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NFL Draft

Are The Raiders Legit AFC Contenders?

  • The Draft Network
  • September 19, 2021
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The Las Vegas Raiders entered their matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers on a short week, missing running back Josh Jacobs, and forced to roll with a makeshift offensive line without either of their starting guards. It didn’t matter.

The Raiders have begun the 2021 season 2-0 after beating the Baltimore Ravens on Monday Night Football and an early victory against the Steelers on Sunday afternoon. With Las Vegas in the same division as Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, they were never going to enter the season as favorites to win the AFC West. But after a promising start to the season, it might be time for us to look at the Raiders more seriously.

For starters, Derek Carr has looked phenomenal. While the Las Vegas run game has underwhelmed, Carr and the passing offense have more than made up for it. Through the Raiders’ first two games, he is 62-of-93—good for a 66.7% completion rate—with 817 passing yards and four touchdowns.

On the receiving end, tight end Darren Waller has continued to be a menace. In Week 1 against the Ravens, Waller had 19 targets; more than one-third of Carr’s pass attempts were to him. As you might expect, the tight end led the Raiders’ receiving attack that game with 10 receptions, 105 yards, and a touchdown. This Sunday, Waller didn’t quite lead his team in receiving production again, but he was the second-most in yards with 65.

Meanwhile, wide receiver Henry Ruggs III entered his second season after a disappointing rookie year looking to have an expanded role with Nelson Agholor’s departure in free agency. He’s already been taking advantage of his extra looks in 2021. He had a solid performance against the Ravens in Week 1 that included a 37-yard deep bomb late in the game, but it was the game against the Steelers on Sunday that Ruggs really got to show off his talent and speed.

On a third-and-long play early in the fourth quarter, he burned two Pittsburgh secondary defenders for a 61-yard touchdown reception to top off his five-reception, 113-yard day.

According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, the second-year receiver hit a career-high 21.42 mph top speed on his route. It can’t be understated how great of a dime that was from Carr, either. It was his third-longest pass in air yards since 2016, and he placed it perfectly. Head coach Jon Gruden showed faith in his quarterback who showed faith in his receiver with a play like that.

Matching the offense’s great day on Sunday was the Raiders’ defense, which held Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers to just 17 points on 331 total yards. The Las Vegas front consistently put Roethlisberger under pressure, adding two sacks to the three they had against the Ravens on Monday. The Las Vegas clutch defense on third down was especially huge as well, holding Pittsburgh to just 5-for-12 on third-down conversions, including a Trayvon Mullen interception on third down during the Steelers’ second drive.

So far, the Raiders have faced off against two teams that were expected to be playoff contenders coming into this season and have not blinked. That’s not to say there haven’t been any holes in their game. They struggled to stop Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore run game in Week 1, but they did show improvement in Week 2, holding first-round running back Najee Harris to just 38 rushing yards on Sunday. On the flip side, their run game has struggled without all their starters on the offensive line, and we saw an even more underwhelming rushing attack without lead-back Josh Jacobs this week. If their defense can make the week-to-week adjustments they need while they plug the holes on offense, they could be a hard team to beat. They’ll look even better if Carr continues to perform well alongside pass-catchers Ruggs and Waller.

Las Vegas has some big tests in the weeks ahead, facing their first in-division opponents in two and four weeks—at the Los Angeles Chargers and in Denver against the Broncos, respectively. If they manage to keep winning, look out for their first meet-up with the Chiefs in mid-November in a home game that could have big AFC West implications.

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