The Las Vegas Raiders are playing in a new home in 2020 but this is their third year under Jon Gruden in his second stint with the franchise as the head coach. The Raiders went 4-12 in Gruden's first year back but improved to 7-9 last year and are off to a 3-2 start in 2020 that is highlighted by the 40-32 win over the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs in Week Five. That's the only game Kansas City has lost since last November 10.
Gruden was also the Raiders' head coach from 1998-2001 and he took them to the AFC Championship Game in his third year, so Las Vegas would certainly like to see a repeat of that trajectory in his second time around. So far the 2020 Raiders are winning with offense, scoring 30.2 points per game but allowing 30.4. Through the first six weeks of the season, the Raiders and the Cleveland Browns are the only two teams in the NFL with negative point differentials (albeit only one point in the Raiders' case) and winning records.
That high-scoring attack is led by quarterback Derek Carr, who is enjoying the best season of his career at the point. Carr currently has career-best numbers in almost every non-counting passing statistic, including completion percentage (73.1%), touchdown rate (6.3%), interception rate (0.6%), yards per attempt (8.2), yards per game (288.4), passer rating (115.9) and QBR (81.0). The only quarterback in the NFL with a better passer rating than Carr at this point is Seattle's Russell Wilson (129.8), the presumptive leader in the MVP race.
Carr's favorite target is breakout tight end Darren Waller, who has been targeted 46 times and caught 34 passes, both team highs. Second-year wideout Hunter Renfrow, a former fifth-round pick, is second on the targets and catch lists with 24 and 17, while former Eagle wide receiver Nelson Agholor is tops on the team with three touchdown catches. The Raiders also have a pair of potential big-play rookies in Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards, but while they both have robust yards-per-catch figures they have only combined for 11 grabs. Ruggs is coming off his biggest game yet, as he racked up 118 yards and a touchdown on just two catches in the win over Kansas City. The rushing game is led by 2019 first-round pick Josh Jacobs, who has 377 yards on the ground; more on him below.
The Raiders' defense mixes such recent draft picks as defensive ends Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby, cornerback Trayvon Mullen and safety Johnathan Abram with a handful of veteran acquisitions. Cory Littleton, Nick Kwiatkoski and Raekwon McMillan are new to the Raiders linebacking corps in 2020, while up front the team added defensive tackle Maliek Collins and former Buccaneers defensive end Carl Nassib. The results have been a little underwhelming so far, with the Raiders ranking in the bottom third in most defensive categories and lacking in big plays, with only seven sacks and three takeaways through five games.
In addition to their signature win against the division-rival Chiefs, the Raiders also sent the visiting Saints home with a 34-24 loss in Week Two. The Raiders lost their only other home game so far, to the contending Buffalo Bills, 30-23 but have also beaten the frisky Carolina Panthers in Charlotte. Tampa Bay has already defeated AFC West denizens Denver and the L.A. Chargers but will have to work hard in prime this week to stay perfect against that division. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Bucs will encounter when they play a game in Nevada for the first time in franchise history on Sunday:
Derek Carr drives the Raiders' offense and his exploits so far in 2020 are noted above. He has been the Raiders' biggest difference-maker so far this season, obviously. In addition, he plays in front of a stout offensive line that has been able to weather injuries to Richie Incognito and Trent Brown (the latter of whom returned to action in Week Five). Littleton and Kwiatkoski haven't yet made a big impact in their first season with the team but have the track records to suggest that they will begin to do so as the season progresses. In addition to those players, here are four other Las Vegas players who could make things difficult for the Buccaneers on Sunday night:
1. TE Darren Waller. The Ravens drafted Waller in the sixth round in 2015 after he had recorded a 4.46 40-yard dash time at the Combine and aced several other speed and agility drills. Some off-field stumbles slowed his career down early and he found himself on Baltimore's practice squad in 2018. And that's where Jon Gruden found him in October of that year, signing him to their active roster. He played sparingly the rest of the 2018 season but the Raiders had seen enough to have very high expectations heading into 2019, to the point that they did not try to re-sign tight end Jared Cook. Waller delivered on those expectations in spectacular fashion, catching 90 passes for 1,145 yards and three touchdowns. That speed in a 6-6, 255-pound frame makes Waller a matchup nightmare and Cook looks his way frequently. Waller's per-catch and per-target rates are down somewhat in 2020 – from 12.7 and 9.8 yards, respectively last year to 8.7 and 6.4 this year – but he's on pace for nearly 109 catches. He has a wide catch radius, dependable hands, good body control to make sideline catches and the ability to box out smaller defenders and catch passes over them.
