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Giants vs. Raiders: What to expect when the Giants have the ball

Pass rush has keyed improvement to Las Vegas defense

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The first half of the season has certainly been rough for the New York Giants. Between their own poor play, some missed opportunities, and a hospital full of injuries, the Giants can only claim a 2-6 record in Week 9.

This week, the Giants will host the 5-2 Las Vegas Raiders at home. While an east coast team hosting a west coast team at 1 p.m. usually has the advantage, this week the Giants are playing on a short week while the Raiders are coming off of a bye week.

The Giants’ offense has flashed over the course of the 2021 season, but those injuries and inconsistencies have kept them from sustaining those flashes.

It also hasn’t helped that the Giants have faced a parade of good defenses throughout their season. What can the Giants’ offense expect from the Raiders’ defense?

Two more good pass rushers

The Las Vegas Raiders aren’t really known for their pass rush, at least not in the way that the Rams, Bills, Browns, or Cardinals are. The Raiders are about average when it comes to their pass rush win rate, which is tied with four other teams at 43 percent (14th overall), and they’re 12th in sacks with 18.

Overall, that should seem like a nice respite for the Giants’ beleaguered pass protection, right?

I wouldn’t be so quick to breathe a sigh of relief. Just because the Raiders aren’t exceptional with marquee pass rushers doesn’t mean they can’t mount a solid pass rush.

Starting EDGE defenders Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue lead the team with 5.0 and 4.0 sacks, respectively. They both win their pass rushes and finish on the quarterback at an above-average rate. Both players are strong, high-motor rushers who play with good leverage and excel at fighting through blocks. Crosby is on pace for a career year and already has more QB hits than in any previous season, and has 22 combined pressures on the season. Ngakoue is on pace for a career-average year, but his average is pretty darn good — though he too is on pace for an above average year in total pressures.

Both players aren’t missing tackles, either, with just two missed tackles apiece.

DL Solomon Thomas and DE Carl Nassib have been the Raiders’ primary backups along the defensive line. And while neither is particularly productive, they do settle at about league-average as pass rushers. They have about average win and pressure rates among all pass rushers, which is fine for players who only see 30 to 40 percent of the defensive snaps.

But while the Raiders’ defense might not get to quarterbacks particularly quickly, they are able to get into the backfield and be disruptive. The Raiders’ defensive front is 10th in total pressures and seventh in pressure rate, meanwhile they are first in quarterback hits and second in knockdowns.

You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned Clelin Ferrell yet. That’s because Mike Mayock’s first ever pick as a general manager is simply a non-factor this year. He’s only played 95 snaps in six games with three total tackles.

The Raiders’ run defense is probably best summed with a solid “meh”.

Las Vegas currently ranks 21st in yards allowed and 27th in yards per carry allowed. Going a step deeper, it does appear that while the Raiders give up yards on the ground, it doesn’t hurt them much. They currently rank 7th in the NFL with -0.134 EPA per play allowed on running plays. All told, they’re 20th in rushing touchdowns allowed with eight — although to be fair, 20 teams have given up between six and nine rushing touchdowns — and are 13th in rushing first downs.

Mediocre run defense shouldn’t be too surprising with Rod Marinelli coaching the Raiders’ defensive line. He has always favored attacking defenses that look to disrupt in the backfield and typically give up yards on the ground. His favored “Wide 9” scheme does give players like Crosby and Ngakoue favorable angles into the backfield, but it makes life difficult on interior defenders in run defense.

The Giants will almost certainly want to run the ball this game, and between their assorted running backs and Daniel Jones,

Classic Gus Bradley

It doesn’t take long watching the tape to see Gus Bradley’s fingerprints all over this defense. We’ve already mentioned the four-man fronts, but they are playing under classic “Gus Bradley” coverages. The Raiders’ secondary plays Cover 3 shells almost exclusively:

Bradley has long loved Cover 3 defenses, going back to his time as the architect of the Seattle Seahawks’ championship defenses (which used Cover 3 at a similar rate as the Raiders do now).

Cover 3 is a well-understood coverage scheme, with well-known strengths and weaknesses. It’s a balanced scheme that looks to prevent deep passes with three deep coverage shells while also allowing for solid underneath coverage or run defense by allowing four players at the second level. However, Cover 3 also has obvious weaknesses in the left and right flats, as well as down the field in the seams between the left and right corners and the free safety.

