentary pieces like defensive lineman Solomon Thomas, who has the ninth-most quarterback hits in 2021.

The Raiders have a balanced duo of primary linebackers at the second level: the run-stuffing Denzel Perryman and the coverage-centric Cory Littleton. In base defensive formations, they also use veteran K.J. Wright as their SAM linebacker. With the effectiveness of their pass rush, they don’t blitz these guys much — in fact, they have the league’s lowest blitz rate.

Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley is a familiar foe for the Chiefs. While this is his first year with Las Vegas, he has spent the previous four seasons calling the defensive shots for the Los Angeles Chargers. He originally climbed the coaching tree with the Seattle Seahawks, reflecting his tendency to rely on Cover 3 as the base coverage.

Teams have had success against the Raiders’ defense by attacking the vulnerable areas of Cover 3 with their tight ends. Las Vegas has allowed the fourth-most receptions and the fifth-most yards to tight ends — and five touchdowns they’ve allowed to tight ends is tied for the sixth-most.

The bottom line

The Raiders aren’t going to shy away from slinging the ball through the air — and on every one of Carr’s dropbacks, the Chiefs’ defense will need to be sure there is a plan for Waller. But the plan cannot rely on safety Daniel Sorensen covering the tight end. The pass rush also needs to win without relying on blitzes; Carr has countered them well but still struggles to maneuver through four-man pressures.

When the Chiefs have the ball, they need to be wary of the Las Vegas edge rush. Andrew Wylie is trending to play right tackle, which would be a dangerous mismatch that favors the Raiders. Kansas City will need plenty of tight ends and running backs chipping the right side — and sometimes even to the left because left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. has struggled with the speed Ngakoue can present.

It will be interesting to see if the Raiders stick primarily to playing one-deep safety looks. While it would be different from how the rest of the league has approached the Chiefs’ offense, Bradley has previously had success using it against Kansas City.