The Las Vegas Raiders (3-2) and Denver Broncos (3-2) meet for the 124th time Sunday at Mile High, but it’s never been quite like this. The Raiders are a team in turmoil, with coach Jon Gruden resigning Monday after a series of bigoted emails he sent became public. Rich Bisaccia takes over on an interim basis. Both the Raiders and Broncos have lost each of their last two games after winning their first three. Denver has already placed 13 players on injured reserve, including pass rusher Bradley Chubb, wide receiver Jerry Jeudy, and cornerback Ronald Darby.
Las Vegas Raiders offense vs. Denver Broncos defense
The Raiders lost more than their head coach when Gruden’s position with the club became untenable. They also lost their offensive mastermind. The good news? They have an experienced play-caller already on their staff in Greg Olson (the coach, not the tight end), who was technically the Raiders’ offensive coordinator even under Gruden.
Olson previously served as the OC with the Lions (2004-05), Rams (2006-07), Buccaneers (2009-11), Raiders (2013-14), and Jaguars (2015-16). Olson’s track record isn’t great — he led just one top-10 offense in those 11 years — but he never had a quarterback as good as Derek Carr.
Olson and Carr will face a Broncos defense that gave up a season-high 27 points in a Week 5 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers went for 391 yards, including 147 on the ground, and converted 7 of 12 third downs in the win. But on the year, Denver’s defense is more than hanging in there statistically, even without Chubb and Darby. They’re second in scoring defense (15.2 points per game), and third in yards allowed (292.4), yards per play (5.0), and first downs (16.2).
Derek Carr vs. Broncos defense
There’s no way to sugarcoat this, Raiders fans — Gruden made Carr better. And it will be fascinating to see how the quarterback performs without his coach. Their three-plus years together were the best stretch of Carr’s career. After a quick start to his season, Carr has cooled the last two weeks. Still, in 2021, he ranks second in passing (321 yards per game), 13th in yards per pass (7.8), and 14th in QBR (55.5).
The Broncos have allowed just one 300-yard passing day in five games (Lamar Jackson in Week 4), and their defensive metrics are excellent. Denver ranks third in passer rating against (75.8), fifth in yards per pass allowed (6.2), sixth in passing defense (207.0), and 14th in interception rate (2.4%).
Raiders weapons vs. Broncos defensive backs
The Raiders can beat you in a variety of ways, but the biggest boost to their 2021 passing attack has been the improvement of Henry Ruggs, who is third in the NFL in yards per catch (20.5) and leads the team in receiving yards (348). Darren Waller is third behind only Mark Andrews and Travis Kelce in receiving yards by a tight end (319). Running back Josh Jacobs (3.2 yards per carry) has been hampered by an ankle injury this year.
The Broncos know all about injuries, but perhaps the tide has turned. Darby (hamstring) is off IR, and there’s a good chance he’ll return to the lineup this weekend. He would only add to a Denver secondary that is already loaded. Five Broncos defensive backs have 3 or more pass breakups this year and four — including top-10 pick Patrick Surtain — have an interception. Teams have tested the rookie 30 times in six games, but he’s held his own (60% completions, 77.4 passer rating against).
Raiders offensive line vs. Broncos defensive front
This has been an issue for the Raiders. They really miss left guard Richie Incognito, who has yet to play in 2021 due to a groin injury. His replacement, John Simpson, has had issues with penalties and run blocking, the latter of which has been a problem for the whole line.
Las Vegas ranks 31st in yards per carry (3.3), 29th in rushing offense (78.6 per game), and 20th in sack rate (7.3%). Even a Week 5 lineup change — moving Alex Leatherwood from right tackle to right guard — didn’t make much of a difference.
The Raiders’ OL will have its hands full with a Broncos defense that entered Week 6 tied for ninth with 23 tackles for loss and tied for 10th with 12 sacks. Denver has done all of that despite Bradley Chubb missing all but the opener with an ankle injury. Chubb is out until November, but Vic Fangio’s defense has rolled on without him. Denver’s 3.8 yards-per-carry allowed average is fifth-best in football. Von Miller is playing to his high standards. He has 4.5 sacks, 7 QB hits, and 7 tackles for loss in five games.
