The Patriots’ tough schedule continues as they host the Las Vegas Raiders at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon. The Patriots last saw the Raiders in 2017, where the two teams met up in Mexico City. The Patriots trounced the Raiders 33-8 in a thorough demolition game, but these two teams are very much different now than they were 3 years ago. The Raiders were playing their home games in Oakland, Jon Gruden was in the broadcast booth for ESPN, Cam Newton was the starting quarterback for the Carolina Panthers, and Tom Brady was in the middle of his 3rd MVP campaign with the Patriots.
The Raiders come into this game 2-0 with their offense clicking on all cylinders, averaging an NFL-best 3.78 points per drive. Last week, they christened their new stadium with a statement win over the New Orleans Saints, a preseason favorite to win the NFC. Even though they play the Chiefs next week and the Raiders haven’t had too many meaningful wins since 2002, the Patriots must take the Raiders seriously this week to improve their record to 2-1.
Here’s a rundown of what the Patriots should plan when they face the Raiders.
Player to take away: TE Darren Waller
Waller is the player that Derek Carr looks to when he needs a play. He completely took over against the Saints and his catches extended drives on critical downs and the Saints had no answer for him. At 6’6” 250 with otherworldly athleticism and route running, Waller is a tough match-up for any one particular player to cover in the game. After seeing him punk the Saints all night, the Patriots will need to make sure he doesn’t beat them. Expect the Patriots to have two guys for him for critical plays, especially the combination of Joejuan Williams underneath and Devin McCourty over the top.
Last week, Waller caught 12 passes for 105 yards and a TD. The Patriots cannot afford for him to have a repeat performance against their secondary. They’re not going to completely take away Waller all the time because the Raiders have a strong group of skill players that will burn the Patriots defense if they pay too much attention to their star tight end. Josh Jacobs presents problems and could force the Patriots to have to pick their poison and let him have a bigger day to prevent the Raiders from turning this into a track meet. On 3rd down and red zone situations, the Patriots must make Carr look elsewhere to beat them.
Dial up the quick passing game to attack the Raiders linebackers and corners
The passing game is often decided on match-ups and the Patriots receivers match up fairly well against the Raiders linebackers and corners. The Raiders will be without their starting middle linebacker and defensive signal caller, Nick Kwiatkoski, who will miss his second straight game with a pectoral injury. With the Raiders having to move some people around at the linebacker spot, look for the Patriots to try to force these linebackers to cover the middle of the field against their crossing routes and cover the running backs in space. James White will not be playing tomorrow, so Rex Burkhead could very well see some action in the passing game.
On the receiver side, expect the Patriots to use a lot of 3 WR sets with N’Keal Harry and Damiere Byrd on the outside with Julian Edelman working out of the slot. I expect Edelman to put up his usual numbers and impact, so the Patriots will need at least one of Harry or Byrd to be significant factors like last week against Seattle to put up touchdowns because they’ll need every point they can get against the Raiders.
Dominate the ground game
The Patriots aren’t going to shut down the Raider offense, that unit is too talented and has too many ways to beat teams. The Patriots have to limit their impact by reducing the number of possessions the Raiders can have, where a mistake becomes costlier. In order to do that, they will need their own ground game to get going. Sony Michel has looked pedestrian in 2 games as the team’s leading carrier from the RB position. I could easily see Rex Burkhead and J.J. Taylor each asked to carry the ball 10+ times, since both represent a change of pace from Michel.
Cam Newton will also be a big part of the ground game, but perhaps we’ll see the Patriots pick and choose their spots. On critical downs, they will ask him to make plays with his feet to which he’s been successful through 8 quarters in New England.
Through the first two weeks of the season, the Raiders have looked particularly vulnerable to the run, but I will also add the caveat that they played two of the best running teams in the NFL. The Patriots don’t boast the ground game that the Saints, with Latavius Murray and Alvin Kamara, and Panthers with a healthy Christian McCaffrey. However the threat of the QB run on zone-reads and RPOs will give the Raiders something else to worry about that their previous opponents didn’t have. That may be the element of surprise the Patriots have when attacking this Raiders defense.
- RB Rex Burkhead: With White unavailable and Michel looking mediocre through 2 weeks, Burkhead will have to shoulder a big load for the second consecutive week. He’ll likely see the ball 10-15 times in this game, both as a runner and receiver, and his ability to keep the Patriots offense on schedule will be needed.
- WRs Damiere Byrd and N’Keal Harry: I’m not sure if Harry or Byrd will draw the Raiders top corner, but whoever doesn’t will need to beat their guy. Harry put in his first solid game last week with an 8/72 outing and Byrd was a factor in moving the chains. The Raiders will be more worried about Edelman, so both receivers should see a lot of one-on-one coverage.
- CB Joejuan Williams: With the Raiders’ biggest offensive threat being a tight end, the Patriots will need their biggest cornerback to provide solid coverage. At 6’4” 220 and the ability to contest passes at the proverbial rim, Williams can negate some of the size and speed advantages that Waller would have against most linebackers or defensive backs. Depending on how the Raiders offense lines up, we may see the Patriots utilize as many as 4 CBs on the field at once.
Final Score: Patriots 35, Raiders 31
Expect a lot of points in this one with defenses in general off to a slow start in 2020 and both offenses clicking right now. It will come down to how makes the fewest mistakes in the 8-10 possessions they’ll have, and it may also come down to who has the ball last. In this prediction, Cam succeeds where he failed in Week 2 and leads his first 4th Quarter Comeback in a Patriots uniform. This very well could be a preview for a potential rematch in January, save for the obvious difference in weather should the game be played in Foxborough.