8:20 PM EST, FOX/NFL Network – Line: Raiders -3.5, Over/Under: 52.5
Division rivals clash with one looking to build some precious momentum for 2021 while the other simply looks to refrain from falling out of the Playoff race altogether, as the desperate Las Vegas Raiders host the Los Angeles Chargers from Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada. At this point of the campaign, the Chargers (4-9, 4th in AFC West) have long been relegated to the role of spoiler, as it appears that they will soon be turning the page on this current regime following another disappointing season. For all intents and purposes, 2020 was supposed to be the start of something new for the franchise, particularly after parting ways with longtime Quarterback, Philip Rivers, who said goodbye as a Free Agent after sixteen years of service, and finally moving into the newly-constructed SoFi Stadium. Furthermore, (General Manager) Tom Telesco utilized the Sixth Overall Pick in the 2020 NFL Draft on (Quarterback) Justin Herbert (66.3%, 3,467 YDS, 6.29 NY/A, 25 TD, 10 INT, 66.4 QBR), who has gone on to establish himself as the clear frontrunner for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. So with all that said, how is it that Los Angeles once again finds themselves circling the proverbial drain within the Division? Well, no matter the explanations provided for their numerous flaws, it appears that (Head Coach) Anthony Lynn will be paying the price, with the venerable skipper widely expected to be relieved of his duties following the conclusion of the Regular Season in three weeks time.
Now in his fourth season with the Chargers, Lynn has looked increasingly more likely to be put to the proverbial sword for following up last year’s disappointing 5-11 finish with an equally disappointing campaign in the present. Though it’s been said on a number of occasions as to how talented this roster has been over the years, they’ve routinely underachieved, with a variety of flaws to blame ranging from an annual rash of injuries to a habitual ineptitude on Special Teams to a maddening knack for blowing sizable leads contributing to their woes. You can check off each of those boxes in 2020, for they all apply to Los Angeles’ campaign thus far, though that last one looms largest over the franchise. In six of their nine losses they held a lead at Halftime, exhibiting a troublesome trend for capitulation. In the second half of games thus far, the Bolts have struggled to finish off on their opponents on both sides of the football, with the passing game accounting for eleven touchdowns and eight interceptions and their adjusted net yards per attempt dropping from 7.4 to 6.0 following intermission, with the Defense relinquishing yards wholesale against the pass, yielding 5.3 adjusted net yards per attempt in the first half only to see that figure rise to 8.3 in the second. In most cases, not being able to successfully finish off games in the second half is the result of a lack of running game, and that absolutely applies to the Chargers. Lynn, a former Running Backs Coach himself, always tries to establish the run and remain balanced, but thanks to injuries and just overall ineffectiveness, the ground game has rarely matriculated this season; LA averages 29.4 carries per game (9th Overall) yet only churns out an average of 112.6 yards (16th Overall) on a dismal 3.8 yards per carry (28th Overall). Veteran Tailback, Austin Ekeler (127 TCH, 735 YDS, 5.8 Y/T, 1 TD), missed six games earlier in the season due to injury, and with a number of Offensive Linemen missing time themselves, it’s been difficult to find much success via this route. Furthermore, the Defense has experienced it’s share of losses as well, with (Edge-Rusher) Melvin Ingram (10 TKL, 4 QBH, 1 INT, 2 PD) missing six outings of his own, while (Safety) Derwin James has missed the entirety of the season with a torn meniscus. However, the most maddening affliction has got to be their differential with turnovers, for this is a team that has had no issues moving the football up and down the field or slowing their opposition down for that matter, ranking Eighth Overall in Total Offense (395.6) and Ninth in Total Defense (337.1). That hasn’t translated to the scoreboard though, for the Chargers rank Twenty-Second in Points Scored (22.8) and Twenty-Seventh in Points Allowed (27.8), with that Minus-1 Turnover Differential proving to be the deciding factor. This was the case when they last met the Raiders back on November 8th, a 31-26 defeat in which they outgained their bitter rival 440-320 in terms of total yardage and dominated time of possession (34:44) along the way, Herbert turning in yet another solid performance with 326 yards and a pair of touchdowns. However, trailing 31-26 with 4:37 left to play, the Rookie Signal-Caller engineered a 15-play/71-yard drive all the way down to the Raiders’ 4-yard line, and with one second left on the clock threw a fade to the righthand corner of the end zone, for what was initially ruled as a touchdown to Donald Parham (5 REC, 75 YDS, 15.0 Y/R, 2 TD). Unfortunately, review would reveal that the young Tight End failed to secure possession of the football, ending the affair in heartbreaking fashion for the hosts. With that said, it was a strong showing from Herbert, who continues to play well beyond his years in his first season as a professional Quarterback, serving as the lone bright spot in what has become an otherwise wasted season; he also made some history for himself as well, becoming the fastest player in NFL history to reach 3,000 passing yards and twenty-three touchdowns, needing only ten games to do so. With just three games remaining, there is a good chance that the Oregon product will shatter the single-season passing touchdown record for a Rookie Quarterback, set by Baker Mayfield (27) back in 2018, while the single-season mark for passing yards, set by Andrew Luck (4,374) back in 2012, is in sight.
