Key stat: Drew Brees’ average throw depth of 4.6 yards was 30th of 32 passers in Week 1
Monday night marks the home opener and inaugural game for the Raiders in their new Las Vegas hometown, and the Raiders enter the game 1-0 after a victory over the Panthers in Charlotte. They’ll play host to a New Orleans Saints team that looked much better on paper a week ago, despite winning their own opener over Tom Brady and the Buccaneers.
So what’s changed? Michael Thomas suffered a high ankle sprain that will cost him at least Week 2 and possibly several weeks, while Drew Brees didn’t seem to have the same zip on his passes and really struggled to get things going through the air. Brees has long been an accurate underneath passer who doesn’t need a ton of velocity because of his elite anticipation and ability to read defenses and get the ball out quickly. But even the great ones age, and the 41-year-old Brees just wasn’t himself in Week 1. His 4.6-yard average throw depth was only a tenth of yard higher than the shallowest Week 1 rates at 4.5, and was significantly lower than Brees’ 6.4-yard average depth in 2019, which itself was among the lowest rates in the league last year.
What that tells us is Brees wasn’t throwing many passes down the field, instead opting for underneath passes and a conservative play style. It was, of course, only Week 1, and with no preseason and a shortened off-season, it may be nothing. But that slows the game down and makes explosive plays less frequent, which helps explain the Saints totaling only 271 yards of offense, their lowest output since Week 4 of 2019, a game Teddy Bridgewater started for the injured Brees.
Truth be told, I expect Brees will raise his level of play in Week 2, but the loss of Thomas is significant. Thomas set a new NFL record last year for most receptions in a single season, and there simply isn’t another wide receiver in the NFL who is a bigger part of his offense. Sean Payton will need to get creative to replace Thomas’ production, whether by leaning on Alvin Kamara, Jared Cook, and newcomer Emmanuel Sanders as a solid skill position group, or by using gadget player Taysom Hill more frequently. But even with Payton’s strong offensive mind finding ways to cover for the loss of Thomas, it’s hard to imagine Brees and the Saints turning around from last week’s showing and playing a high-end game on the road without their superstar receiver.
Of course, Brees has done a lot to surprise us before, and the Raiders don’t present a huge defensive challenge. But what the Raiders do bring into this game is a willingness to run the ball. The Saints’ defensive front is stout, and mostly held Tampa Bay runners in check in Week 1. But Josh Jacobs and the Raiders’ offensive line combine for a strong rushing attack that makes this a battle of strength on strength. I don’t expect head coach Jon Gruden to abandon the ground game here, not after Jacobs went for 139 total yards and three scores on 29 touches in Week 1.
I also don't expect the Raiders to find much success through the air. Derek Carr is a game manager, and his receiving corps outside of tight end Darren Waller features a lot of new names. Rookie first-round pick Henry Ruggs had an impressive opener, and his speed was on full display on a first-quarter 45-yard reception down to the 1-yard line that set up the first of Jacobs' touchdowns. But Ruggs finished with just 55 yards on the day, and that was good enough to lead all Vegas pass-catchers. It may take some time for Ruggs or someone else to step up as a clear second weapon alongside Waller, and the Saints also boast a tough pass defense.
Thus, it’s kind of hard to see why this game’s total is on the high side. Both teams scored 34 points in their Week 1 wins, but the Raiders did so against one of the worst defenses in the league, while the Saints got the benefit of a defensive touchdown on an interception return and posted one of their worst offensive performances in the past calendar year. Neither team played particularly fast in Week 1, either. The total has been moving down since open, and I think rightfully so. Get on the under.
BET: Under 48 @ -106