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The key to winning in Las Vegas in Week 13 will be pass defense

Can Washington win four in a row?

NFL: SEP 24 Raiders at Redskins Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On Sunday, Washington travels to Las Vegas on a short week following a big win at home on Monday Night Football to take on a rested Raiders team that last played on Thanksgiving day, when they squeezed past the Dallas Cowboys in overtime in Arlington, Texas.

I wrote in an article earlier this week that this variance in rest ahead of Sunday’s game (especially with the travel involved) had me concerned. I thought it might well be the difference in the game, tipping it in favor of the Silver & Black.

Then I read the following in an Athletic article today:

I thought Washington might be at a disadvantage with five days rest compared to nine for the Raiders, but that historically hasn’t been a big deal. Since 2000, in this specific scenario, the team with nine days rest has gone 14-17 straight up against the team with five days rest....

So, I guess that whole rest & recovery thing isn’t as critical as I thought it was.

Also, the Raiders are 5-9 all time at Allegiant Stadium and 3-3 this season. Moreover, they have lost their past two home games (Chiefs and Bengals) by a combined score of 73-27.

Prior to the overtime win on Thanksgiving, the Raiders had been on a 3-game losing streak. Washington, on the other hand, has won 3 straight games since their Week 9 bye, and is looking for their 4th consecutive win.

A lot of Washington fans may think that winning 4 straight is out of the question, but the Football Team did exactly that just last season (Weeks 11-14) en route to a division title. The Redskins also won 4 in a row to close out the 2015 season, win the NFC East, and get into the playoffs. And you may remember that in 2012 they won 7 straight games to close out the season, win the division crown, and make the postseason. In true Washington style, each of these three winning streaks and division title runs were led by different quarterbacks. Now, it’s Taylor Heinicke’s turn.

At the moment, Las Vegas and Washington are each battling for a wildcard spot in their respective conferences, although both teams also have a chance to go to the playoffs as the champions of their respective divisions. While Washington is currently the 7th seed in the NFC and tied with 3 other teams at 5-6, Las Vegas is one of 5 teams with 6 wins competing for the 7th seed in the AFC.

Vegas is in last place in the AFC West, but is just one game behind the division leading Chiefs, who are 7-4, while the Raiders, Chargers and Broncos each have 6-5 records.

This week’s matchup, then, is important to both teams.

Let’s take a look at some of the trends for the Raiders, both season-long and more recent, to see how Las Vegas and Washington match up.


Other 2021 preview articles

Washington can stabilize the season with a win in Atlanta as Curtis Samuel makes his debut in burgundy & gold

What can we expect when the Saints come marching in to FedEx Field this Sunday?

A look in the mirror: previewing Washington’s Week 6 matchup with the Chiefs

What can Washington expect from the Broncos at Mile High Stadium?

With Cam Newton & Christian McCaffrey, WFT won’t see the same Panthers team that went 5-5 to start the season

Can Washington take the next step against a struggling Seattle team at FexEx Field on Monday Night Football?


Overview

The Raiders are ranked 6th in the NFL in yards per game for the season, though only 11th over the past three weeks at 362 yards per game (Washington is 12th over those same three weeks at 353 yards per game). Amazingly, Vegas put up a league-leading 509 yards of total offense against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving, making Washington’s 9th-ranked 371 yards look paltry by comparison.

The two teams took very different paths to their offensive yardage totals in November, however. Vegas ran for 88 yards per game over the past three weeks (including the 143 they put up against Dallas), good for 27th in rushing offense in the NFL. Washington, on the other hand, averaged 145 rushing yards per game in November, with 152 in the win over Seattle on Monday night. Washington ranks 9th in rushing over the past three games, and 6th for Week 12.

The Raiders are second in the league in passing yards this season at 296.5 yards per game. They were also 2nd in Week 12, with 366 yards. Washington ranks 20th in the NFL in 2021 at 224.4 yard per game, and they stayed close to their season average on Monday night, putting up 219 passing yards.

So, you have two offenses that are averaging around 360 yards per game over the past month, but one of them — the Raiders — is relying on Derek Carr to throw for around 300 yards per game, while the Football Team is getting about 150 yards on the ground and 200 through the air.

The passing game

Let’s look at season long statistics for the Las Vegas leading receivers.

Ruggs, of course, is no longer with the team following his involvement in a fatal car crash about a month ago.