When we last saw the Chargers, they responded well following a humiliating 45-0 shutout at home against the New England Patriots, by rallying back to best the Atlanta Falcons in a 20-17 victory. After trading scores for the better part of the First Half, the Falcons took a 17-10 lead into Halftime following n eight-play/75-yard drive. However, the hosts would OWN the final thirty minutes of play, rendering Atlanta scoreless after intermission and intercepting them on three of their four rives of the half. After punting on their first drive of the third period, Lynn’s troops manufactured a thirteen-play/80-yard drive culminating with a twelve-yard touchdown pass from Herbert to Tyron Johnson (12 REC, 276 YDS, 23.0 Y/R, 2 TD) to tie the game. Then on their final drive, the young passer would take over following a third interception of Matt Ryan, piloting Los Angeles from their own 26-yard line to the visitor’s 25-yard mark, set up by a key 25-yard play to the aforementioned Johnson. From there, Michael Badgley, who despite not enjoying the easiest of seasons, drilled the 43-yard kick right through the uprights, ending the affair. The Chargers totaled 345 yards of Offense with a relatively balanced display, rushing for 105 on twenty-six carries, while Herbert completed 36-of-44 passes for 243 yards, a pair of touchdowns and an interception. The aforementioned Ekeler was excellent throughout, amassing 146 yards from scrimmage on twenty-four touches. However, the Defense literally stole show, limiting the Falcons to just 319 total yards on nineteen first downs, including seventy rushing yards on twenty carries, while picking off Ryan thrice.
Meanwhile, 2020 appears to be ending on an all-too familiar note for the Raiders (7-5, 2nd in AFC West), who once again find themselves in the midst of a late season swoon. Last year, they were 6-3 and on the fringes of qualifying for the Playoffs for only the second time since 2002, though floundered down the stretch en route to losing five of their final six games. Fast-forward a year and they’re in an almost identical situation; Las Vegas was 6-3 in Mid-November before a primetime matchup with the reigning Super Champion, Kansas City Chiefs, losing in narrow fashion 35-31, in turn setting off a run of three losses in four games, dropping them out of the Playoff picture altogether. In fact, if not for a miracle 46-yard Hail Mary to fend off the winless New York Jets two weeks ago, Jon Gruden’s charges would be staring at a four-game losing streak and return to mediocrity. At this point, they’re likely going to need to win out and even with that said they’ll probably need a little help to secure that last Wild Card in the AFC, but with a crucial meeting with the current holder of that spot, the Miami Dolphins, looming next Saturday Night bookended by divisional dates with the Denver Broncos and the aforementioned Chargers, there is still a fading glimmer of hope that remains. With that said, if this team hopes to indeed achieve their goals, then they’re going to need to turn things around IMMEDIATELY, which is why Gruden made an abrupt change following last weekend’s disappointing loss.
It’s far from an ideal time to make a major coaching change at this juncture of the season, particularly when you’re in the midst of a Playoff race, but that’s precisely what the 57-year old did when he dismissed (Defensive Coordinator) Paul Guenther following last Sunday’s dreadful performance against the Indianapolis Colts. Guenther arrived alongside Gruden back in 2018, when the latter signed a landmark, ten-year/$100 million contract to return to the franchise that gave him his first head coaching gig back in 1998. While the roster has gradually been replenished over the past thirty-six months, with the Offense making major strides, the Defense has been a different story altogether, with Las Vegas showing only marginal improvement under Guenther’s watch. Essentially starting over from scratch in 2018, the Raiders ranked Twenty-Sixth Overall in Total Defense (381.4) and dead-last in Points Allowed (29.2), followed by Nineteenth (354.8) and Twenty-Fourth (26.2) in those respective categories last season. However, through twelve games it’s impossible to walk away without the impression that they’ve regressed, ranking Twenty-Fifth in Total Defense (384.2) and Thirtieth in Points Allowed (30.1), including Twenty-Fourth against the pass (256.1) and Twenty-Fifth versus the run (128.1), all the while languishing at Twenty-Second in takeaways (15) and Thirty-First in sacks (15), and most damning, Second in missed tackles (102). A distinct lack of pressure has been their longest-running problem for the Silver & Black, who have scarcely generated the requisite pass-rush to compete defensively in today’s National Football League; this unit rarely blitzed under Guenther (19.3%), one of three teams to blitz on fewer than 20.0% of defensive snaps, translating to a middling pressure percentage of 21.7% (17th Overall). However, let’s not mistake getting