The Raiders’ coverage schemes fit their secondary personnel well, and they currently have the the fifth-ranked pass defense. Las Vegas’ secondary is 12th in completion percentage, allowing 64.5 percent completion, which is a bit better than average (65.6 percent) but not really close to the Buffalo Bills’ league-leading 57.6 percent.

But that’s to be expected, as the Raiders’ coverage schemes typically ask their coverage players to play downhill. While that can lead to receptions, the Raiders have a very strong tackling secondary — Starting corners Nate Hobbs and Casey Hayward have a total of three missed tackles between them. Between Hobbs, Hayward, and the Raiders’ safeties, they are second in yards per attempt, fourth in net yards per attempt, fourth in yards per completion.

Considering that much of the NFL’s passing offense takes place less than 10 yards downfield (NFL average yards per play is 5.6, with 6.5 net yards per pass attempt), a reliable tackling secondary is a pretty big advantage. The fact that the Raiders rank 2nd in yards after catch (671 total, 3.9 per completion) goes a long way toward helping their overall pass defense.

Starting corner Casey Hayward, reserve corner Brandon Fascyon, and rookie safety Trevon Moehrig are all having excellent seasons. While none are racking up turnovers, quarterbacks have struggled to complete passes in their areas of responsibility. Both Hayward and Fascyon are only allowing completion percentages in the 40’s (47.8 and 42.1, respectively), while Moehrig is only allowing 53.8 percent of passes to be completed.

The Raiders don’t have a lot of speed in their secondary, which could present opportunities for John Ross III and Darius Slayton down the field. Those opportunities could be mitigated by the cushions used by the Raiders’ defensive backs, but well-executed play-action should add enough indecision to allow the receivers to break free down the field.

Likewise, the natural weaknesses of the Cover 3 scheme should create opportunities to attack down the field with the tight ends. The Giants have shown a frustrating reluctance to use their tight ends down the field, but perhaps injuries to their receiving corps and the fact that both Evan Engram and Kyle Rudolph scored touchdowns on Monday Night could instill some confidence.

While Bradley is more than experienced enough to know what adjustments to make to protect his scheme, the Cover 3 foundation is almost exactly the kind of defense against which Evan Engram should excel. Of course, we’ve been pointing out opportunities to use Engram’s skill set since Pat Shurmur was first hired in Engram’s sophomore season.

The Giants can also make use of passes out of the backfield to attack the shallow flats vacated by the cornerbacks. Whether the Giants use Devontae Booker, Elijhaa Penny, or a wide receiver put in motion (or in a bubble screen), the opportunities could be there for easy passes to keep the offense moving in a positive direction.

Under pressure?

There has long been a perception that Seahawks-style defenses are “blitz happy”, but that just isn’t true — at least it isn’t true for the Raiders.

Las Vegas is currently dead last in blitz rate at 12.7 percent, having run just 38 blitzes this year. Odds are, if the Raiders are pass rushing, they’re sending four guys.

While Bradley’s Cover 3 schemes typically give him eight defenders in the tackle box, he only rarely uses the box safety or a linebacker as a blitzer. But the Raiders’ incredibly high frequency of Cover 3 looks, combined with their high rate of four-man fronts and low blitz rate, has an interesting effect.

It turns out, that the Raiders are actually a very good blitzing defense.

When the Raiders blitz, they have the highest EPA per play allowed of any defense in the NFL, coming in at just under -0.5 EPA per play. The next closest blitzing team is the Bills who come in at (about) -0.3 EPA per play.

The Raiders’ success as a blitzing team comes down to two factors.

The first is the judicious use of coverage wrinkles. While he uses Cover 3 and 4-man rushes on the vast majority of downs, other coverage schemes and pressure packages ARE in his playbook. Bradley typically reserves his coverage adjustments for specific situations based on what the offense does. Bradley dials up blitzes so infrequently, that it seems legitimately hard for offenses to anticipate them, which makes them that much more effective.

The other factor is safety Johnathan Abram. Abram typically plays the role of box safety in the Raiders’ Cover 3 defense and is the player most commonly sent on blitzes. Abram is also a very good blitzer and currently has a 25 percent pass rush win rate and a pressure rate just under 35 percent. His timing and explosiveness downhill make him tough for offenses to stop, and his solid tackling makes it tough for quarterbacks to escape him.

Bradley is very good at timing blitzes for the most impact and when the offense isn’t expecting them. The Giants should expect at least a couple over the course of the game, and have their backs ready to pick them up in pass protection.