TE Darren Waller, who is 3rd in the NFL in targets and receiving yards per game, injured his knee on Thanksgiving in Dallas, and is described by the Raiders head coach as “week to week”, which sounds like he probably won’t play against Washington, though he hasn’t been ruled out. Waller did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday. If he is unable to go on Sunday, that would be a big break for the Washington defense; although, the next man up for the Raiders would be Foster Moreau, a 2019 4th round pick out of LSU who seems capable enough — he has 12 receptions for 135 yards and 3 touchdowns on the season backing up Waller. Interestingly, Moreau is 2nd on the team in receiving touchdowns, so the 3rd year tight end is used to pressure situations.

DeSean Jackson began the season with the Rams before requesting, and getting, his release. He has played only three games for the Raiders, getting 9, 16, and 42 snaps. His 67 total snaps would be a bit on the high side for a single game, but put his 5 targets and 4 receptions for the Raiders into perspective. His average per reception of 35 yards would be astonishing for many fan bases, but the Washington faithful know Jackson well, and understand that this number, while perhaps unsustainable, is no fluke.

Washington receiving stats

In comparing Washington’s receiving group to the Raiders, a few things jump out at me.

  1. Terry is obviously the biggest part of the WFT passing attack, accounting for roughly twice as many receiving yards as the #2 guy (McKissic). By contrast, Renfrow is just one of several productive receivers that Derek Carr has thrown to this season.
  2. Las Vegas is losing guys, but they seem able to replace them. Waller seems unlikely to play, though, as mentioned above, when targeted, the third-year backup Moreau usually produces. Obviously, the tragic situation with Henry Ruggs affected the Raiders offense, but he seems to have been capably replaced by Desean Jackson, who, if his history is any indication, will stay healthy just long enough to burn the WFT defense for a pair of 50-yard touchdowns before getting injured and missing the rest of the season.
  3. Washington is getting some badly needed producers in December. Logan Thomas, who accumulated around 650 yards last season, was capably replaced by Ricky Seals-Jones, but with RSJ himself injured, it’s good to have Thomas back. We saw on Monday night vs Seattle just how much Taylor Heinicke relies on him. Curtis Samuel has yet to impact a game, but he’s fresh and eager to prove doubters wrong, so he may be a much bigger part of the offensive attack going forward — after all, he doesn’t lack familiarity with the scheme.

If Waller is out, Washington’s defense can probably play the Raiders much like they did the Buccaneers and Panthers, stopping the run and protecting against the deep ball. Derek Carr doesn’t run much, and isn’t a big threat when he leaves the pocket. He has 73 rush yards in 2021 (2.7 yard average). Heinicke, by contrast, has 279 yards, at 5.7 yards per carry.

That said, an article on Silver & Black Pride this week suggested that we could see Derek Carr taking off and running more than he has:

Where Carr will help exponentially is if he decides to take off when his reads aren’t there. Del Rio likely knows the tendencies and how pressure affects Carr, but where the QB can hurt his former head coach is scrambling.

Against Dallas, Carr decisively took off when he didn’t have an open receiver downfield and galloped for 22-yards and a first down. Adding the element of his legs to go along with his arm will force Del Rio to combat something else.

The running game

So, what does the Las Vegas running game look like?

The similarities between the productivity of these two rushing attacks are noticeable, yet there are significant differences. The most obvious is the fact that the Raiders’ top three RBs have combined for 211 carries, while Washington’s top three backs have 263 — roughly 25% more.

It’s also obvious how much Washington is relying on Gibson to carry the load. With 183 rushes, AG is 5th in the league; yet his volume of carries is fairly recent.

  • Through the first 8 games of the season, Gibson averaged less than 14 rush attempts per game, and he didn’t have more than 20 carries in any individual game.
  • In the three games since the mid-season bye week, Gibson has averaged 24 rush attempts per game, and he has only one game with less than 24 carries.

The average yards per carry for the two groups of running backs are comparable, as are the touchdown totals. However three other statistics jump off the charts when I look at them:

  • McKissic is the only one of the six to have a run over 30 yards, and he has the highest average, at 4.4 yards per carry, making him appear to be the most explosive of the bunch. (Drake & McKissic are used similarly; each has just about 100 offensive touches on the season. Drake is used more in the ground game, at 62:38 run:pass, while McKissic at 48:53, is a bit more of a receiver than runner. McKissic, by virtue of more touches coming in the passing game, has more total yards). McKissic has been in concussion protocol since Monday night, and his availability (or lack of) will be critical to Washington’s offense.
  • Washington’s running backs are much more productive in moving the sticks, getting a first down on about every 3 rushing attempts, while the Vegas ball carriers average a first down on about every 4.5 rush attempts. This is a pretty astonishing difference in productivity.
  • The Raiders runners are protecting the ball much better, with just one fumble in 2021, while Gibson and McKissic have combined to put the ball on the ground 8 times. Gibson’s 5 fumbles is the worst mark in the league among running backs (no other RB has more than 3) and the 2nd worst in the league behind Kyler Murray, who has 7 fumbles. Also, Gibson’s 3 lost fumbles is the worst mark in the league; no one else has lost more than 2. Gibson didn’t lose control of the ball against the Seahawks; he will need to continue to protect it for the rest of the season.

