Entering Week 3 of the regular season, no tight end in the NFL had seen more passes thrown his way than the Las Vegas Raiders’ Darren Waller. Over his team’s first two games he was targeted a combined 24 times by quarterback Derek Carr and caught 18 of those passes for 150 yards and a touchdown — clearly leading the team in every major receiving category.
Needless to say that the New England Patriots were well aware of the potential impact Waller could have on their game versus the Raiders.
“He brings every challenge you can think of,” said safety Devin McCourty leading into the game. “It’s covering him, it’s then tackling him, it’s knowing where he is in their offense, how they might use them. They use him in so many different ways, you’re not going to get a true bead on it, but it’s just understanding awareness and how he can hurt you and knowing that we all have to be alert. It’s not like ‘This guy’s going to go take Waller and take him out of the game.’ It won’t be like that. It’ll be a team effort.”
A team effort it was indeed: the Patriots, according to the charting of 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Alex Barth, used nine different players in coverage against Waller. Joejuan Williams led the team with eight such snaps, followed by Kyle Dugger’s six. Jonathan Jones and Jason McCourty went up against him five times each, J.C. Jackson thrice, and Adrian Phillips, Stephon Gilmore and Devin McCourty two times. Terrence Brooks also added one coverage snap lined up against the 28-year-old.
The Patriots’ team approach worked: Waller was targeted just four times all day, and finished the game with a mere two receptions for nine yards. Those two catches, by the way, came on the Raiders’ final offensive possession when New England was already up 36-13 and playing a prevent zone defense.
With all that said, let’s take a closer look at how New England was able to slow down one of the most potent offensive weapons in all of football so far this year starting with Las Vegas’ first pass play of the day.
1-10-LV 42 (12:57) (Shotgun) D.Carr pass incomplete short right to B.Edwards (S.Gilmore).
After gaining a first down on their first offensive snap, courtesy of a 12-yard Josh Jacobs run, the Raiders went to a 3x1 shotgun formation that saw Waller (#83) lined up in the left-side slot. New England, meanwhile, countered with a single-high safety look and linebacker Brandon Copeland (#52) on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Copeland was not in coverage of Waller, though, but instead was asked to re-route him after his release:
After the Raiders’ tight end was chipped by Copeland at the line, he was picked up by Adrian Phillips (#21) in single coverage. At that point, however, Derek Carr (#8) had already taken his eyes off of him: the initial congestion in the middle of the field — Copeland, Phillips and Ja’Whaun Bentley (#51) were all in the vicinity of Waller — made the quarterback look elsewhere with football. He went to wide receiver Bryan Edwards (#89) but the pass was broken up by Stephon Gilmore (#24).
While Waller was not targeted on this play, it already showed the Patriots’ intentions: they would make life hard for him by not allowing him free releases at the snap and using multiple players to get the job done. Two plays later, this approach was on display again:
3-9-LV 43 (12:15) (Shotgun) D.Carr pass incomplete deep left to H.Renfrow.
Following the incomplete pass to Edwards, the Raiders were flagged for a false start and had a 6-yard run. Facing a 3rd-and-9 at their own 43, the team again used an 11-personnel package. This time, Waller aligned on the right side of the formation as the inside player in a three-man bunch. Derek Rivers (#95), Jonathan Jones (#31) and Joejuan Williams (#33) were all on the other side of him, with the latter drawing the assignment:
Williams squared Waller up three yards into his route, and stuck to him after the tight end started to break to the inside. While this might have given him an opportunity to get open over the middle, the Patriots made sure that this would not happen: Devin McCourty (#32), who originally aligned 10 yards deep on the weak side of the formation, was waiting to pick Waller up once he got into his pattern.
With New England’s starting safety having inside leverage, Carr was forced to look elsewhere again. Tight coverage across the board and an approaching pass rush, however, made life hard for the veteran passer: he had to escape the pocket with Rivers and Deatrich Wise Jr. (#91) closing in, and eventually threw off the mark intended for Hunter Renfrow (#13) deep behind Waller.