around the opposing Quarterback with actually bringing him down, for finishing has been the real problem, with the trickle-down effect proving infectious; more pressure would spell improvement on third down where they’ve been dreadful (50.0%, 29th Overall), while also forcing situations far more likely to bear a turnover, but that’s been an issue too, with fifteen in thirteen games, though eight of that total came in two outings alone. It’s not as if the Raiders haven’t invested in the Defense either; they invested heavily at Linebacker during Free Agency with the signings of Cory Littleton (57 TKL, 3 TFL) and Nick Kwiatkoski (71 TKL, 3 TFL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 FF, 1 INT, 4 PD), while spending NINE draft picks over the past two years on this particular side of the football, tabbing Clelin Ferrell (27 TKL, 3 TFL, 10 QBH, 2.0 SK, 2 FF, 3 PD) with the 4th Overall Pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, only to amass a scant 6.5 sacks in twenty-six games, completely outperformed by his teammate, Maxx Crosby (33 TKL, 11 TFL, 10 QBH, 6.0 SK, 1 FR, 1 PD), who was the 106th pick in that same Draft, with sixteen sacks in twenty-nine appearances. And if the pass-rush wasn’t worrying enough, the run defense has become more alarming with each passing week; during this four-game funk, Las Vegas has been throttled for an average of 162.8 yards on 5.3 yards per carry, yielding over 200 rushing yards in each of the last contests alone. Replacing Guenther will be Defensive Line Coach, Rod Marinelli, who many thought should have taken over upon his arrival back in the Spring. The 71-year old, California may be remembered mostly as the Head Coach of the 0-16 Detroit Lions back in 2008, but he has long been one of the most well-respected defensive minds in the NFL, rising to prominence with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the late 1990s/early2000s serving on the Defensive Line and later as Gruden’s Assistant Head Coach from 2002 to 2005. Furthermore, Marinelli spent the last seven years with the Dallas Cowboys, the past six as their Defensive Coordinator, finishing in the Top-10 in Total Defense in each of the last three campaigns. We’ll see if this gamble pays off for Gruden, who is desperately looking for a spark on this side of the football, and it may indeed prove to be the quick short-term fix needed, for none of their final three opponents can be considered as juggernauts on Offense, particularly in terms of the running game. Unfortunately, Marinelli will be without a number of starters for this matchup, with (Safety) Jonathan Abram (77 TKL, 2 TFL, 4 QBH, 1 FR, 2 INT, 5 PD), (Cornerback) Damon Arnette (19 TKL, 2 PD), and the aforementioned Ferrell out with an assortment of injuries.
When we last saw the Raiders, they fell to their third defeat in four outings as they were outright pummeled by the Indianapolis Colts in a 44-27 drubbing. As we stated earlier, this was the affair that finally saw the aforementioned Guenther lose his job, and for all intents and purposes he earned it; Indianapolis had nine drives on the evening, and scored on all but two of them, and one of them came kneeling with victory assured at the climax of the contest. Though the Colts have had their struggles running the football in 2020, you wouldn’t know it after watching this game play out, as they ran roughshod over the Raiders en route to churning out 212 yards on thirty-one carries, including a career-high 150 yards and two scores for Rookie Tailback, Jonathan Taylor. Furthermore, former Charger and frequent foe, Philip Rivers, enjoyed the reunion, completing 19-of-28 passes for 244 yards and a pair of touchdowns, leading the visitors to 456 total yards and converting a solid 8-of-11 third downs. For their trouble, the hosts totaled 424 yards of their own and actually owned an advantage in time of possession (31:25), but don’t be fooled by those figures for this was not what Gruden wanted to see from his troops. the Offense was unbalanced, with the running game accounting for just seventy-nine yards on twenty-two attempts, and the unit as a whole committing a sinful three turnovers. Sophomore Tailback, Josh Jacobs (219 CAR, 831 YDS, 3.8 Y/A, 9 TD), who after initially being listed as out with a sore should changed his mind at game time, though wasn’t very effective on his way to forty-nine yards on thirteen rushes, while Derek Carr (68.2%, 3,343 YDS, 7.04 NY/A, 24 TD, 7 INT, 73.0 QBR), completed 31-of-45 passes for 316 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but was intercepted on two occasions as well. Speaking of the veteran Quarterback, he’ll be looking to continue his success against the Chargers, who have been by far and away the most amicable of his three division rivals, owning a 7-6 record against with nineteen touchdowns and twelve turnovers. The Raiders will also be looking to sweep the season series with the Chargers for the fourth time in the last decade, having won each of their last three meetings.