By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Raiders present one of the trickiest game plans for Bill Belichick and his coaching staff this season. Belichick has mentioned a few times in the lead up to the game that Jon Gruden’s return to coaching after a decade-plus layoff, combined with no preseason tape this season has made them difficult to scout.
On top of that, the Raiders best offensive weapon is one of the most unique players in the league in Darren Waller. A wide receiver early in his career, Waller added muscle after entering the NFL to become a 6-foo-6, 255 pound nimble route runner. His combination of size, speed, and agility is rare.
How will the Patriots attack this young Raiders team coming off of a big win against the New Orleans Saints? It’s time to take a look at how some of the key matchups might play out.
When New England has the ball: N’Keal Harry vs. Trayvon Mullen
N’Keal Harry makes an appearance in Key Matchups for a second straight week, but his time things are a little more cut and dry. The Raiders have allowed the fourth-most passing yards in the NFL through two games, and second-year corner Trayvon Mullen has been part of the problem. Harry, who is coming off of a strong performance against Seattle, should be able to capitalize.
This isn’t a key matchup because it should be close. It’s a key matchup because it’s one Harry should and needs to win. Expect Cam Newton to look his way early and often on Sunday.
When Las Vegas has the ball: Lawrence Guy vs. Josh Jacobs
The Patriots will need to be better against the run than they were last week to slow down the Raiders. That starts up front with Lawrence Guy dictating the way things to between the tackles. He doesn’t need to show up in the stat sheet to have a big game, but he’ll need to constantly be eating blocks and now allowing Raiders running back Josh Jacobs to get to the second level.
On top of that, when he is in position to make a play, Guy needs to be able to bring down Jacobs at the point of contact. The Alabama product has the third most yards after contact in the league through two games – the Patriots can’t afford to give him second chances on Sunday.
Bonus: ??? vs. Darren Waller
Tight end Darren Waller is without a doubt the biggest wild card heading into Sunday’s matchup. How will the Patriots handle him? That decision could be the deciding factor in the game.
Belichick has a history of viewing certain tight ends as wide receivers, and game planning for them accordingly. He’s notably done so against Travis Kelce and the Kansas City Chiefs. Against Miami in Week 1 Belichick took a similar approach to Mike Gesicki, telling reporters after the game that the Patriots were defending “four receivers in the formation” when Gesicki was on the field.
Will Waller get a similar treatment from the Patriots defense? If so, expect to see Joejuan Williams play a big role in the defensive game plan this week. The second-year hybrid defensive back was in coverage on Gesicki on 20 of his 30 routes in Week 1.
While Gesicki is the same prototype as Waller, Waller is certainly far and away the better player. So could the Patriots use a full corner to attempt to neutralize him, even Stephon Gilmore? Asked about that potential on Wednesday, Raiders coach Jon Gruden told reporters, “if they [the Patriots] can find him,” elaborating that his plan is to move Waller all around the formation come Sunday.
Expect a team effort to contain Waller on Sunday, with most of the work going to Gilmore and Williams. If that doesn’t work though, the Patriots will need to adjust quick or the game could get away from them, just like it did to the Saints on Monday.
For more on the Patriots-Raiders matchup, check out the Patriots Preview Podcast with Matt Dolloff and Alex Barth below.