Denver Broncos offense vs. Las Vegas Raiders defense
After scoring 23 or more points in their first three games, the Broncos have managed just 26 total in their last two. There’s an easy explanation for that — they’ve converted just 5 of their last 26 third-down attempts, a big reason they rank dead last in that metric on the season (28.6%). Denver is also poor in the red zone (42.1%), which is a bad combination. Only eight teams have scored fewer points through five weeks (102).
The Raiders could provide some relief. Their red-zone defense (getting stops of just 9.1% of opponents’ opportunities) is awful. But overall, Las Vegas’ defense has been solid. The Raiders rank in the top 10 in yards (339.8 per game), yards per play (5.1), and third downs (35.3%). Their defense held up their end vs. the Bears, allowing just 252 yards and 15 non-defensive first downs.
Teddy Bridgewater vs. Raiders defense
Teddy Bridgewater not only played in Week 5 despite suffering a concussion just seven days prior but played pretty well. He went 24 of 38 for 288 yards and 2 touchdowns but did throw his first interception of the season. Bridgewater has shown an ability and willingness to stretch the field in Denver, ranking eighth in average intended air yards (9.2) and average completed air yards (7), and 10th in yards per pass (7.9) and passer rating (106.1).
That will be a fascinating contrast with a Raiders defense that’s quite good at limiting big plays through the air. Through five games, Las Vegas has surrendered 10 plays of 20+ yards (third-fewest in the NFL), although three of those 10 went for 40 or more. That strength is also reflected in the Raiders’ general passing stats (third in yards per pass at 5.7, fourth in passing defense at 205.4 per game).
Broncos weapons vs. Raiders defensive backs
Jerry Jeudy is out for at least one more week with a right high-ankle sprain. But Denver’s receivers have done well in his absence. Courtland Sutton keeps producing when he gets the opportunity, going for 120+ yards last Sunday for the second time in four games. He leads the Broncos in catches (25), yards (377), and average (15.1).
Tim Patrick is on pace to shatter career records in almost every receiving stat, but his targets will likely go down when Jeudy returns. The Broncos have had success with their two-headed rushing attack. Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams both have a shot at 1,000 yards.
The only thing truly separating the Raiders from an excellent pass defense is interceptions. Las Vegas has just 1 on 179 passes faced this year, making for the second-worst pick rate in football (0.6%). And the player responsible for that pick, Trayvon Mullen, is on injured reserve. That’s a shame for Vegas because Mullen had been excellent (57.4 passer rating against).
But the Raiders have other options. Casey Hayward has been marvelous, allowing 6 catches for 38 yards on 16 targets. Safety Johnathan Abram is an effective blitzer, with 4 pressures in 13 blitzes.
Broncos offensive line vs. Raiders defensive front
The Broncos were wise to lock up left tackle Garett Bolles to a four-year extension last fall. He was a second-team All-Pro in 2020 and has missed just 95 snaps in five seasons. The 3 sacks he’s allowed in five games are a bit of a concern, but he’s been largely solid again this year. Denver’s interior trio of Dalton Risner-Lloyd Cushenberry III-Graham Glasgow is fine but not spectacular. Bobby Massie has been an adequate replacement for Ja’Wuan James at right tackle.
As for Vegas, good luck to whoever has to block Maxx Crosby. With 13 quarterback hits and 3 tackles for loss in 2021, he’s been a menace — and one of the best edge defenders in football. But he’s not a one-man band.
Solomon Thomas has salvaged his career in Las Vegas and free-agent pickup Yannick Ngakoue is one of four Raiders defenders with at least 4 sacks. The Broncos would be wise to simply line up and run the ball. Denver averages 4.6 yards per carry — the same that Las Vegas allows. Defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins (hip) is not expected to play.
Betting line and game prediction
Sportsbooks see these teams as evenly matched as we do. The Broncos are laying 3.5 at home, which means the game would be a coinflip on a neutral field. But a closer look has us leaning toward a Denver cover. The Broncos have a better per-game point differential (+5.2 to -1.4), a better per-game yard differential (+65.4 to +37.2), and a better DVOA (18th overall to 25th). But the most important stat: Broncos 1, Raiders 0 in head coaches still with the team.
Prediction: Broncos 24, Raiders 17