The Las Vegas Raiders are down, but not out, as they try to pick themselves up after a devastating loss to the Indianapolis Colts. Week 14's loss was a punishing blow to the Silver and Black's playoff hopes, but all can be remedied if they win their final three games, and get a little help around the league. It will all mean nothing though if the Raiders can't handle business on Thursday Night Football and defeat the division-rival Los Angeles Chargers at Allegiant Stadium.
Before the clash on primetime, let's review the list of six things to keep an eye on when the AFC West foes take the field.
Can the Raiders stop Austin Ekeler?
Without a doubt, this is the most important question of the week.
In back-to-back games now, the Las Vegas Raiders have given up more than 200 rushing yards — the New York Jets rushed for 200-plus yards… the Jets. During former defensive coordinator Paul Guenther's tenure with the team, the Raiders allowed 128.1 yards per game, which ranks 25th in the league. If the Raiders hope to get back in the win column, improving the run defense is a must.
This season, Chargers running back Austin Ekeler has rushed for 407 yards and reeled in 41 receptions for 328 yards. Those numbers aren't staggering, but he's missed half the year with an injury, so don't let his numbers deceiver you — he's a beast. A season ago, Ekeler racked up 1,550 total yards and 11 touchdowns, while sharing the backfield with Melvin Gordon. Rookie phenom Justin Herbert might be the future of the franchise, but Ekeler is capable of doing damage.
How will the defense respond to Guenther's firing?
Following the Raiders' loss to the Colts, Paul Guenther was relieved of his duties as defensive coordinator, and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli was appointed as the interim DC. When a new coach takes over the duties of a coordinator, you never know how players will respond to the change, but Marinelli has built a strong rapport with the defense since joining the team early this year.
"Yeah, everybody responds well to Rod," Coach Gruden told reporters this week. "They have before. It's not like he's a new guy coming in here. He gets the correct response. I think a lot of respect, people trust him, and he'll do a good job. It will be a tall order for him obviously, and our defense, but I know we're looking forward to the challenge and got a lot of respect for the Chargers."
Marinelli told reporters this week he wants the defense to play and tackle like a Raider should, meaning the unit dives to the football with aggression and grit. It's clear he wants to re-establish the fundamentals and get the defense playing a brand of football that embodies the Raider way.
As the Raiders prepare to host the Los Angeles Chargers at Allegiant Stadium, view past matchups of the Silver and Black hosting their division rival
Who steps up on defense?
For Thursday's game against the Bolts, the Raiders will be without Clelin Ferrell, Johnathan Abram, Damon Arnette, Nicholas Morrow, and possibly Nevin Lawson, who's listed as questionable. These are several key players and their absence will be dearly missed, but it's time for the next man up. The Raiders still have capable playmakers at defensive end, safety, cornerback, and linebacker to pick up the slack, but who's going to step up? Nick Kwiatkoski has proven to be a difference-maker this season with one interception, one forced fumble, one sack, and 71 tackles. A large responsibility falls on his shoulders every week wearing the green dot, but more will be asked of him with Morrow sidelined. Without Abram, safety Erik Harris will also need to be disciplined with his angles and coverage. Abram is a tackling machine and the defense looks noticeably different with him on the field.
It's not an ideal situation on a short week, but the Raiders can't make excuses.
Reignite the run game.
It's been nearly a month since the Raiders' offense totaled more than 100 yards rushing in a game. What's been the team's identity for more than a season-and-a-half now has seemingly disappeared over the past month. Josh Jacobs has been hurt and banged up, so he can't be to blame for the team's woes, but something needs to change in order to get the Raiders' dominant ground attack rolling again.
"Well, certain defenses play different than others, and you're right Josh has been banged up," Gruden said Wednesday when asked about how defenses play the run. "Our fullback has been banged up and our third-down back has been banged up, but I think they're all healthy now. We need to run the ball, stay committed to it. Chargers don't give you any yards now. You got to work hard to get the ball forward, move the ball on the ground in this league, and we're going to continue to work at it. We're good at it and we need to get more production from it."
Win the special teams battle.
The Chargers have suffered a lot of heartbreak this year with last-second losses, but many of them have been self-inflicted. If you have the internet, chances are you've probably seen a couple of the Chargers' debacles on special teams this year: they gave up two special teams touchdowns to the Patriots a couple of weeks ago, and they failed to get their field goal unit set up before the end of the first half last week. The errors and miscues prompted Head Coach Anthony Lynn to take over special teams responsibilities, but even still, the unit has struggled. I'm hopeful Hunter Renfrow can return the first punt of his career for a touchdown against a squad that's struggled as of late.
How much will the new guys play?
Takk McKinley has been with the Raiders for a couple of weeks now and has yet to make an appearance on the field, so could this be the week? Not likely, according to Gruden; however, Vic Beasley has increased his reps the last two weeks and could earn some added playing time with Ferrell out for the game. In addition, the Raiders re-signed an old friend, Daryl Worley, and there's a good chance he plays, but in a limited role.
"Well, Takk won't be up yet," Gruden said. "We'll hope to get him up here next week. He will not be up this week. It's too short of a week. We really haven't had a full-speed practice, so we'll try to get Takk up against Miami if all things work out. And in regard to the Daryl Worley question, it's hard to bring a guy in that you haven't seen in a while and ask him to do a lot of things, but we have a role for him, and he'll fulfill that role. He'll do a good job. I don't want to give away the game plan, but he will play in the game, and based on how the Chargers come out at us will determine how much he plays."