8:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Chargers -3, Over/Under: 51.5
Bitter rivals meet once again in the City of Angels, as the undefeated Las Vegas Raiders enjoy a bit of a homecoming as they travel to SoFi Stadium to face the Los Angeles Chargers on Monday Night Football. While they currently reside in Sin City, the oft-traveled Raiders (3-0, T-1st in AFC West) have strong roots in LA, where they called home for thirteen seasons from 1982 to 1994, winning the franchise’s last Super Bowl back in 1983. Speaking of Super Bowls, the Silver & Black are undefeated through three games for the first time since 2002, which coincidentally was the last time that they competed for a Lombardi Trophy. Of course, the figure who ultimately denied them of that triumph was (Head Coach) Jon Gruden, who after being effectively traded from Oakland to Tamp Bay came back to bite his former employer’s in the ass in a major way, embarrassing them in a 48-21 drubbing that in many ways they’re still trying to rebound from. Ironically, Gruden finds himself once again in charge of the Raiders, now in the fourth year of a landmark ten-year/$100 million contract. Growth has been glacial thus far during his second stint with the club, but it appears that the extensive groundwork laid over the course of the previous three years is beginning to pay dividends. So what’s changed for Las Vegas, you ask? Well, first and foremost, (veteran Quarterback) Derek Carr (64.7%, 1,203 YDS, 7.91 NY/A, 6 TD, 2 INT, 60.3 QBR) is playing out of his mind, leading the National Football League in passing yards (1,203) and game-winning drives (2). Now in his fourth season within Gruden’s system, the 30-year old has looked remarkably comfortable even with the rebuilt Offensive Line still trying to find their way; with four new starters along the Line, including a rookie at Right Tackle (17th Overall Pick, Alex Leatherwood), his protection hasn’t been great (8 sacks, 5.6%), while the running game has been inconsistent to boot (91.3 Y/G, 3.4 Y/A), particularly given the health of (Pro-Bowl Tailback) Josh Jacobs (10 CAR, 34 YDS, 3.4 Y/A, 2 TD), who has been limited thus far with an ankle sprain. Despite those issues, Carr continues to excel, spreading the wealth to a young Receiving Corps that is the first in NFL history to feature four of their number to log 200 or more yards through the first three games. After being targeted a staggering NINETEEN times in the opener, (Pro-Bowl Tight End) Darren Waller (20 REC, 224 YDS, 11.2 Y/R, 1 TD) has drawn a wealth of attention, allowing for his young teammates to make plays when afforded the opportunity, as (Sophomore Receivers) Henry Ruggs (11 REC, 237 YDS, 21.5 Y/R, 1 TD) and Bryan Edwards (10 REC, 210 YDS, 21.0 Y/R, 0 TD) have become more prominent figures within the passing game. Another proponent for their success thus far has been an evident increase in overall depth; as Gruden laid waste to the roster upon his return in 2018, Vegas oftentimes struggled in the second half of not just games, but the overall campaign as well, missing the Playoffs in each of the last two seasons despite getting out to solid 6-3 and 6-4 starts. While the 58-year old alongside (General Manager) Mike Mayock have been frequently criticized for their decisions (and missteps) in rebuilding this roster (particularly via the Draft), it appears that they finally have the requisite depth to at the very least remain competitive late into games. After all, how else can you explain their success thus far despite two of their first three outings going the distance? Las Vegas became just the fourth team in league history to win twice in overtime during the first three weeks of a campaign, outlasting the Miami Dolphins in an entertaining 31-28 victory last weekend. Trailing 14-0 in the First Quarter, Carr rallied the hosts back to take a 25-14 lead early in the final stanza, and though the visitors tied it late, the signal-caller hit the aforementioned Edwards thirty-yards downfield, followed by a 24-yard run courtesy of (Backup Tailback) Peyton Barber (36 CAR, 143 YDS, 4.0 Y/A, 1 TD) to help set up the game-winning field goal. This newfound resilience bodes well for them moving forward, though it remains to be seen if they will indeed be able to finish down the stretch come November and December. With all that said, arguably the biggest reason for optimism has been the rapid improvement of the Defense, which has been transformed under (Defensive Coordinator) Gus Bradley. Simply put, this side of the football had been an eyesore since Gruden returned, with the Raiders ranking dead-last in the NFL in sacks and takeaways from 2018 to 2020, playing a direct role in their late-season struggles. Enter the 55-year old Bradley, renowned as the prime architect of Seattle’s famed Cover-Three scheme made legendary by their Legion of Boom (2011 to 2012), while also building staunch defensive units in Jacksonville (2013 to 2016) and most recently Los Angeles (2017-2020). After ranking thirtieth overall in points allowed (29.9), twenty-fifth in total defense (389.0 Y/G), twenty-ninth in sacks (21), thirtieth in takeaways (15), Vegas has been far more respectable defensively in yielding 24.0 points (15th Overall) on 355.6 total yards (14th Overall), with those numbers skewed a bit from the two overtimes. Furthermore, they’ve been able to generate big plays, forcing three turnovers (18th Overall) largely on the strength of totaling seven sacks (13th Overall). Gruden and Mayock have spent a lot of draft capital on this side of the football, and Bradley’s scheme has simplified things for this young unit with the likes of (Defensive End) Maxx Crosby (9 TKL, 3 TFL, 12 QBH, 2.0 SK) playing at the highest level of his career, while a reclamation project such as (former No. 3 Overall Pick) Solomon Thomas (6 TKL, 1 TFL, 3 QBH, 2.5 SK, 1 FF) has managed to find new life.
