There is no sugar-coating it: the New England Patriots’ defense had a tough day against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday night. The unit was unable to keep up with Russell Wilson, who is one of the best quarterbacks in the business — if not the best right now — and threw five touchdowns against the team’s vaunted secondary. Wilson and his supporting cast were marvelous, while the Patriots failed to force the group into many mistakes en route to giving up 35 points.
Luckily, for the team it will face a quarterback this week that is not playing on as high a level as Wilson. That said, the Las Vegas Raiders’ Derek Carr is still a mighty efficient passer through two games this year who has his team as one of the best in the game right now when it comes to putting points on the board: the Raiders are averaging 34.0 per game, fourth most in the league, thanks in large part due to Carr’s command of the offense.
One week after getting shredded by Wilson and company, the Patriots’ defense will therefore have to go up against another formidable opponent. What will they have to do to come away victoriously this time? Find ways to put the Raiders in uncomfortable and unfamiliar territory by trying to do the following.
Disrupt the quick passing game
Raiders head coach Jon Gruden and offensive coordinator Greg Olson are running a West Coast scheme that is built on timing patterns and quick throws. This battle plan fits Carr’s skill set and allows him to build up a rhythm throughout the game while emphasizing the safe throw. His 4:0 touchdown-to-interception rate and 73.5 completion percentage are just two statistical examples of the game Carr and the Raiders offense have been playing this season.
What can the Patriots therefore do in order to disrupt this? According to Cam Mellor of Silver and Black Pride, it all starts with the quarterback: New England needs to be able to put the heat on Carr in order to disrupt the aforementioned rhythm.
“Pressure Derek Carr, and pressure him quickly. He’s done a great job of checking the ball down through two games but if pressure can be registered quickly — quick enough to limit his check-down abilities — then he’ll struggle and perhaps even make a mistake or two,” Cam told Pats Pulpit earlier this week. “Pressure has a two-fold attack as well, especially if done early, and he’s never really been able to recover once he’s got pressure in his face early and often.
“That seems to be the recipe to beating him while also subsequently limiting the rushing attack from Josh Jacobs and company.”
New England’s defense has shown an ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks so far this season. According to Pro Football Reference, the unit has either sacked, hit or hurried passers on 32.4 percent of plays — fourth best in the league. While the unit may lack big names following an offseason of personnel turnover, the remaining talent and the scheme in which it is used has allowed the Patriots to nevertheless challenge opposing QBs whenever they are dropping back to pass. More of the same could be critical against Carr.
Take away the Big Two
Two weeks in, the Raiders have relied not just on Carr to move the football down the field but on their top-two skill position players as well: running back Josh Jacobs and tight end Darren Waller. We will talk about Jacobs and the ground game in a moment, but for now let’s focus on Las Vegas’ leading receiver and how he has found success and impacted defensive tendencies with his sheer presence.
From a strictly statistical perspective, Waller has been impressive. He was targeted 24 times in Weeks 1 and 2, and caught 18 passes for 150 yards and a touchdown — leading the team in each category while establishing himself as Carr’s favorite target and a bona fide receiving tight end in this league.
Bill Belichick’s statements about him are therefore no surprise.
“It’s been such a long time since we’ve seen a guy like this,” New England’s head coach said about Waller earlier this year. “He’s really got great receiver skills, played receiver. He’s got a lot of length like a big receiver does, but he’s got very good quickness and he blocks very competitively. He’s not afraid to mix it up. So, he’s definitely more than a receiver playing tight end, but he’s got all the skills that can come inside.
“He’s a very good inside receiver, which sometimes the wide outs have trouble making that move in there. He’s really been impressive to watch. We saw him last year, looked at him in the offseason and you just see him doing everything — playing wide, playing in the backfield, playing tight end, running deep, catch-and-run plays, blocking, flash plays, point of attack plays. Very versatile player, pretty unique guy in the league.”
The Raiders have been using Waller in various ways, but in terms of his impact on the passing game he is mostly an underneath target: he rarely goes deep but makes most of his production by targeting the area between the line of scrimmage and the opposing 10-yard line. 13 of Waller’s receptions have come in this area of the field, as well as 100 yards and his lone touchdown. New England therefore needs to find a way to man the underneath zones — something they have struggled with in Seattle.
The following play from the Raiders’ Monday night game against the New Orleans Saints illustrates the problems Waller can create:
The Saints were aligning in a single-high look with one-on-one coverage underneath. Gruden’s team, however, ran a potent counter by using Waller (#83) and rookie wide receiver Henry Ruggs III (#11) on a double-cross concept. The play put deep safety Marcus Williams (#43) in a difficult position with him over-committing to one of the routes possibly opening up space for a significant catch-and-run.
So, how do you counter this if you are the Patriots?
