Welcome to the 2021 NFL season’s Wild Card Weekend. Here at Buffalo Sports Page we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.

One of the AFC’s wild card games will take place at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio as the Las Vegas Raiders will face the Cincinnati Bengals. Here’s what you should know:

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – JANUARY 09: Quarterback Derek Carr #4 of the Las Vegas Raiders passes during a game against the Los Angeles Chargers at Allegiant Stadium on January 09, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images)

“CHUCKY’S” OFFENSE A MODERN VERSION OF OLD IDEAS

In 2018 Jon Gruden returned to the NFL after nine seasons away from coaching to take over the Raiders, the franchise he led from 1998-2001 (and defeated in Super Bowl XXXVII while with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers). Questions abounded from analysts and one of the biggest ones Gruden had to answer was how he would adapt his version of the West Coast offense to the modern game.

Those who openly wondered about Gruden’s willingness to change not just to counter modern defenses but to fit the players he had in place was former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit. He wrote, “Gruden is an advocate for traditional under-center quarterbacking, as that exchange synchronizes the timing and mechanics he preaches in his West Coast offense. But (Derek) Carr, like every twentysomething-year-old QB, has spent much of his life in shotgun.

“The rise in shotgun popularity was partly a response to the diverse nickel fronts that defenses started presenting right around the time Gruden left coaching for broadcasting. Now it’s a way to maximize quick-timing throws out of three-receiver sets – an approach, by the way, that plays to Carr’s physical attributes. You can run a lot of West Coast concepts out of shotgun, just with some procedural differences. How much will Gruden tweak his approach, and how much will he ask Carr to tweak his?”

The result ended up being more shotgun and spread looks than Gruden used in the past. His system, a ball-control passing game that can eat up clock while stretching teams horizontally rather than vertically, still features many of the shifts, motions and varied formations that were his calling card, but also has expanded the usage of formation wrinkles, 3×1 trips receiver sets (usually with three wideouts on one side and a tight end on the other, often revealing if a defense is in man or zone coverage) and converging releases by wide receivers out of bunch sets. Additionally, Gruden – like his brother Jay – was excellent at building plays involving pass routes that are run at the short, intermediate and deep levels simultaneously.

Gruden, however, is no longer the Raiders’ head coach. Following a slew of controversial emails being revealed that included derogatory remarks about many of the NFL’s most influential figures, Gruden stepped down and was replaced by longtime special teams coach Rich Bisaccia. Bisaccia, along with offensive coordinator Greg Olson (now in charge of the offensive play-calling) have since guided the Raiders to their first postseason berth since 2016.

Carr, in his eight years as the starting quarterback for the Silver and Black, is gifted but conservative. According to Benoit, “…..Carr is clearly the type of quarterback who needs strong weapons around him. He isn’t an assertive risk taker who will target tight windows snap after snap. His proclivity for getting the ball out quickly (especially when he’s uncomfortable) makes him dependent on unique presnap passing game tactics.”

To help prod Carr into taking more risks down the field, general manager Mike Mayock drafted wideouts Henry Ruggs III out of Alabama in the first round and Bryan Edwards from South Carolina in the third round in 2020. Both are talented, especially Ruggs, whose explosive speed made him a threat not just down the field, but also while in motion, on sweeps/end arounds/reverses and in the screen game. Yet Ruggs’ career is likely over after he was released by the team following an arrest for a deadly DUI case.

Without Ruggs’ services the Raiders have relied on Edwards, former Bill Zay Jones, veteran DeSean Jackson and third-year target Hunter Renfrow in addition to multi-faceted running back Josh Jacobs and tight end Darren Waller in the passing game. Waller is a talented pass-catcher who can line up in various spots along the line of scrimmage while Renfrow is at his best running option routes out of the slot. Jones has questionable hands while Edwards is a physical threat on the outside and Jackson can still take the top off a defense vertically at age 35.

Paving the way for Jacobs in the running game is a big and physical offensive line. Left tackle Kolton Miller, a first-round pick in 2018, has a good combination of strength and athleticism. Left guard Richie Incognito has missed most of 2021 with a calf injury and his replacement is John Simpson, while fellow guard Alex Leatherwood was the team’s first round selection out of Alabama this past spring. Andre James and Brandon Parker are the team’s other two starters on their front five.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – JANUARY 09: Maxx Crosby #98 of the Las Vegas Raiders celebrates during the third quarter against the Los Angeles Chargers at Allegiant Stadium on January 09, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images)

RAIDERS’ DEFENSE RELYING ON TRIED AND TRUE METHODS

Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s philosophy originated with the Seattle Seahawks, where he and Pete Carroll popularized the Cover Three zone. The scheme typically aligns one safety deep in the center of the field and another playing close to the line of scrimmage in run support while the front four defensive linemen rush the quarterback and blitzes are rarely used.

Third-year defensive end Maxx Crosby occupies one defensive end spot while veteran Yannick Ngakoue is the starter at the other. Clelin Ferrell and Carl Nassib rotate in at times as well, but Ferrell is better when he rushes up the middle and not from the outside, whereas Nassib is more adept on first and second down run situations. Seasoned veterans Jonathan Hankins and Quinton Jefferson provide beef and quickness, respectively, at defensive tackle, along with former 49er Solomon Thomas.

