Six weeks ago – out of the blue – the Las Vegas Raiders beat the defending World Champion Kansas City Chiefs. It was easy to dismiss at the time.
Kansas City (at the time) had won 13 in a row (counting playoffs), and nobody wins them all (KC has since won five more consecutive games since that loss – so they are now 18 of their last 19).
As for the Raiders, it was hard to think of them as true contenders. They had just lost their previous two games – yielding 66 points in the process. In fact, when you add in the 32 that Kansas City scored in the loss (it was a 40-32 Raider win), and the 45 points that Tampa Bay laid on them the next week, then you are looking at a Raider team that allowed 30 or more points five times in their first six games in a 3-3 start to the season. Clearly that surprise win against the Chiefs was just “one of those games” and nothing to be overly impressed with.
But after being slapped around by Tampa Bay, Las Vegas went on a little three-game winning streak. It wasn’t an overly impressive array of teams they beat (Cleveland, the Chargers and Denver) but it did inflate their record to 6-3 as they prepared for last Sunday Night’s rematch against Kansas City.
Surely the Chiefs – remembering their Week Five defeat – would show up with their A game and avenge their only loss in over a year in a big way. Surely the defending champs would expose their hated division rival.
And so, when quarterback Derek Carr completed a 12-play, 75-yard drive with a one-yard bullet to Jason Witten in the near-right corner of the end zone to give Las Vegas a 31-28 lead with 1:43 left in the game, I started to do some re-assessment.
It is, perhaps, time to take the Raiders seriously.
Vegas didn’t win the game. One hundred and three seconds with a time out is far too much time to leave Patrick Mahomes, who, as is his habit, drove Kansas City 75 yards in just 1:15, winning the game, 35-31, with a 22 yard toss to a wide open Travis Kelce with 28 ticks left (gamebook) (summary). But even in defeat Jon Gruden’s Raiders made their statement.
This is still a team with shortcomings – especially on the defensive side. And, in fact, I still don’t see them as a playoff team (an early-season loss to Buffalo will probably be the tie-breaking game that allows the Bills in and keeps the Raiders out). But this team is clearly building itself to compete with football’s best team (arguably). Even in defeat, Las Vegas pushed the KC defense to the edge. They converted 6 of 9 third downs, and scored touchdowns on 4 of 5 red zone trips.
More impressively, they almost completely broke down the Chief pass defense – which had been one of the best in the NFL. Entering the week, opposing passers were only earning 6.64 yards per attempted pass with an 11-9 touchdown to interception ratio. While the NFL average passer rating sits at 94.5, KC opponents were only managing an 81.4 rating – football’s fourth lowest.
But for all of the gaudy statistics, Kansas City’s pass defense is sometimes held back by a mediocre pass rush. Nineteen quarterback sacks in their first 9 games isn’t anything to get excited over. It was a flaw that the Raiders took full advantage of.
Carr’s first two passes of the night went for 26 and 29 yards – the first against man coverage and the second against a zone. Both times the Chiefs’ four-man rush applied insignificant pressure. It set the tone for the night. In general Derek was presented with a comfortably clean pocket. He wasn’t sacked, was hurried only a few times, scrambled just twice and averaged 3.05 seconds in the pocket. Last week, only two quarterbacks spent more time sitting in the pocket and surveying defenses.
The time and comfort allowed Carr and his receivers to exploit both the gaps in the Chief zone (especially with TE Darren Waller) and the difficulties that the KC cornerbacks (Charvarius Ward and Bashaud Breeland) have holding up in man coverage – especially with little pass rush pressure.
Waller (7 catches for 88 yards) and wideout Nelson Agholor (6 catches for 88 yards) were the primary beneficiaries. Agholor was the one who spent most of the evening lining up against Breeland.
The Chiefs did mix in some blitzes – and managed to get occasional pressure when they sent extra rushers. But even that tactic mostly failed as the extra pressure couldn’t compensate for a compromised secondary. Carr’s first touchdown pass, for example – a 17-yarder to Agholor – came when Kansas City sent six rushers after Derek. But the blitz was picked up. Waller ran a vertical of his own from the left slot that he turned toward the middle of the field – drawing Tyrann Mathieu with him. This left Breeland all alone against Agholor, who simply sprinted past him and gathered in the throw in the back corner of the end zone.
Sometimes the blitz was self-defeating. With the Raiders facing a second-and-nine on their own 33 with 2 minutes left in the first half, the Chiefs sent five rushers, and with Josh Jacobs whiffing on blitzing linebacker Ben Niemann, Neimann came free enough to flush Carr from the pocket.
