Sunday, Dec. 10, 2023 | 2 a.m.
• Who: Vikings (6-6) at Raiders (5-7)
• When:1:05 p.m.
• Where: Allegiant Stadium
• TV: Fox
• Radio: Raider Nation Radio 920 AM, KOMP 92.3 FM
• Betting line: Vikings -3, over/under: 40.3
Antonio Pierce faces a new challenge for the first time since taking over as the Raiders’ interim coach a month ago — sparking his team off a poor performance.
Las Vegas overperformed in its first three games under Pierce and started the fourth contest strong with a 14-0 lead over the Kansas City Chiefs. But the Raiders collapsed from there, getting outscored 31-3 over the final three quarters of a 31-17 loss.
It wasn’t for lack of effort, as Pierce has said repeatedly, but rather execution and the effects of a worn-out team. Help arrived on the latter part as the Raiders spent last week on a much-needed bye, allowing the players to heal and virtually everyone on the football side of the organization a chance to get away and clear their heads.
The time off was sorely needed for the team’s best player this year, edge rusher Maxx Crosby, as he played through a knee injury and infection against the Chiefs that had him hospitalized before the game. The Raiders returned to practice this week saying they were refreshed and ready to make a late season run, though it’s worth noting the Vikings are also sharing a similar message coming off their own bye week.
Favorable matchup: Vikings quarterback Joshua Dobbs vs. Raiders’ linebackers
Dobbs’ stint in Minnesota got off to a hot start a month ago following a trade from Arizona when he accounted for five touchdowns to lead back-to-back wins against Atlanta and New Orleans. It’s tailed off from there, though. The Vikings have since lost two straight, to the Broncos and Bears, with Dobbs having committed five turnovers. Dobbs is at his best when he’s mobile and can threaten with his feet as much as his arm. Denver and Chicago cut down on that by more aggressively employing spies on Dobbs, and it’s a strategy the Raiders should be able to replicate. The Raiders have given up a few chunk plays to passers on the ground over the course of the year, but they’re in the top half of the league in only giving up four yards per rushing attempt to quarterbacks overall. Some of the success is surely schedule-based but it’s also a credit to linebackers Robert Spillane and Divine Deablo. Spillane has excelled in all areas and sits behind only Crosby as the leader of the defense, while Deablo’s versatility makes him an ideal candidate to use as a spy on someone like Dobbs.
“That will be our goal this week, our little rally cry. …We know we come out of the gates like bulls but we need to do that in the second half as well, and we have plans on how to do that.” — Pierce on the poor second half against the Chiefs and how the Raiders will fix it against the Vikings
“Does it ever leave your mind? It never really escapes my mind too much. I’m a football coach, a football coach with no hobbies.”— Raiders defensive coordinator Patrick Graham when asked how it was getting away from football during the bye week
“We don’t really have time to talk at this point; it’s all about action. I’ve kind of been saying that the whole year, now we’re definitely aligned on that.” — Wide receiver Davante Adams on the Raiders’ sense of urgency
“I was in a lot of pain but it is what it is. I train year-round to do this and give myself an opportunity to play 17 guaranteed games. And if I can go, I’m going to go.” — Raiders edge rusher Maxx Crosby on why he played despite not practicing all week and being listed as doubtful going into the Chiefs game
Problematic matchup: Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson vs. Raiders’ pass defense
The reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year has missed the Vikings’ past seven games with a hamstring injury, but he’s fully participated in practice all week and is set to return against the Raiders. It’s a bad break for Las Vegas. The Raiders don’t have an ideal option to match up with the fast and physical 6-foot-1, 195-pound receiver who’s emerged as one of the NFL’s top weapons. That’s not much of a knock, as Jefferson presents the same problem for most teams. But the Raiders are in flux at cornerback and now don’t have time for any learning curve. They released top cornerback Marcus Peters after the Chiefs loss. The veteran had played well in coverage all year for the Raiders but showed a continued lack of effort in tackling that goes against everything Pierce stands for as a coach. Pierce benched Peters in the second half against Kansas City and then cut him the next day. Jefferson used to occasionally line up in the slot, where Las Vegas is well-equipped with nickelback Nate Hobbs, but he’s predominantly been on the outside the past two seasons. The Raiders will need someone like undersized mainstay Amik Robertson, rookie Jakorian Bennett or recently acquired Jack Jones to step in for Peters permanently and prove their worth by living up to the tall task of slowing Jefferson.
Gamebreaker: Cornerback Brandon Facyson
There’s a sneaky fourth option who could potentially slow Jefferson. The 6-foot-2, 197-pound veteran cornerback may make his season debut after hurting his leg in training camp. Facyson was pushing for the starting spot opposite Peters in August before he went down with the injury that forced him to be carted off the practice field. It’s hard to tell if he can immediately regain that form in live game action, but he’s thrived in Las Vegas before. Facyson is in his second stint with the Raiders after emerging as a starter midway through the 2021 season when he had a career year as part of the franchise’s last playoff team. Pierce has spoken highly of Facyson and says the cornerback is ready “to roll.” Facyson spent last season in Indianapolis as a rotational cornerback, and that’s most likely the role he’ll fill for the rest of the year in Las Vegas. Expect to see a lot of different guys cycling into the defensive backfield starting against the Vikings, and Facyson’s No. 31 jersey just might be among them. The Raiders have designated him for a return so Facyson must be active in one of the next three games or be ruled out for the year.
Big Number: 47.6%
The Vikings blitz on 47.6% of their defensive snaps, the highest rate in the league. That may usually spell trouble with a rookie passer, but one of Raiders quarterback Aidan O’Connell’s greatest strengths has been his willingness to stand strong in the pocket regardless of the circumstances. He says he’s fully prepared to face the usual gameplan of Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores, who goes all out to harass opposing quarterbacks. The Chiefs weren’t shy about blitzing O’Connell either, but he responded with the best performance of his professional career so far. O’Connell completed 23 of 33 passes for 248 yards and a touchdown in the loss while taking only one sack, and most importantly to Pierce, not committing any turnovers. The frequent blitzing of players like safety Harrison Smith and linebacker D.J. Wonnum tends to leave the Vikings vulnerable in the middle of the field in the passing game. Don’t be surprised if O’Connell builds on the rapport he’s shown with players like tight end Michael Mayer and slot receiver Hunter Renfrow. Neither Renfrow nor Mayer has been a big factor this season but they’ve both been more involved since O’Connell took over.
Best Bet (9-3): T.J. Hockenson over 51.5 receiving yards
Betting on an opposing tight end to produce against the Raiders worked last game with the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce, so why not go back to it again? Defending tight ends has been a problem area for the Raiders all year, and while Hockenson may not be on Kelce’s Hall of Fame level, he’s still one of the best in the NFL at the position. And he could get lost in the shuffle against Las Vegas, which figures to put a lot of attention on containing Dobbs and pestering Jefferson. Hockenson’s over/under was in the 60s in each of the Vikings’ past two games, and though he fell slightly short with 55 yards and 50 yards, respectively, this is too large of a drop in asking price. Hockenson finds space in matchups tougher than this one and should be Dobbs’ surest option in the passing game.