While no one should be dismissive of a runner like Josh Jacobs, there is no reason to expect Washington to have trouble handling the Raiders’ slightly underpowered running game.

Rush defense

For the season, Washington ranks 4th in rush defense, giving up an average of 92.6 yards per game, but over the past three games they have been even tougher, ranking 3rd, surrendering just 66 yards per game. On Monday Night Football, the D smothered the Seattle runners, leading the NFL in Week 12 by allowing just 34 yards on the ground to the Seahawks (with about half of that coming on Russell Wilson scrambles).

The Raiders, in the meantime, rank 25th in rush defense, giving up 126 yards per game on average.

In the most recent game against the Cowboys, Vegas shut down the Dallas running attack, allowing a mere 64 yards, but this game was an outlier. In the three game before that (Giants, Chiefs, Bengals) the Raiders gave up 134 yards per game — more than their full-season average. If Washington was able to run the ball against Tampa Bay, Carolina and Seattle, they should be able to do the same against the Raiders unless the Vegas defensive coordinator adjusts the scheme in response to the Football Team’s recent success in the ground game.

Washington’s overall game plan

The Washington formula seems clear at this point, and it will require only slight modifications against the Raiders.

Washington on offense

Offensively, Washington will open up running the same scheme we’ve seen for the past three games; however, they could face loaded boxes or other scheme adjustments designed to stop Washington’s ground game from having success early. If that happens, Taylor Heinicke has to be ready to exploit the Raiders defense by throwing over the linebackers. With McLaurin, Logan Thomas, DeAndre Carter, Adam Humphries, and Curtis Samuel all healthy and available, he should have his pick of targets.

Personally, I think we’ll see the Raiders force a change in Washington’s heavy reliance on the run. I think they will spend the first quarter trying to frustrate Washington’s run game. If they do, Scott Turner and his QB have to make them pay. If Heinicke starts completing passes downfield, it will force the Raiders to adjust, and then Gibson and McKissic Wendelll Smallwood can be deployed to control the clock and wear down the defenders in the final 40 minutes of the game.

Washington on defense

Defensively, Washington should be able to handle the Raiders run game. The Chiefs and Bengals — both top-15 rush defenses — each held the Raiders under 75 yards rushing in November games. The Raiders were able to run on the Giants (ranked 26th); they also ran against the Cowboys in a beatdown on Thanksgiving, but over the past three games, Dallas has given up 124 rush yards per game compared to Washington’s 66.

The success of Washington’s defensive plan is much more likely to depend on the team’s ability to prevent big plays downfield. They gave up a few big plays to Seattle, including two clear busted coverages. That can’t happen against Derek Carr. who leads the NFL in passing yards (2nd behind Brady in yards per game).

Derek Carr’s stats

For a lot of quarterbacks, passing yards are negatively correlated to wins; that is, quarterbacks tend to throw for more yards in losses as they try to come from behind. Not so with Derek Carr.

Derek Carr - Passing yards in wins and losses in 2021


I don’t think I’ve ever seen as stark an example of win-loss correlation as we can see in this chart.

In 2021, every time Carr has thrown for over 300 yards, his team has won; every time he has thrown for less than 300 yards, the Raiders have lost.

I looked for some other correlations, but none was as strong as this. However, I did see that the Raiders are 5-1 when Carr completes 26 passes or more, and 1-4 when he completes 25 passes or less. Of course, the two numbers (yards & completions) are related, but other possible stats like pass attempts or number of offensive plays had very little correlation to Raider wins.

Sacks

Derek Carr is the 3rd most-sacked quarterback in the NFL this season, at 25 (Tannehill 33, Bridgewater 27).

Interestingly, sacks also seem uncorrelated to Raiders wins & losses. Here are the sack numbers (Carr sacked) with relevant wins & losses:

  • 3+ sacks = 3-2
  • 2 sacks = 2-2
  • < 2 sacks = 1-1

The play of the opposing secondary seems to be more critical to beating the Raiders than getting home with the pass rush. I don’t think Jack Del Rio should be attempting many blitzes or 5-man fronts in this game.

