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October 21, 2020

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Chasing the Chiefs: Catching up to Super Bowl champs has been Raiders’ focus

Las Vegas went to drastic lengths to keep up in AFC West arms race

Carr

Charlie Riedel / AP

Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) runs away from Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Dee Ford (55), defensive lineman Rakeem Nunez-Roches (99) and linebacker Justin Houston (50) during the first half of an NFL football game in Kansas City, Mo., Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016.

Last year’s NFL postseason played a major role in how the Raiders have approached their inaugural upcoming season in Las Vegas.

Yes, the Raiders missed the playoffs for the third consecutive year on their way out of Oakland, but watching their principal rival, the Kansas City Chiefs, win the Super Bowl put into focus how far they need to go.

“Let’s be honest, the entire league is chasing the Kansas City Chiefs, but we’re in the same division,” Raiders general manager Mike Mayock said during the NFL Draft. “They keep getting faster and more athletic, more dynamic every time you turn around. Other teams have to do the same.”

As recently as a few years ago, NFL teams may have been more inclined to combat an offensive steamroller like the Chiefs by trying to build a wall and allocating more resources to defense. The offensive revolution has arrived, however, and general managers like Mayock are sensing that outscoring the Chiefs is more realistic than containing them.

Scoring actually went down a tick in the NFL last season — the average game featured 45 points, as opposed to 46 in 2018 — but the distribution of points skewed further toward the top teams. Five teams scored 28 points or more per game — the second-highest total in NFL history.

The Chiefs were included in that group at 28.2 points, despite 2018 NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes missing a pair of games. When Mahomes, who’s just 24 years old, is fully healthy, the Chiefs look more or less guaranteed to score at historic levels.

In Mahomes’ first full season at the helm, the Chiefs fielded the third-highest-scoring team in NFL history.

No one knows their explosiveness better than the Raiders. Mahomes is 4-0 against Las Vegas with 1,194 yards, 11 touchdowns and one interception.

Even before Mahomes, the Raiders struggled to slow the Chiefs, who have gone 12-2 in the rivalry matchup under coach Andy Reid.

The Raiders have averaged 17 points per game in those meetings, not nearly enough.

“We wanted to get more dynamic on offense,” Mayock said.

That's not to say the Raiders have ignored their defense since the end of last season. They cut into their large salary cap space by signing potential impact players like linebackers Cory Littleto and Nick Kwiatkoski, defensive end Carl Nassib and defensive tackle Maliek Collins at the onset of the new league year.

But they put just as much, if not more, effort toward improving their offense. In addition to adding free-agents like quarterback Marcus Mariota, receiver Nelson Agholor and tight end Jason Witten, they used three of their first four NFL Draft picks on skill-position players.

It wasn’t the way a team like the Raiders, who finished above-average in almost all offensive statistical categories a year ago but near the bottom of the league in comparable defensive measures, would have traditionally been expected to proceed. It only makes sense in context of their surroundings.

The Chiefs largely make up that context.

“They keep getting faster and raising the bar,” Mayock said.

The Chiefs’ influence can be visible down to specific personnel decisions. Many observers were surprised when the Raiders chose Henry Ruggs with the draft’s 12th overall pick, ahead of Jerry Jeudy and CeeDee Lamb, who most scouts graded higher, but it’s more understandable when viewed through the prism of firepower.

Jeudy and Lamb may have been considered surer prospects, but the Raiders found Ruggs’ potential big-play ability most desirable. Not only did Ruggs have the fastest 40-yard dash time (4.27 seconds) of any prospect, he also scored 24% of the time he touched the ball at Alabama.

Jeudy is regarded as a better pass catcher and route runner, but Ruggs scored only two fewer touchdowns on 61 fewer receptions in the three years the two were Crimson Tide teammates.

Ruggs said the Raiders made it no secret why they were attracted to his skillset.

“I can help the offense stretch out and do different things,” Ruggs said.

The extent to which Ruggs’ game-breaking ability translates to the NFL figures to be important all season, but never more so than in the Raiders' two games against the Chiefs. Las Vegas goes to Kansas City on Oct. 11, week 5, before the Chiefs make the return trip to Allegiant Stadium for a week 11 Sunday Night Football game Nov. 2.

Kansas City has won the AFC West division four years in a row and stands directly in the way of the Raiders reaching their goals. Las Vegas believes it's closed the gap on Kansas City over the past coupleof months. But by how much?

That’s the question of the Raiders’ season.

“I don’t know the answer to that just yet,” Mayock said. “We feel like we got better in free agency and I know we feel like we got better in the draft. Nobody is going know how much or if at all until we get out on the field and compete, and that's the thing I love about it.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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