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Opponent Scout: Raiders will want to attack Chiefs’ defense through the air

In their first matchup, Las Vegas had opportunities for big passing plays against Kansas City.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Las Vegas Raiders Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

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


For the second time this season, the Chiefs will match up with the Las Vegas Raiders. The Silver and Black are visiting Arrowhead Stadium for the first time since their road victory last season.

Overview

Since we last saw the Raiders, they’ve lost two of three games — dropping both home games but beating the Dallas Cowboys in overtime on Thanksgiving Day. They stand at 6-6.

Averaging 22.8 points per game, the Raiders’ offense has been a roller coaster this season. They’ve scored 31 or more points in six games — but in the remaining games, they’ve averaged 15 points per game. They’ve scored more than 16 points only once in the past four games: a 36-point performance in Dallas. Vegas still has one of the most productive passing attacks in the NFL, ranking second in passing yards and fourth in net passing yards per attempt.

The Raiders’ defense is still in the bottom half of the league in points and yards allowed, with one of their worst performances coming against the Chiefs in Week 10. Kansas City put up the most points, first downs, total and passing yards that Las Vegas has allowed all year. They struggle in many defensive areas — but specifically in the red zone, they allow a league-high conversion rate of 77.4%.

Offense

The Raiders are largely the same offensive team they’ve been all season; I broke down their season-long performance last time these two played.

Here, I’m focusing on how the Raiders’ offense attacked the Chiefs’ defense in that game. Simply put, it was through the air.

Quarterback Derek Carr found success hitting receivers at the intermediate and deep levels, completing 6/10 passes thrown 10 or more yards downfield for 154 yards and two touchdowns.

This is a well-designed play that attacks the Chiefs’ defensive vulnerabilities in this moment. Las Vegas comes out in an empty formation with four receivers to one side and tight end Darren Waller on the other side; Kansas City’s two deep safeties are thus spread out. One is helping over the top of an isolated cornerback covering Waller — and the other is trying to stay on top of four different routes.

The Raiders send their two slot receivers vertically up the middle of the field; Chiefs’ linebacker Anthony Hitchens is tasked with covering one vertical route from a trailing position — but a well-thrown ball (and the mismatch in athleticism) allows for the receiver to win the route and score between the two deep safeties.

Speaking of Waller, he is currently banged up and has not practiced Wednesday or Thursday — although one report from Monday expressed optimism for his return.

Waller is obviously a huge key to the offense’s success — and on this deep shot the Raiders took against the Chiefs, they used him effectively. They run a play-action pass where Waller runs an intermediate crosser and attracts the safety to his side to follow it. The safety’s decision leaves tons of space for wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who is running a deep post on the opposite side.

The key to preventing these chunk plays will be to pressure Carr — which the Chiefs did effectively in the first game. On 14 pressured dropbacks, Carr completed five of nine passes for 31 yards — and threw that jump-ball interception.

Defense

Just as in the last matchup, the biggest problem the Raiders present for opposing offenses is dealing with their edge rushers. Even with Andrew Wylie starting at right tackle, the Chiefs mostly neutralized their impact — but it wasn’t as easy as it may have looked.

Defensive end Maxx Crosby earned 13 pressures in that game — two of them quarterback hits — yet Mahomes wasn’t sacked once; the offensive game plan strategized to neutralize Crosby.

The Chiefs attacked Crosby’s aggressiveness by directing screens (like this one) toward his side — so that his upfield penetration could be used against him. It worked in this instance and also in a traditional running back screen.

The use of these plays will not only set up the offense well on that snap but also help make Crosby hesitate to fly off the ball on any given play.

In coverage, the Raiders will need to focus more of their attention on Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce. Then last time, he ran through their secondary for 119 yards on eight receptions.

Typically running a defense with one deep safety, the Raiders use strong safety Jonathan Abram as a robber to take away in-breaking routes at the intermediate level of the field. They will specifically align him to prioritize taking passes away from Kelce — but one way the Chiefs can counter that is with completions towards the sideline that are away from Abram’s leverage in coverage.

Las Vegas will also attempt to press Kelce at the line of scrimmage with a cornerback — but as we see on this play, Kelce still fights through to create easy separation on an important third down.

The bottom line

The Chiefs’ pass defense will be challenged early and often against the pass-heavy Raiders, who have one of the league’s lowest rushing-attempt totals. Specifically, they will want to spread out — forcing the Chiefs to defend sideline-to-sideline — and then attack the middle of the field with playmakers like Darren Waller or wide receiver Bryan Edwards.

When the Chiefs have the ball, they’ll once again need to game plan around the impact Crosby can have. Even if Lucas Niang returns to the starting lineup, it will be a challenge to minimize Crosby’s impact. If Kansas City can give Mahomes enough time in the pocket, the Raiders have always struggled to contain Kelce — and I don’t see that being any different on Sunday.

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