Meanwhile, they may not be undefeated, but there is a strong argument that the Chargers (2-1, 3rd in AFC West) may in fact be the class of the loaded AFC West, particularly after their stunning 30-24 victory over the mighty Kansas City Chiefs last weekend at Arrowhead Stadium. This one was an eye-opening performance for a variety of reasons, folks, as Los Angeles stormed into one of the most hostile environments in the NFL against the two-time reigning AFC Champions and had an answer for every threat posed. (Head Coach) Brandon Staley’s charges made quite the impression early, forcing three turnovers on the host’s first three drives of the afternoon, with (Rookie Cornerback) Asante Samuel Jr. (9 TKL, 2 INT, 4 PD) continuing his torrid start in picking off (Chiefs Quarterback) Patrick Mahomes deep downfield, before Los Angeles stripped both Tyreek Hill and Clyde Edwards-Helaire on back-to-back possessions. On the opposite side of the football, (Sophomore Quarterback) Justin Herbert (69.8%, 956 YDS, 7.04 NY/A, 6 TD, 3 INT, 54.8 QBR) guided the visitors to consecutive touchdowns, finding (Pro-Bowl Receiver) Kennan Allen (21 REC, 258 YDS, 12.3 Y/R, 1 TD) for a four-yard strike followed by a sixteen-yard laser to (versatile Tailback) Austin Ekeler (50 TCH, 279 YDS, 5.6 Y/T, 2 TD) to take a sudden 14-0 lead. Eventually, Kansas City would rally in scoring seventeen unanswered points to take the lead, though Herbert would strike back, engineering an eleven-play, 75-yard drive culminating with a twenty-yard touchdown to (Receiver) Mike Williams (22 REC, 295 YDS, 13.4 Y/R, 4 TD) to put LA back in front. After another Chiefs’ touchdown made it 24-21, (Kicker) Tristan Vizcaino tied it up just outside of the two minute warning. With everyone assuming that Mahomes would deftly guide the home side downfield to set up a game-winning field goal, Staley’s charges flipped the script, picking off the 2018 MVP and thus receiving the football in excellent field position, which Herbert mercilessly took advantage of en route to finding the aforementioned Williams in the corner of the end zone for the proverbial knockout punch. When it was all said and done, the Lightning Bolts totaled 352 yards, with their young Quarterback showing out on 26-of-38 passing for 281 yards and four touchdowns, as Allen and Williams accounted for a combined fifteen receptions for 172 yards and three scores, while Ekeler rung up 107 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown on seventeen touches. This was the kind of performance that must have made ownership smile, as they hope that this annually-talented roster is in better hands with Staley, a rising star within the coaching ranks, who has assembled a staff that appears to be far better-suited for the personnel at their disposal. At 38-years old, Staley comes from the Vic Fangio coaching tree, and after coordinating the Rams’ top-ranked Defense last season, looks to further develop a unit that has been of the “bend but don’t break” variety in recent years. With that said, the appointment of (Offensive Coordinator) Joe Lombardi is by far and away the most significant addition to his staff, with the 50-year old charged with getting the most of Herbert. Needless to say, the philosophies and schemes of the previous coaching staff never seemed to fit the athletic, strong-armed Herbert, who would routinely make big plays outside the structure of the Offense. Lombardi, who had spent twelve of the last fourteen years under Sean Payton’s wing mostly coaching Quarterbacks with the New Orleans Saints, seems like a natural fit to unlock this 23-year old’s limitless potential. The challenge though will be bringing some more balance to the attack, for this is an area in which the Chargers have struggled with mightily in the past; Los Angeles ranks twenty-sixth and twenty-fourth in rushing yards (87.3) and yards per carry (3.7) respectively, and despite having no problems moving the football between the twenties, converting on a healthy 54.8% of their third downs (2nd Overall), they’ve repeatedly bogged down in the red zone, scoring a touchdown on just 46.7% of their opportunities (25th Overall). Injuries along the Offensive Line have played a major role in their past struggles, and while (Rookie Guard) Rashad Slater has been VERY impressive though the first three games, the Bolts are already dealing with an ailing Bryan Bulaga, as the veteran Right Tackle landed on Injured Reserve after just one outing. This all makes for another interesting matchup against the Raiders, whom they welcome to SoFi Stadium for the first time with actual fans in attendance. We touched upon the reality that Las Vegas is expected to have a sizable presence among the fans, for in past years Chargers home games against them have been a bonafide extension of the Black Hole. Las Vegas has won three out of the last four meetings between them, including each of the past two in Los Angeles, though both encounters were decided at the death in 2020; the Raiders won 21-26 at SoFi as Herbert’s would-be, game-winner was overturned after review, while the 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year would earn a measure of revenge at Allegiant Stadium where he snuck in on the goal line for the game-winner in another spirited 30-27 affair.