Thursday Night Preview: Chargers at Raiders

When the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders met in Week 9, this divisional battle did not disappoint. The Chargers’ game-winning touchdown to upset the Raiders with no time left was overturned after review showed that the pass was dropped. Thanks in part to that result, the Raiders are still very much in the playoff picture despite a crushing loss to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 14. On the other hand, the Chargers are not in the running for the playoffs but were still able to secure a victory as time expired against the Falcons last week. Who will have the upper hand in this Thursday night affair? Here are the keys to the game for both of these teams:

Keys to the game for the Los Angeles Chargers:

1. Stretch the field with their plethora of receivers

Part of what has made rookie QB Justin Herbert so hard to stop this season is his incredible deep ball; however, Los Angeles has been unable to take advantage of that in recent weeks. Teams are forcing Herbert to beat them in different ways, yet it still seems like Herbert is fully capable of making those throws, as evidenced by his throw late to Tyron Johnson against the Falcons in Week 14. Los Angeles has tried to focus more on its run game and shorter passes, but that doesn’t seem to be the winning formula. In the past four games, the Chargers have only scored more than 20 points once, in Week 11 against the New York Jets. The Chargers were able to compete with teams like the Chiefs, Saints and Buccaneers because of Herbert’s deep passing abilities. The Raiders have given up 256.1 passing yards per game in 2020, eighth-most in the NFL. The Chargers have a bevy of receivers who can take advantage of a shaky pass defense in any given game, and they should succeed in this TNF matchup if the Chargers play a more aggressive style of ball that was more indicative of their early season offensive success.

2. Force somebody else to step up for Las Vegas

It is not a secret that tight end Darren Waller has been the go-to receiver for Derek Carr the past two seasons. In fact, Waller has totaled 1,962 yards and 10 touchdowns on 174 receptions. Waller has been a machine for the Raiders, and it showed in the their come-from-behind victory against the Jets — Waller finished that matchup with 13 receptions for 200 yards and 2 touchdowns. The first time these teams met in 2020, Waller only had 5 receptions for 22 yards and a touchdown. Limiting Waller to numbers like that will be critical if the Chargers are to have a chance to even the season series. The Chargers have been stingy on tight ends the whole season as they have only given up 52 receptions for 521 yards to opposing tight ends; however, the Chargers have given up 9 touchdowns to tight ends this year, tied for the third-highest mark in the NFL. Stopping Waller is going to be key if the Chargers want to give more opportunities to their offense to put points on the board. The Chargers have to force somebody else to beat them if they want a chance to win.

3. Get Hunter Henry involved

Speaking of tight ends, Hunter Henry has had a rollercoaster of a season in 2020. Through the first three games, it looked like Henry was going to have a great season, but he has only had 50 receiving yards in a game once since Week 3. Furthermore, Henry has not been as much of a red-zone target, as he only has three touchdowns on the year. The Raiders have given up only four touchdowns to tight ends this season, but they have been susceptible to giving up yardage to that position (666). There was a clear reason why the Chargers went to Donald Parham Jr. on the last play of the game in the first matchup between these teams, as they clearly saw a matchup they liked. Henry has proven to be a reliable tight end in the past and getting him more involved may help open up the deep passing game so guys like Mike Williams, Jalen Guyton, etc. can thrive once more against a shaky Las Vegas pass defense.

Keys to the game for the Las Vegas Raiders:

1. Be persistent with the running game

Since Week 10, the Raiders’ rushing attack has not been the same. In Week 10, the Raiders were able to run all over the Broncos with Josh Jacobs and Devonte Booker to the tune of 203 yards and 4 touchdowns. It seems the Raiders’ run game may have peaked in that game, as Las Vegas has not exceeded 100 yards in a game since. The Raiders’ bread and butter on offense is being able to open the passing game with a strong rushing attack. Las Vegas should look to feed Jacobs more carries in this one, as he has only averaged 43.7 yards per game on the ground since the matchup with the Broncos. Las Vegas needs Jacobs and Booker to have success running the ball in order to keep the Chargers defense honest. The Chargers defense is giving 120 rushing yards per game and 4.6 yards per rushing attempt (12th and ninth in the NFL, respectively). If the Raiders can take advantage of this matchup, it would allow Waller and company to do more damage against the L.A. secondary.

2. Take advantage of Justin Herbert’s recent turnover woes

One thing that has plagued Justin Herbert has been turnovers. There have only been four starts this season in which Herbert has not thrown an interception. Against Atlanta in Week 14, Herbert was able to play a relatively clean game until an interception late in the game almost gave the Falcons a win. Herbert had a harder time protecting the ball against both the Bills and the Patriots in Weeks 12 and 13. One of the four games in which Herbert did not throw an interception was against the Raiders in Week 9. Las Vegas needs to figure out how to disrupt Herbert’s rhythm as this team currently ranks 18th in the league in interceptions with 10. Part of the reason why Los Angeles came so close to defeating the Raiders in Week 9 was due to being able to protect the ball. Las Vegas needs to figure out a way to force Herbert into making some poor decisions in order to replicate the performances that the Patriots and the Bills had against him.

3. Stop Austin Ekeler or whoever is the starting RB

The Chargers have not been great at running the ball this season (112.6 yards per game, 16th in the NFL, and 3.8 yards per attempt, 28th in the NFL). The thing about Chargers running back Austin Ekeler is that he doesn’t necessarily need to be successful in the run game in order to have a big game overall. Ekeler is so elusive in the open field in the passing game, and he has been a viable option out of the backfield when healthy. Las Vegas will have to account for that. The Raiders have given up the eighth-most passing yards to running backs this season with 557 on 73 receptions. Las Vegas hasn’t been spectacular in rush defense either, as the team currently gives up 128.1 rushing yards per game (eighth-most in the NFL) and 4.7 yards per attempt (fourth-most in the NFL). Ekeler is currently questionable to play, but Jon Gruden and company will have to come up with a gameplan to stop Los Angeles. Keep in mind, the Raiders fired defensive coordinator Paul Guenther after last week’s loos to Indy. Veteran defensive coach Rod Marinelli was elevated to DC, so it will be interesting to see how this change affects the Raiders defenders.

Stats From: Pro-Football-Reference

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