The Oakland Raiders and New England Patriots will square off in Mexico City for their Week 11 contest. The Patriots come into this game in fine shape for another run at a top seed in the AFC, while the Raiders are far closer to desperation mode sitting at 4-5 and behind the Kansas City Chiefs in their division.
New England made a big move in their backfield by making Mike Gillislee a healthy scratch in their Week 10 win over the Denver Broncos. Gillislee started off the year hot with three rushing touchdowns in Week 1, but as his effectiveness waned, his complete lack of passing game involvement and the predictability he brought to the offense became untenable.
A new moon rises in the Patriots' offense with the return of Rex Burkhead to the backfield. The versatile back has watched his offensive snaps rise every week and has been an incredibly useful asset in the passing game. Burkhead has been on the field for 22 passing plays in each of his last two games and hauled in all 10 of his targets for 95 yards with one touchdown.
Not only has Burkhead emerged as the primary passing game back over James White, who was on the field for just nine passing plays in Week 11, but he's also proven to be a valuable workman on special teams. Burkhead took nine, 12 and nine special teams snaps in his three games since returning from injury and blocked a punt against the Broncos. One must assume he's already captured the heart of versatility junky Bill Belichick.
All the while, Dion Lewis continues to establish himself as the team's top rushing down back. While not quite the explosive player or receiving weapon he was during his dominant start to the 2015 season, Lewis has surprisingly been a pristine interior runner this season.
Lewis is among the most difficult backs for defenders to bring down on the first tackle attempt. The Patriots starter gains an average of 4.25 rushing yards after defenders close within one yard of him (NFL average - 3.7), ranking 10th out of 46 running backs with at least 60 carries this season.
The Raiders will need to play over their heads to slow down this emerging duo of Lewis and Burkhead. Oakland allows 4.3 yards per carry to running backs and an additional 56 catches to the position, tied for top-five on the year.
The 2017 season has been a disappointment for the 4-5 Oakland Raiders. Issues abound on the defensive side of the ball and several of their skill position players have not been the week-in-week-out dynamic producers they'd hoped.
If there's one part of the Raiders team that has been anything but a letdown, it's the pass protection unit. Oakland allows a pressure rate of just 17.7 percent, the lowest in the NFL this season. Not only does Derek Carr benefit from some of the best pass-blocking, but he also gets the ball out of his hands with incredible pace. His 2.33-second time to throw is the fastest among all quarterbacks this season. When the Raiders get hot, their quick-strike passing game is a real chore to deal with.
Carr should once again find plenty of pocket space to operate in this contest. The Patriots rank 30th in defensive pressure rate with 20.5 percent, ahead of only the Giants and Bills on the season. Even when the team uses extra defenders to heat up the pass rush, they struggle to effectively disrupt quarterbacks. New England has converted just 15.5 percent of their blitzes into pressures, which is the second-lowest in the NFL this season and sits well below the NFL average of 34.1 percent. Quarterbacks have a passer rating of 112.2 when the Patriots blitz and have thrown six touchdowns to just two interceptions
The Patriots' defense has certainly improved over the last month compared to how the unit started the season. However, the lack of a pass rush has been glaring throughout the year. With how good the Raiders are in pass protection combined with Derek Carr's quick release, it's unlikely they turn things around here.
Note: Next Gen Stats defines a "wide-open target" as a play where the receiver has three or more yards of separation when further than five yards down the field. A "tight-window throw" is when the receiver has less than one yard of separation.
The Week 11 duel has a chance to turn into a high-scoring affair because of this and the rate at which the two secondaries allow players to get open. The Patriots have allowed more wide-open targets (19 percent) than any other team in football this season. Oakland hasn't been much better, allowing a 17.4 percent rate, good for the third-highest.
One player who could really benefit from the amount of space the Patriots let up is Amari Cooper. It's been a season of mostly downs with few ups to speak of for the talented third-year wide receiver. He's pacing for just 820 yards on the season after crossing 1,000 in each of his first two NFL campaigns.
One area where Cooper has noticeably struggled is on tight-window targets. Over 27 percent of his targets have come in tight windows (NFL average -- 24.8 percent for WRs) but he's hauled in just 9.5 percent of them for 12 yards. Derek Carr has a stone 0.0 passer rating when throwing to Cooper in tight windows. On the other side of the field, Carr has a 87.4 passer rating when throwing to Michael Crabtree in tight windows. The veteran receiver has been the more trusted target in high-leverage situations over the last three years.
With the amount of wide-open targets the Patriots allow, the Raiders can feel good about getting Cooper going in this matchup. In his one true explosive game this season, Oakland deployed Cooper in the slot more than usual and he saw a season-high 63 percent of his targets when lined up inside. The extra space clearly boosted Cooper's stock as he ripped off over 200 yards and scored twice.
The Raiders are a different and more dangerous offense when Amari Cooper is playing at the level we came to expect from him over the course of his first two seasons. With the amount of favorable matchups the Patriots have over the Raiders' defense, the team will need Cooper to step up as an X-factor when they have the ball on offense.
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