As Derek pulled the ball down and started to sprint up the middle, Mathieu dropped his coverage on Waller (who was running a crossing pattern, right-to-left across the field) and turned to make a play on the scrambling quarterback. The problem was that Tyrann a) dropped his coverage before Carr had reached the line of scrimmage, and b) was directly in front of Derek when he stopped running and turned toward the line. Waller kept running. Carr noted this and tossed him the ball when he was wide open up the left sideline. That play gained 18 yards.
More than a few times, KC sent six rushers and tried to play zone behind it with just five defenders. That almost never worked out, as Derek dumped short passes into the voids in coverage, allowing his receivers more yards after the catch than they normally get. Carr finished the contest with more of his passing yards after the catch (155) than air yards before the catch (120).
The game plan was as well executed as it was well conceived. Sometimes Carr doesn’t get the recognition due him for the accuracy of his passes. Derek was 23 for 31 in the game. Two of those were throw aways, and of his 6 other incompletions, 3 were drops. So Carr was catchably accurate on 26 of his 29 throws.
Of course, a clean pocket has a lot to do with that.
This is a weakness of the Chiefs that hasn’t really hurt them so far this year. The league’s top scoring offense frequently takes the anxiety out of playing defense – for Kansas City. The Chiefs have allowed an opposing passer a rating of 100 points or better only three times this year – and two of those were the Raiders (126.5 in Week Five and 119.7 last Sunday).
In the end it was too much Mahomes. Patrick rebounded from a mediocre first half (an 82.4 rating) to shoot out the lights I the second half. He completed 20 of his last 24 passes (83.3%) for 203 yards and that game-winning touchdown pass with less than half a minute to go. His second half rating was 115.8.
Gruden and the Raiders still have some work to do. But they have clearly given notice.
Some Good KC Defensive Notes
While the pass defense got pushed around more than usual, the KC run defense seems to be turning the corner. In their Week Five loss, Las Vegas bludgeoned them on the ground to the tune of 144 yards on 35 carries – including 2 rushing touchdowns. Kansas City, in fact, was scorched for more than 100 rushing yards in all of its first five games, and six times in the first seven. At that point, they were serving up 149.9 rushing yards per game and 4.9 yards per carry.
But beginning with the game against the Jets in Week Eight, the run defense has tightened up considerably. The last three opponents (Jets, Panthers and Raiders) have averaged only 95.3 rushing yards per game, and just 3.8 yards a carry.
The Jets, of course, are not among football’s top running teams, but the Panthers rank fifteenth and the Raiders rank seventh in rushing, entering the game averaging 139.2 yards per game.
But on Sunday evening – while the passing game was having its way – the Kansas City defense muffled the Raiders best attempts to establish a running attack. Las Vegas finished the game with just 89 ground yards on 26 attempts (3.4 yards per).
One of the pillars of this defensive resurgence is interior lineman Derrick Nnadi. The Raiders found it nearly impossible to get under him with their double-teams.
The game was still a 7-7 contest with 4:01 left in the first. The Raiders faced first-and-ten on their own 40. They called a run designed to burst off right guard, but there was no movement on the line as Nnadi withstood Brandon Parker and Gabe Jackson to deny the play.
Now, with 8:41 left in the second quarter, Las Vegas was again in a first-and-ten, this time on the Kansas City 32 yard line. Game was tied again at 14. Now Derrick was absorbing blocks from the other side of the line from both Rodney Hudson and Denzelle Good. That allowed Willie Gay to flow cleanly from the second level to fill the intended hole off left guard. Running back Devontae Booker tried to cut the run to the left sideline, but was corralled by Tanoh Kpassagnon – who had defeated the attempted block of Witten.
And so it went.
Derrick’s biggest play of the evening, though, was a stop he made on first-and-goal from the 1-yard line. There was 2:10 left in the game, and KC was clinging at this point to a 28-24 lead. Nnadi imploded the entire middle of the line, blowing right under Hudson (who had his arm wrapped around his neck, by the way). Jacobs was supposed to leap over the pile for the score, but by the time the pile reached him, it was too far to leap.
Two plays later, Las Vegas scored anyway on the touchdown pass to Witten. Typical, as it turned out. For most of the contest, the passing attack came to the rescue of the running game.
It’s encouraging progress. But the Chiefs are still going to need more pass rush from their front four – maybe by as early as this week when they face Tampa Bay.