2. S Johnathan Abram. Abram, the last of the Raiders' three first-round picks in 2019, was a breakout star on "Hard Knocks" as a rookie but only got in 48 defensive snaps in the regular season before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. Abram was ready to go in Year Two, however, and has come out hot, recording 13 tackles in the season-opening win over Carolina and nabbing his first career interception two weeks later against the Patriots. The former Mississippi State star is the Raiders' leading tackler with 28 stops and he's second on the team with three passes defensed. He's also logged two quarterback hits and two tackles for loss. Abram is an aggressive, hard-hitting tackler who is a force in the run game but can also hold up quite well in coverage. His pre-snap location "heat map" in the Next Gen Stats database shows him lining up in an incredibly large number of different locations, though his most common starting point is close to the line of scrimmage on the right side of the offensive line. The Raiders will likely ask Abram to be a major part of stopping Bucs running back Ronald Jones and also provide coverage on tight end Rob Gronkowski.
3. RB Josh Jacobs. Jacobs, the former Alabama star, was the first running back selected in the 2019 draft and the only one to come off the board in the first round. He hit the ground running in his rookie campaign, taking 242 handoffs for 1,150 yards and seven touchdowns. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry and caught 20 passes. Jacobs can thrive in the power game up the middle and in his rookie season he was credited with 78 broken tackles. But he's also fast and elusive and was able to force 69 missed tackles last season as well. Jacobs did all of this despite missing the last three games due to a shoulder injury. Jacob's per-carry average is down a bit in 2020, at 3.6 through the first five games, but he has scored five rushing touchdowns, tied for fourth-most in the NFL. Jacob is also more involved in the passing game this season, averaging three catches per game, more than double his rate in 2019. Jacob has already proved to be a very steady week-to-week producer in the Raiders offense, only failing to rush for 66 or more yards in three of his 18 games. He's had 85 or more rushing yards in 10 of those 18 contests.
4. DE Maxx Crosby. The Raiders' defense ranks 25th in sacks recorded per pass play, at 3.95%, but don't blame Crosby, the second-year player out of Eastern Michigan. After the fourth-round pick exploded for 10 sacks as a rookie he already has four more through five games in 2020. The rest of the Las Vegas defense has combined for just three sacks. Crosby's strength coming into the NFL was his speed rush but he's added muscle and become more of an all-around player. That was evident in his rookie season when he quickly went from rotational pass-rusher to starter at defensive end. The 6-5 Crosby has great length and can keep blockers off his frame and when he gets the corner he eats up ground on the quarterback quickly with his long strides. Crosby will most often rush from the right side of the offensive line, making him a challenge this week for rookie offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs.
The Raiders' offense ranks sixth in the NFL in yards gained and has been particularly good through the air, landing fifth in both yards per game (278.4) and yards per play (7.95). Derek Carr has been picked off only once and Las Vegas is second in the NFL in interception percentage (0.57%). Kicker Daniel Carlson has been reliable, making 11 of his 12 field goal tries and 16 of his 17 extra point attempts. Here are some more specific areas in which the Raiders have excelled so far in 2020:
· The Raiders' offense has been impressive on third downs this season. Las Vegas has converted on 52.3% of its third-down attempts this season, which is the third-best rate in the NFL. The Raiders have been good on all third downs but particularly on ones of medium range. On all third downs that required two to six yards to convert, the Raiders have succeeded on 71.4% of their tries, the best rate in the NFL.
· The Las Vegas offense is essentially middle of the pack when it comes to red zone offense, ranking 14th in touchdown percentage on such drives. However, the Raiders have been better when they continue on to goal-to-go situations. The Raiders' 88.9% touchdown rate on goal-to-go drives ranks seventh in the NFL.