The Raiders have overhauled their secondary in recent years, as they have invested much draft capital (Damon Arnette, Trayvon Mullen and Jonathan Abram) into that group. Yet they have gotten mixed results, as Arnette is no longer a member of the Silver and Black and Mullen and Abram have had highs and lows. Neither Mullen nor Abram will suit up in the playoffs as both are done for the 2021 season with injuries, leaving cornerbacks Casey Hayward and Brandon Facyson, who know Bradley’s scheme well from their time together with the Chargers, to play deep zone coverage while dividing the field in thirds.

Las Vegas’ starters at linebacker, meanwhile, are former Seahawk K.J. Wright, ex-Charger Denzel Perryman and Cory Littleton. Wright has long been one of the NFL’s better second-level defenders in zone coverage while Perryman is a nice run defender but isn’t normally used in nickel packages.

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND – OCTOBER 24: Joe Mixon #28 and Joe Burrow #9 celebrate with wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase #1 of the Cincinnati Bengals after Chase scored a second half touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on October 24, 2021 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

BENGALS’ OFFENSE A BREAKOUT UNIT IN 2021

The Cincinnati Bengals’ head honcho is former Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor. Taylor employs a version of his former boss Sean McVay’s offensive system, which relies on smaller, quicker linemen who can work in unison and push defenders horizontally on outside zone stretch plays, while leaving cutback lanes for running backs. Countless tailbacks have had success in it, and most of the runs are executed out of “11” personnel (one tight end, one back). The idea behind this is to spread defenses out and create more room to run against nickel and dime defenses.

Passing-wise, the Bengals are aligned with the West Coast offense’s principles. A ball-control passing game that can eat up clock while stretching teams horizontally rather than vertically, this version of the system features mobile quarterbacks who can move within the pocket, especially on bootlegs, rollouts and play-action. It also will have its skill players line up anywhere on the line of scrimmage to try and get defenses to declare their coverages, and also aligns wide receivers close to the offensive line in order to give them more space to operate and to block on running plays. Their passing game makes excellent use of intertwining route combinations, especially ones involving posts, crossing patterns and flood concepts with pass options at the deep, short and intermediate levels.

At the helm of this attack is former first overall draft choice Joe Burrow. Burrow, a former LSU Tiger, not only possesses a strong arm and high football I.Q., but also has a high sense of rhythm and timing for a young quarterback and is consistently accurate. He’s also aggressive attacking one on one matchups outside the numbers and has excellent movement within the pocket.

Those movement skills have come in handy within his first two seasons in the NFL as Burrow has operated behind one of the league’s worsts offensive lines. Despite the left side of their line being serviceable (and held down by Jonah Williams and Quinton Spain), Trey Hopkins, Hakeem Andeniji and Isaiah Prince have not – thus putting Burrow under duress, taking a lot of sacks and sometimes anticipating pressure when there isn’t, which leads to hurried throws and interceptions.

While pass protection isn’t the Bengals’ strong suit, their run blocking isn’t all that bad, and Joe Mixon – one of pro football’s better running backs when healthy – took advantage by having the best season of his five-year career in 2021 with over 1,200 yards on the ground and 13 touchdowns. His solid vision and good cutback ability have meshed well with Taylor’s scheme.

Burrow also has plenty of weapons at his disposal in the passing game. Rookie Ja’Marr Chase, his former college teammate, finished the season with the second-most receiving yards and touchdowns ever by a first-year player and has done most of his damage as the boundary ‘X’ receiver on three-by-one trips formations and slant patterns on slant-flat combinations. Tee Higgins is a red zone target and excels on comeback routes and shifty slot receiver Tyler Boyd is a nifty option on short routes. C.J. Uzomah is the tight end.

CINCINNATI, OH – SEPTEMBER 12: Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Trey Hendrickson (91) and free safety Jessie Bates (30) react after a turnover during the game against the Minnesota Vikings and the Cincinnati Bengals on September 12, 2021, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, OH. (Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

CINCINNATI’S DEFENSE IS SO-SO

Cincinnati’s defense is mainly zone-based and coordinator Lou Anarumo is their play-caller. Although they do have some chess pieces to work with (as evidenced by being the fifth-best run defense in the NFL and tied for 11th in sacks) they don’t quite have enough on this side of the ball – resulting in being in the middle of the pack or near the bottom in many other categories.

Free agent pickup Trey Hendrickson, formerly of the New Orleans Saints, has lived up to his big contract with a career-high 14 sacks and his cohorts on the Bengals’ defensive line include Sam Hubbard, D.J. Reader and Larry Ogunjobi. Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt are their starters at linebacker.

The Bengals have plenty of cornerbacks with experience in zone defenses like Eli Apple, Chidobe Awuzie, Trae Waynes, Tre Flowers and Vernon Hagreaves III, and slot corner Mike Hilton isn’t just one of the game’s best nickelbacks – he’s also an elite blitzer off the edge. At safety is the undersized and underrated Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell.

Tony Fiorello

Tony’s work has appeared in multiple publications, including Buffalo Hockey Central, WNY Hockey Report, the Tonawanda News, the Niagara Gazette, Community Papers of Western New York, Sports and Leisure Magazine, WNYAthletics, From the 300 Level and Bee Group Newspapers. He graduated from Buffalo State College in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Follow him on Twitter @anthonyfiorello.

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