Las Vegas Raiders 2021 Team Study

Part 28 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 27 here: Kansas City Chiefs. Part 29 now available: Los Angeles Rams.


Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
Offensive Eff. Rating (silver and black) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPAAdj. Pass Rate

The Raiders offense was a bit of an enigma in 2021. Coming into the season I expected the offensive line to be a liability that limited the team’s upside. But watching their games, it seemed Derek Carr was never under pressure. They used creative formations that included a lot of tight ends and even fullbacks to get extra bodies up front, and it seemed to work. Despite spending the 5th-most time in the pocket, Carr was only pressured at the 9th-highest rate. That typically speaks to a quality offensive line, but in this case had as much to do with the scheme as anything.

I believe this in part because the run game was terrible, both before and after contact. Josh Jacobs is a good runner but never had holes. Sometimes linemen are just better in pass protection than run blocking, but I think their success stemmed from Gruden’s scheme. However, it certainly continued after Gruden resigned, which means either that the offense just continued its approach or it wasn’t Gruden to begin with. Carr also deserves some credit. He is a very smart quarterback who understands how the formations help offset pressure and he anticipates players being open. He showed the ability to use a variety of weapons in the passing game and is finally getting the respect he deserves. That’s good to see.

When your best pass catcher is a tight end and your best receiver is a slot receiver, defenses built around solid cornerback play tend not to be as effective. When looking at game-by-game performance, we can see this in action. Chart A shows the Raiders’ offensive Adj. Effectiveness in each game, ranking each opponent by its DVOA against opposing #1 wide receivers. Many handicappers validly recognize that teams reliant on a top outside wide receiver can struggle against elite cornerback play. But it’s just as important to recognize that an offense not reliant on a top outside wide receiver tends to outperform against those very same defenses by comparison. Diverse passing attacks featuring tight ends, running backs, and slot receivers, tend to eliminate the advantage a top cornerback brings.

Chart A

Chart A: Adjusted Eff. Rating by opponent pass defense in DVOA v. each team's top wide receiver.
*DVOA data from Football Outsiders.

Carr plays with a chip on his shoulder against the best competition. The Raiders offense – which was pretty much a reflection of Carr because the run game was underwhelming – played its best games against the toughest pass defenses. Granted, there is some correlation between good cornerback play and overall pass defense. But Chart B shows the Raiders’ offensive Adj. Effectiveness by each opponent ranked by its EPA/play allowed on passes. Carr stepped up in the toughest spots.  

Chart B

Carr is a smart player. I would expect the Raiders to continue to do whatever they did to help offset the inevitable pressure that comes from having a weak offensive line. But it’s not a guarantee. It depends on how Josh McDaniels approaches the scheme. They also picked up Davante Adams to reunite him and Carr. Adams is a really good fit for this offense with his excellent route-running and reliable catching. Even though his overall production should take a hit with a downgrade at quarterback and more target competition, he should definitely boost Carr’s play and immediately lifts the upside of this offense.

If everyone stays healthy, the big question that remains is the scheme. McDaniels just helped Mac Jones have a solid rookie season, so there is reason to be optimistic he can flourish with Carr. But he’ll have to recognize that he’s working with a much less effective offensive line. I expect a quick-firing passing offense to offset this weakness, and Carr is the kind of quarterback who can pull it off. They should be in for another solid year if they make this transition smoothly.


Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
Defensive Eff. Rating (silver and black) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPABlitz RatePressure Rate

Defensively, the Raiders implemented arguably the most conservative defense in the NFL. They blitzed less frequently than any team and played the most zone coverage. This probably resulted directly from playing Mahomes twice a year, who traditionally abuses teams that blitz. Their defensive philosophy was simple: stay disciplined in coverage and win up front on the defensive line, primarity with Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngokue, who combined for 18 of the Raiders’ 35 sacks.

This bend-but-don’t-break scheme allowed opponents the 6th-fewest net yards per pass attempt. That’s pretty good. But there were two main problems. First, they didn’t create enough turnovers. They had 6 interceptions on the entire season, fewest in the NFL. Part of that is negative variance that should normalize. But part of that is a direct result of a conservative defense.

The other problem was that the Raiders were absolutely terrible in high-leverage situations. They allowed the most fourth down conversions of any team and allowed teams to score touchdowns on 81.4% of their red zone possessions. This astronomical number was not only the worst in the NFL by a significant margin (next highest was 70%). I believe it’s the worst number ever. So, despite allowing the 6th-fewest net yards per pass attempt, they finished 26th in passing EPA/play allowed. Wild.

The play-it-safe technique works only if you can win in these high-leverage situations. Against really good offenses, that’s tough to do. The Raiders’ two worst defensive peformances involved getting torched by Mahomes and the Chiefs, because by the time they played, the Chiefs offense had adapted to what defenses were doing. The 2021 version of the Chiefs’ offense involved Mahomes delivering short area passes (ADOT down to 7.3 from 8.8 in his career previously). This adjustment, combined with his sustained ability to avoid sacks, left the Raiders helpless. In fact, teams with short area passing games tended to outperform generally, as shown by Chart C.

Chart C

The good news is that red zone conversion rates and turnover rates have as much to do with the quality of opposing offenses as the quality of defense. In other words, they aren’t stable metrics. The Raiders faced the 6th-toughest schedule of opposing offenses, so it makes sense that they lost in those high leverage situations. But they will have to do better in 2022, faced with another tough schedule that features the toughest set of divisional opponents in the NFL.

They lost their sack leader Ngokue but hope that Chandler Jones can fill the gap. He should be able to. Serious questions remain about a secondary that struggled in 2021 despite the scheme. When you are able to generate pressure without blitzing, that typically means the secondary has all the help it needs. The Raiders will need to improve. They also have a new coaching staff and a brand new defensive co-ordinator. I’m not sure where they go with their scheme, so it’s tough to make hard predictions. But it’s hard to imagine their coverage getting suddenly better.

Key Takeaways

When to bet on the Raiders: Based on both the Raiders’ history and Josh McDaniels’ coaching in New England, I expect the Raiders to succeed most when they can run the ball to take the pressure off the pass game. Look to back them against good teams with poor run defenses, as Carr steps up in those spots.

When to fade the Raiders: Until they prove they can win against elite quarterbacks, consider fading the Raiders against smart quarterbacks who do not turn the ball over. They struggle to create negative plays and that can really hamper a team in this mold.

Evaluating the off-season: Obtaining Davante Adams is a huge boost for this offense, but they’ll need to overcome offensive line weakness once again. On defense, if Chandler Jones can stay healthy and produce at age 32, then they likely won’t miss Ngakoue. But with the trade for Adams, they didn’t do enough to bolster the secondary, which could be a problem.

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