· The Raiders haven't thrown deep particularly often but they've definitely picked their spots. Las Vegas has thrown 16 deep passes either down the middle or to the right side and they've averaged roughly 30 yards gained on those plays. The Raiders' average gain and completion rates to both of those parts of the field rank first in the NFL.
· Despite the franchise's reputation, the 2020 Raiders have not been frequently penalized. Las Vegas ranks eighth in both penalties drawn and yards penalized.
The Las Vegas defense ranks 22nd against the run and 25th against the pass and has allowed the 25th-worst third-down conversion rate. The Raiders' rushing attack has been relatively effective but is averaging just 4.14 yards per carry to rank 19th in the NFL. In addition:
· The Las Vegas defense has not had much success in its own red zone. The Raiders are one of three teams that have allowed every drive into their red zone to score points. Moreover, Las Vegas has allowed a touchdown rate of 68.2% on drives inside its 20, which is ninth-worst in the NFL.
· As impressive as Las Vegas has been on third downs on offense, the Raiders' defense has struggled to a similar degree in that department. The Las Vegas defense has allowed a conversion rate of 48.4% on third downs, ranking 25th in the NFL. Opposing teams are converting 62.5% of their third-down tries when needing two to six yards.
· It's a small sample size, but the Raiders have not done a good job of covering punt returns. Their opponents have averaged 15.6 yards per return, which ranks 32nd in the NFL.
· As noted above, the Raiders have recorded only sevens sacks on defense through five games, four of those by DE Maxx Crosby. Las Vegas has had one of the league's worst pressure rates for the last three seasons. According to Next Gen Stats, the Raiders were last in the league in pressure rate on opposing drop-backs in 2018 at 16.8%, and 28th in 2019 at 22.9%. Through the first three games of this season, the Raiders' pressure rate was just 16.4%.
NEW FACES IN 2020
The Raiders were active on the free agent market in the spring, most notably in regards to their defense, where they brought in three new starters and a couple other reserves in Carl Nassib and Raekwon McMillon. The Raiders then used three draft picks on wide receivers, although one of them (third-rounder Lynn Bowden) has since been traded to the Miami Dolphins. Here are some notable newcomers in Las Vegas.
1. LBs Cory Littleton/Nick Kwiatkoski. The Raiders got Littleton from the in-state Rams and Kwiatkoski from the Bears, replacing Vontaze Burfict and Tahir Whitehead. Littleton is considered one of the NFL's best coverage linebackers and is the team's second-leading tackler; he starts on the weak side. Kwiatkoski starts at middle linebacker but has missed a couple of games due to injury.
2. WRs Henry Ruggs/Bryan Edwards. The Raiders were the first team to dip into the deep pool of receivers in the 2020 draft, taking Ruggs 12th overall in appreciation of his blinding speed. Ruggs only has six catches so far but his big-play ability is evident in his average of 29.5 yards per reception. That includes a 72-yard touchdown against the Chiefs in Week Five. Edwards has just five catches but is also averaging 19.8 per grab.
3. DT Maliek Collins. The third defensive starter Las Vegas picked up in free agency, Collins came over from the Cowboys and is now the Raiders starting three-technique defensive tackle. He missed the Raiders' last game with a shoulder injury and is off to a slow start in Las Vegas, at least statistically, with just three tackles and one quarterback hit.
1. G Richie Incognito. Incognito was slated to start at left guard on a Raiders line that many considered one of the best in the NFL. However, he suffered an Achilles tendon injury in Week Two and is on injured reserve. The Raiders first tried fourth-round rookie John Simpson at that spot but have since settled on versatile veteran Denzell Good.
2. WR Tyrell Williams. The Raiders signed Williams away from the Chargers last season and he gave them exactly what he had given his former team the previous two years. After a 43-catch season in 2017 and a 41-catch campaign in 2018, he caught 42 passes for 651 yards and six touchdowns. This season, however, he landed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury on Sept. 1, and since that move was made prior to the formation of the 53-man roster, he is not eligible to return this season.
3. CB Damon Arnette. The Raiders drafted Arnette out of the Ohio State cornerback factory with their second first-round pick in April and he stepped right into the starting lineup in Week One. Arnette had 13 tackles and one pass defensed through the first three games but is now on injured reserve due to a thumb fracture that required surgery. He has also been placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.