Penalties

The Raiders are the 2nd most penalized team in the NFL (behind Dallas), but the stats for both teams may have been skewed by the Thanksgiving flag-fest in which each team was penalized 14 times.

I looked at correlations between flags & penalty yards for the Raiders and their opponents, and even considered penalty differentials. In the end, though there was some minimal correlation, it turns out that the Raiders sometimes win when they are heavily penalized and sometimes lose when they are not, and the same is true for their opponents.

Washington is 6th(t) in fewest penalties over the past three weeks. I feel sure that fewer Washington penalties are better than the opposite.

The Raiders have been penalized for more yards than their opponent in 7 of 11 games this season, and I hope that trend continues, but penalty flags don’t seem to be a key metric for the Vegas Raiders.

Turnovers

In my preview of the Seattle game, I mentioned that the Seahawks seemed able to win even when they were -1 on turnovers. Las Vegas is a bit more vulnerable.

Washington needs to get at least one interception in the game (which is not as hard as it sounds because of the style of passing attack the Raiders use). Carr doesn’t throw a lot of INTs, but he has thrown at least one in 8 of the 11 games he has played this year. Here are the results of his interceptions over the 11 games of the 2021 season:

  • 0 interceptions = 3-0
  • 1 interception = 3-4
  • 2 interceptions = 0-1

As mentioned in the running back review above, the Raiders don’t fumble much. In fact, they have only fumbled three times this season.

In each of those three games, the Raiders gave up 2 or 3 turnovers (INTs + Fumbles), and, unsurprisingly, they have an 0-3 record in those games.

Washington, then, needs to get at least one INT against Carr, but if they can get a second turnover (INT or fumble) then statistically, their chance of winning sees a huge spike upward.

Scoring

The “magic number” on the scoreboard for this game seems to be 25.

The Raiders are 6-0 when scoring more than 25 points this season; they are 0-5 when they score less than 25. (In fact, the Raiders have not scored more than 16 points in a loss all season).

Las Vegas has been schizophrenic, averaging over 32 points per game in their wins, and just over 13 points per game in their losses — this is a huge differential!

Meanwhile, LV’s defense is struggling to contain opposing offenses. Only one team all season (Steelers, Week 2) scored less than 20 points against them.

Interestingly, the Raiders’ opponents have averaged 25.16 points in the Raiders’ wins, and 28.8 points in Raider losses. In other words, opponents are scoring weekly against the Raiders, win or lose.

What this means is that the difference in outcome isn’t so much reliant on the opponent’s offense, but on the performance of the opponent’s defense — specifically, the opponent’s pass defense.

As Mike Florio said this week, former Raiders coach Jack Del Rio may know a thing or two about defending against Derek Carr.

For three seasons, Del Rio was the head man for the then-Oakland Raiders and Carr was his young and rising franchise quarterback. Del Rio got to see Carr’s strengths and weaknesses up close and personal. If any defensive coordinator in the league should understand how to attack and stop Derek Carr, it makes sense to think it would be Jack Del Rio.

Statistical targets to get the win

The winning formula statistically is pretty clear. Washington has to focus on controlling Carr’s passing success.

  • Keep Carr under 25 completions and under 300 yards.
  • Keep the Raiders under 26 points.
  • Get at least one interception, but aim for 2 defensive takeaways, understanding that LV has only had 3 games this season with multiple turnovers (but have lost all 3 of them).

This may seem like a challenge, but it is one that the WFT defense seems capable of meeting. This, after all, is exactly the formula that has helped Washington to achieve its current win streak.

The Seattle Seahawks were the fourth consecutive opponent they’d held below 300 total yards and 21 points. And for those who pay attention to betting lines, the Football Team, a 2.5 point road underdog in this game, has won its last three games outright as an underdog.

Washington’s game plan should focus on three key objectives:

a. On offense, control the ball and time of possession to limit the Raiders’ number of offensive drives.

  • Convert on 3rd downs (WFT is 6th in NFL over the past 3 games); and
  • score touchdowns in the red zone (The Raiders are dead last in the NFL in allowing red zone TDs at nearly 76% )

b. On defense, don’t give up the big plays — keep Carr throwing short to medium passes — and tackle well. Force the Raiders offense to rely on short passes and the run game. For goodness’ sake, don’t let DeSean Jackson get behind the defense!

c. Turnovers - try to get an INT by confusing Carr with coverage and getting an easy pick — not by taking chances and risking a big gain on a catch & run by one of the Raiders’ receivers. Aim for 2 takeaways to win the game.

If they can do these things, the Football Team has a path to its fourth consecutive win, and it can strengthen its grip on a postseason opportunity.