NFL

Las Vegas Raiders: Defensive additions a must after opening act falls flat

By Sports Desk March 03, 2021

A permanent residency in Las Vegas. It's what so many performers around the world dream of getting, but in 2020 the Raiders were left delivering a mediocre performance to a non-existent audience in their first year in the desert. 

Their mammoth new Allegiant Stadium home was left empty due to restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the Raiders again flattered to deceive, an exciting opening act giving way to an underwhelming finale that ended hopes of a postseason encore. 

Under normal circumstances, a third successive season in which the Raiders missed the playoffs would lead to pressure on Jon Gruden. 

But because the Raiders rolled the dice by giving Gruden a 10-year contract, the head coach is a long way from the hot seat during his second spell with the franchise. 

Playing in a division alongside Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, plus Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers, the Raiders face a tough challenge to contend in the AFC West. 

The pressure on Gruden may finally come should they miss the postseason again in 2021, but what can the Raiders do to ensure their first season with fans in Vegas results in a playoff berth? 

Here, with the help of Stats Perform data, we reflect on the Raiders' 2020 season and assess what they can learn from an 8-8 year.

Offense

The Raiders failed in their pursuit of a Wild Card spot despite an impressive year from much-maligned quarterback Derek Carr, who threw for a career-high 4,103 passing yards and finished the season in a three-way tie for fifth in yards per attempt with an average of 7.94. 

Where Carr made clear and significant strides was as a deep-ball thrower. 

On passes of 21 air yards or more, Carr had a passer rating of 124.2, throwing for 10 touchdowns and one interception. Among quarterbacks to have attempted at least 25 such passes, his rating put him fourth in the league, behind only Daniel Jones, Aaron Rodgers and Kyler Murray. 

The exciting thing for the Raiders is there is clear room for him to grow in that area. 

While Carr was much improved pushing the ball downfield, his rapport with Raiders speedster Henry Ruggs III still needs work. 

Carr had 54 completions of at least 20 yards but first-round pick Ruggs registered only eight receptions of 20 yards or more. 

The average distance on those Ruggs receptions was 40.4 yards, putting him fifth among receivers to have had at least five catches of 20-plus yards. 

If Carr and Ruggs can develop their downfield chemistry, opposing defenses will have more reason to fear the passing game, potentially opening things up further for Pro Bowl tight end Darren Waller underneath and a running game that underwhelmed in 2020. 

Though Josh Jacobs scored 12 touchdowns, the Raiders averaged 4.19 yards per rush, the 19th-best mark in the NFL.

There will be onus on Jacobs and the offensive line to improve drastically in that regard but, should Carr make further progress going deep and force defenses to focus on the pass, everyone else's jobs will become a little bit easier.

Defense

Save for occasional flashes - the shackling of Mahomes and the Chiefs in the second half of their Week 5 win at Arrowhead Stadium being the most prominent example - the Raiders defense failed to live up to the significant investment in that side of the ball.

Indeed, the Raiders continued to struggle to contain opposing offenses in 2020, allowing 5.99 yards per play, the seventh-worst mark in the NFL.

They were one of just six teams to give up over seven yards per pass play, with the Raiders' issues on defense leading to the firing of coordinator Paul Guenther.

Las Vegas will hope that Gus Bradley - Guenther's replacement - will be the man to oversee a turnaround.

To do that, Bradley will need to help deliver a significant upturn in production from the Raiders' pass rush. They finished the season with 21 sacks - just three teams had fewer - with edge rusher Maxx Crosby seeing his numbers drop from 10 sacks as a rookie to seven in 2020.

A first-round pick in 2019, Clelin Ferrell had just 2.5 sacks, with the Raiders' inability to get consistent pressure a factor in them allowing a passer rating of 108.9 on opponent throws of 21 air yards or more.

That number also raises questions about a young and exploitable secondary that has found it difficult to produce turnovers.

Las Vegas ranked 30th in takeaways with a meagre 15, with their 10 interceptions tied for 23rd.

Having consistently failed to pressure quarterbacks and to take the ball away, there is significant room for improvement on defense, but the Raiders do not have the financial flexibility with which to add players who can aid their cause.

Offseason

Even after one of the best seasons of his career, there has again been talk about the Raiders trading Carr in the hope of finding an upgrade at quarterback. 

The more likely scenario is that the Raiders parlay Marcus Mariota's one appearance last season, in which he excelled in relief of the injured Carr, into a trade that can net them more draft capital. 

With the Raiders poised to be over $9million above an assumed salary cap of $185m, potentially limiting their options in free agency, those extra draft picks would be welcomed. 

Regardless of how many picks the Raiders end up with, the areas of need are obvious. 

Pass-rush help both on the edge and on the interior of the defensive line is a must, as is an infusion of athleticism at linebacker, last year's free-agent signings Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski proving ill-equipped to help the Raiders stop the threats posed by modern passing attacks. 

Making those additions to the front seven will be crucial to the progress Gruden and the Raiders hope they can make in the fourth year of his tenure. 

Should the Raiders fail to identify the correct players at those spots, the ceiling of this team may again be limited in 2021 irrespective of any further strides from Carr.

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