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Keys to the Game presented by CarMax: Patriots look to bounce back vs. Raiders

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The Patriots return home to Gillette Stadium this Sunday for a Week 3 matchup against the 2-0 Las Vegas Raiders. Coming off a last-play loss to the Seahawks, but with plenty of positives to take away, the Patriots will be looking to bounce back against a Raiders team that is off to a hot start.

Cam Newton has dominated the storylines through the Patriots first two games, demonstrating his prowess on the ground against the Dolphins and then throwing for almost 400 yards against the Seahawks. If the offense can combine the successful elements of the first two games, they should be able to take advantage of a Raiders defense that is 26th in yardage allowed and 20th in points.

As for the Patriots defense, they didn't have many answers for Russell Wilson, but had just enough to give New England the chance to beat the Seahawks at the end of the game. They'll face a Raiders attack that has been incredibly efficient, ranking fourth in points while putting up back-to-back 34-point efforts. They'll stress the Patriots on the ground and through the air, and should be an excellent test that tells us more about how the defense stacks up.

How can the Patriots dispatch the Raiders and get back on the winning track? Here are the Keys to the Game presented by CarMax!

Patriots.com's Mike Dussault shares his players to watch ahead of the Patriots Week 3 matchup against the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday, September 27, 2020.

Take Away Darren Waller

There isn't much secret who Las Vegas' most effective weapon is, it's Darren Waller, a receiver-turned-tight-end who has size and speed to cause major matchup problems. Through two games, Waller leads the team with 18 catches, and is the primary target for Derek Carr in critical moments.

The Patriots pride themselves on taking away the top option of opposing offenses and they should have the tools to force Carr to beat them with other targets. JoeJuan Williams would appear to be an excellent choice, but Waller would be the biggest challenge of the young defensive back's career. Williams has the size for Waller and did an admirable job in the role against Mike Gesicki in Week 1.

But it can't be just Williams taking Waller, it will need to be a team effort that could also include hybrid players like Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger contributing. The Patriots will spin the coverage dial to keep Waller in check, but it won't be easy. The Saints did everything they could against the big tight end and still got burned.

Don't let Josh Jacobs get loose

The second-best weapon on Vegas' offense is running back Josh Jacobs, who burst onto the scene as a rookie with 1,150 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. He's been largely held in check through two games this season, averaging just 3.5 yards-per-carry, but he does have three touchdowns. Jacobs is also a receiving threat with seven catches already, after catching 20 total in 2019.

Even if the defense takes away Waller, letting Jacobs get going would be disastrous. They shut down Miami's new-look backfield but saw the Seahawks double the Dolphins rushing output. Part of that was Russell Wilson, but there are still questions and New England will count on stout interior defenders Lawrence Guy and Byron Cowart to own the line of scrimmage against Las Vegas' physical line.

Vegas has some injury concerns, with Jacobs and former Patriot Trent Brown appearing on the injury report, while Richie Incognito was placed on Injured Reserve this week. Those are fortunate developments and could give the Patriots front seven an advantage.

If they can keep Waller and Jacobs in check, it will force Carr to rely on his younger weapons by trying to push the ball downfield. That could be enough for the Patriots defense to force the Raiders quarterback into throwing an interception for the first time this season.

Combine the first two offensive efforts

Last week no one was quite sure if the Patriots could assemble any kind of dangerous passing attack, but Cam Newton and company answered that question with a strong performance, including some impressive downfield strikes.

Now, against a Raiders defense that has had their struggles despite the team's 2-0 start, the Patriots need to see if they can put together their most balanced gameplan of the season. Can they take the overwhelming ground effort they showed against Miami and marry it with the effective passing game they showed in Seattle?

Much of that question will be answered by the offensive line, who played perhaps the biggest part in the effectiveness of those two elements in the first two games. With David Andrews battling a hand injury, the Pats could be shorthanded and there's no downplaying it, Andrews is extremely valuable.

Damiere Byrd and N'Keal Harry's continued development will be critical. Both turned in among the best efforts of their careers in Seattle and now expectations are rising. If the duo can stack some success it will be an excellent sign for the long-term prognosis on offense. The Raiders pass defense can be attacked and the Patriots must take advantage.

Clean up the little things

Jonathan Jones said this week that September is all about improvement, and though the Patriots have the fewest accepted penalties in the NFL, there's a lot they can still do to win the hidden yardage game.

That starts on special teams, where Nick Folk has missed two field goals in the first two games and the kickoff team has given up some untimely returns that hurt field position. The Patriots are experts at not beating themselves, but some of the details haven't been as clean as they usually are.

Part of that is a lack of preseason action, but now, with two games under their belt, the Patriots will have to be better. Las Vegas has the second-fewest penalties in the NFL and has just one giveaway this season. The margin for game-changing errors will be small.

These are two teams that don't take penalties and have been safe with the ball. While the Patriots can often rely on many teams to beat themselves, the Raiders don't look like one of those teams. Thus, New England will need to win all the little battles, especially on special teams, to pull away.

Prediction

The Seahawks had the Patriots defense on their heels last week, but the Raiders are a much more conventional West Coast offensive attack with clear tendencies. Usually, a Bill Belichick team will prey on those kind of opponents. If the offense can take the next step forward and the special teams cleans up some mistakes, the Patriots should be poised for their most balanced effort of the season.

Patriots 30, Raiders 17

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