One idea, as proposed by our friend Evan Lazar, might be to employ a Cover 2 defense with two deep safeties. New England is traditionally running a Cover 1 similar to the defense the. Saints used on the play above, which would potentially create the same problems. Putting two safeties over the top or at least using one of them to help man the underneath zones in a “robber” alignment might put the defense in a better structural position to defend Waller’s primary area of attack by allowing coverage defenders to more aggressively play the inside of their routes.
What also could help, of course, is using one of the game’s best cover cornerbacks on Waller. Stephon Gilmore may have given up three catches for 85 yards and a touchdown on five targets versus Seattle, but he is still a game-changing defender that knows how to use leverage to his advantage. While he will likely not exclusively take on the Raiders’ tight end, he could move over on crucial downs similar to how he was used against the Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce last year.
Waller’s mere presence, of course, can create problems for a defense as the Saints found out in Week 2:
On this 3rd-and-10 play in the fourth quarter, which resulted in a 20-yard touchdown run by Jalen Richard (#30), Waller does not show up on the stat sheet but still has an impact. When he motions across the formation to disrupt backside defensive end Carl Granderson (#96), both cornerback P.J. Williams (#26) and our old friend Marcus Williams are held in position just long enough for Richard to wiggle his way into the end zone.
With that said, let’s take a look at the second member of the Big Two, running back Josh Jacobs and the Raiders’ ground attack.
Stay disciplined against zone blocking and RPOs
While the Patriots’ pass defense issues were the most prominent against Seattle, the team also was unable to stop the run on a consistent basis: the Seahawks carried the football 30 times for 154 yards and an average of 5.1-yard per attempt. One of the main problems was the team’s lack of size at the linebacker position, with players such as “star” safeties Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger playing the second role alongside Ja’Whaun Bentley usually occupied by another linebacker.
The Raiders will likely try to take advantage of this as well by creating matchups versus the undersized second-level defenders through their outside zone blocking scheme. In action, the scheme itself looks like this:
As can be seen here, the line shifts in one direction with blockers trying to get through the gaps to the second level. While this creates a congestion in the middle of the field, the backside being open — both 4i-technique tackle David Onyemata (#93) and 7-technique end Carl Granderson (#96) are unable to set the edge — allowed running back Josh Jacobs (#28) to bounce the run to the outside and gain seven yards on the play. On top of it, you also have strong safety Malcolm Jenkins (#27) attack the wrong hole.
As plays like this illustrate, New England’s defense cannot allow Jacobs to get to the outside. That said, they do have a counter in their arsenal.
The Patriots have faced outside zone teams before, most prominently in Super Bowl 53 against the Los Angeles Rams. Back then, the team used a heavy front with six on-the-line defenders to set a firm edge and force runs into the middle where big-bodied defensive tackles such as Lawrence Guy and the team’s second-level defenders were waiting to shut down any attempt. This approach will likely be a part of New England’s plan again this year in order to prevent Jacobs from impacting the game’s flow.
So far this season, the former first-round draft pick has been able to do that: he leads the team with 52 carries for 181 yards and three touchdowns, and has been vital to Las Vegas’ offensive success.
The blocking up front has helped him, of course, as has the Raiders’ scheme: the team is not afraid to use exotic formations or run-pass option concepts — or both as the following play shows.
With Kolton Miller (#74) lining up on the right side of the line as a de facto in-line tight end, and with Darren Waller (#83) taking his place at left tackle (while remaining an eligible receiver), the defense was forced to adjust to the unbalanced line. Not just that, it also had to react to an RPO power concept that saw left guard Richie Incognito (#64) pull across the formation versus the hand-off.
New England’s defense therefore has to do one thing to combat looks like this one, and the outside zone block: stay disciplined. This is easier said than done, of course, but the Patriots’ emphasis on fundamentally sound football within its two-gap scheme will go a long way to help slow down Las Vegas’ rushing attack.
Limit the Raiders’ opportunities
With a timing-based passing game and a strong rushing attack, Las Vegas has been able to play its first two games this season on its own terms: the offense is leading the league in plays per drive (7.83) and is third in average time of possession per series (3:45). In order to get the unit out of its comfort zone, New England will therefore also have to find ways to limit both numbers.
The offense, as we already pointed out on Thursday, plays a role in this: the running game might allow the Patriots to shorten the game and put more pressure on Carr and company to move down the field quickly and by trying to run chunk plays against New England’s opportunistic and experienced secondary.
The defense, meanwhile, will have to play its part as well. This is especially true when it comes to third down defense. While the Patriots are eighth in the league with an offensive success rate on third down of 38.9 percent (7 of 18), the Raiders offense ranks first by converting on 57.1 percent of attempts (16 of 28). Furthermore, the team posts an impressive +0.7 EPA in third down situations.
Every third down the Patriots defense can win might put more pressure on the Raiders’ offense on the following series if New England’s offense plays a complementary role as well.