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Wild-card weekend kicks off Saturday, as the NFL playoffs get underway. The first game of the slate is one of five rematches from the regular season, as the Cincinnati Bengals host the Las Vegas Raiders, who reached the playoffs with their overtime victory over the Los Angeles Chargers.
The only game this weekend that is not a rematch from the regular season? The Sunday afternoon game between the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers.
When the Bengals and Raiders kick things off on Saturday, it will be a rematch of a Week meeting, won by Cincinnati by a final score of 32-13. The Bengals, coming off their bye week, built a four-point halftime lead and then pulled away with 19 points in the fourth quarter.
Looking back at that game, and looking at where the teams are now, provides some lessons for Las Vegas. Here is what the Raiders must do to beat the Bengals.
Accounting for Ja'Marr Chase
(Albert Cesare / The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK)
Rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase has put himself firmly in the mix for Offensive Rookie of the Year, thanks to a breakout season that saw the LSU product catch 81 passes for 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns during the regular season. Chase saved two of his biggest games of the year for the final weeks of the season, catching seven passes for 125 yards in a Week 16 win over the Baltimore Ravens and then exploding for 11 receptions, 226 yards and three touchdowns in Cincinnati’s Week 17 win over the Kansas City Chiefs.
It should probably not be a surprise that Chase is putting these kinds of numbers up, given what he showed during his final collegiate season. Furthermore, pairing him with the quarterback that was throwing him the football at LSU in Joe Burrow has paid huge dividends for the Bengals offense. The two entered this season with the critical element of trust already in place, having been forged on the practice fields down in the Bayou.
When these teams met back in Week 11, Chase did not put up huge numbers, but he did catch three passes for 32 yards and a touchdown. The lone scoring play came late in the game, on this throw from Burrow:
Returning to Week 11, the cornerback who drew the Chase straw for the majority of the game was Facyson, and he actually handled that responsibility well. Burrow tries to his Chase on the vertical route on this play from the fourth quarter, but the cornerback plays the route to near-perfection:
Facyson begins the play in press alignment, and his jam forces Chase to take an outside release. The cornerback does not panic, instead working to the inside hip of the receiver and staying in good position. Then, when Burrow tries to lead Chase up the field and into the end zone, Facyson’s technique and positioning has him in a spot where he can make a play at the catch point, breaking up the would-be touchdown.
If the Raiders can force Burrow to look away from his favorite target and to other receivers, that would help neutralize one of the ways they generate offense. That starts with Facyson.
Keep Joe Mixon from taking over
With the caveat that the passing game is king in today’s NFL, and that the Cincinnati Bengals are going to trust Burrow with the football in his hands, if the Raiders are going to avoid a repeat of Week 11, they will need to do a better job of stopping the run.
Back when these two teams met, running back Joe Mixon carried the ball 30 times for 123 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Rewatching how the Bengals and Mixon were effective on the ground, a few issues come to light.
Take this 11-yard touchdown run from the first half:
Again, the Bengals do a good job of getting Mixon room to operate, with the pin blocks on the edges allowing the tackle and the tight end to lead the back along the outside. Yet he Raiders have multiple chances to stop this play, including one near the line of scrimmage as Denzel Perryman tries to take on a lead blocker. But Mixon makes these defenders miss, turning this into a big gain.
As a single-high team, the Raiders often have extra defenders in the box to help them with stopping the run. To counter that, Taylor called on some designs that created extra gaps in the run game, putting the Raiders in a position where they were outgapped despite playing with a single-high structure. They’ll need to be better with their run fits, and with their tackling, to stop the Cincinnati ground game this weekend.
Dial up the passing aggression
(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
As theorized in the companion piece to this article, the Bengals are likely to focus on neutralizing Darren Waller on Saturday afternoon. And with good reason. When these teams met back in Week 11, the tight end was by far Las Vegas’ most productive receiver. While Waller caught seven passes for 118 yards, no other Raiders receiver eclipsed 30 yards receiving. Hunter Renfrow was held to four receptions for 30 yards, Zay Jones had one catch for 20 yards, and Josh Jacobs caught five passes for 24 yards.
Despite the dismal numbers, there were plays to be made in the passing game, and to hit on opportunities Derek Carr might need to be a bit more aggressive with his decisions. Take this checkdown to Kenyan Drake from the first half:
On this play, the primary focus is the double-move from Waller, aligned as the single receiver to the left. He runs a hitch and Carr pumps in his direction, hoping cornerback Eli Apple bites. But Apple stays home, and remains over the top of Waller’s route when the TE pushes vertically.
Carr, after the pump, comes to the bunch concept on the right side. Again you see Moreau work open up the seam, getting behind the zone coverage. Rather than make that throw, Carr checks the football down.
Back in Week 11, there were some missed opportunities in the passing game for the Raiders. Taking some of those shots — and connecting on them — will be key to an upset in Cincinnati.