1-10-LV 38 (7:18) (Shotgun) D.Carr pass incomplete short middle to J.Jacobs (J.Bentley).
The Patriots knew that had to respect Waller’s abilities as a receiver, and so it was no surprise to see them use their number one cornerback on him as well at times: Stephon Gilmore went up against Waller just twice, but New England did trust him to cover the Raiders’ top pass catcher one-on-one into his route with safety help over the top.
The following play from the second quarter, which resulted in an incomplete check-down pass, is an example of that:
New England again played man-to-man coverage across the board out of a single-high look, with Gilmore and Waller originally facing off on the strong left side of the offensive formation. At the snap, Gilmore opened up his hips to invite Waller to the inside before playing a bail technique. The NFL’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year knew that he could play Waller like that because of Devin McCourty’s presence over the top.
Derek Carr might have had an opportunity to test the coverage with Waller a step ahead of Gilmore, but the Patriots’ Cover 1 defense made it hard for him to throw the ball into the heart of the defense: Gilmore was close to Waller, with McCourty looming over the top and both Ja’Whaun Bentley and Kyle Dugger (#35) also roaming underneath. The tight end being rerouted into the middle of the field after his break therefore created an unfavorable situation for him and his quarterback.
2-6-NE 22 (11:37) (Shotgun) D.Carr pass incomplete short middle to D.Waller (D.McCourty).
The Patriots’ different coverage looks led to Derek Carr looking elsewhere for most of the game. While this did create opportunities for other players to step up — Hunter Renfrow, for example, led the team with six catches for 84 yards — it cost the Raiders’ their most potent offensive skill position player of the first two weeks.
That said, Carr started to look Waller’s way as the game went along. His two targets outside of the Raiders’ final drive, however, were both broken up by Devin McCourty. The first such play came in the early third quarter:
The play itself is similar to the one above, with the main differences being a) outside linebacker John Simon (#55) chipping Waller at the line, and b) Jason McCourty (#30) being asked to cover the tight end. Over the top, meanwhile, the second McCourty twin again loomed to prevent Carr’s favorite target from making a play over the middle of the field. This time, however, the Raiders’ quarterback did not care and threw the pass anyway. It almost resulted in an interception.
Devin McCourty read the play perfectly and was able to get in front of Waller as the pass arrived. The ball popped up into the air and Jason McCourty was in a position to pick it off, but failed to secure the catch. All in all, though, the play was another successful one for the Patriots’ defense.
2-7-NE 9 (11:54) (Shotgun) D.Carr pass incomplete short middle to D.Waller (D.McCourty).
The second pass thrown Waller’s way was structurally similar to the last two we looked at: the Patriots were using a cornerback — this time Jonathan Jones — matched up against him with McCourty hovering over the top as the lone deep man. Carr again tested the coverage look, and again the Patriots’ veteran safety was ready for the play:
McCourty started out in the middle of the field and read Carr’s eyes perfectly to get his hand onto the football. Even when Carr was trying to give his big playmaker a chance to make a play, New England’s defense was ready.
“We knew, in order for us to win, he was the one guy who couldn’t have a big game,” said McCourty after the Patriots’ 36-20 victory. His role, as the plays shown here illustrate, was a pivotal one when it came to stopping the Raiders’ most productive pass catcher. He was not the only player worth mentioning, as head coach Bill Belichick pointed out during his own postgame presser.
“I thought the players did an excellent job. When we had opportunities to jam and reroute him, we tried to do that, but he’s a tough guy to match up on,” said Belichick. “I thought the guys competed well against Waller. A couple of different guys matched up on him depending what the coverage was, and there was some zone coverage in there as well.”
No matter what the Patriots threw at Waller and the Raiders’ offense, they were successful — certainly a positive development considering that the team will continue to face some of the game’s best tight ends over the next few weeks.