By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
For the Patriots defense, it could be less complicated against the Raiders than it was in Seattle – just take tight end Darren Waller out of the game.
Easier said than done. The 6-foot-6, 250-pound Waller has the size, speed, and hands to be a matchup nightmare for any defense. He’s coming off a 12-catch game against the Saints, keying the Raiders’ 24-17 win on Monday Night Football.
“Yeah, he’s really, really tough,” Bill Belichick said during a video conference Tuesday. “I think it’s been such a long time since we’ve seen a guy like this. 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 wideouts 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. So, very versatile player, pretty unique guy in the league. There’s some really good tight ends, but nobody really does more than this guy does and he does it very well. He’s got excellent hands and makes a lot of tough catches. He’s definitely a matchup problem.”
Based on the Patriots’ scheme from Week 1 against the Dolphins, the top choice to cover Waller would be Joejuan Williams. The second-year defensive back out of Vanderbilt certainly has the size and length to match up against big receiving tight ends, but for Waller he may need extra help. That’s not a knock on him. Waller is Vegas’ biggest threat in the passing game and an All-Pro candidate at the position.
So logically speaking, the Pats are likely to maximize their resources for stopping Waller and forcing Raiders quarterback Derek Carr to throw to his wide receivers. Las Vegas also has 2020 first-round pick Henry Ruggs as a big-play threat. But if they can stifle Waller defensively, they could do a lot of damage to the Raiders’ offensive engine.
It doesn’t stop there, though. Vegas also boasts one of the league’s most dangerous rushing attacks, led by 2019 first-rounder Josh Jacobs, who runs behind one of the league’s better offensive lines. He’s powerful and explosive on the ground, and continues to improve as a pass-catcher. For a Patriots front-seven that is coming off a tough night against the Seahawks, they’re going to have their hands full once again.
“He’s one of those guys and when you talk about running backs that run behind their pads and he’s low to the ground and he looks for contact, and he’s still able to move lateral with quick steps and just pretty much do anything,” safety Adrian Phillips said on Jacobs. “And this year he’s gotten better in his route running and you see that from the first game, he had a nice route, there were probably about 30-40 yards, so he just has the whole package. He’s a tough tackle.”
Perhaps the Patriots sell out to take away Waller and their receivers in the intermediate areas of the field. But Jon Gruden and offensive coordinator Greg Olson’s West Coast offense has been excellent at setting up third-and-short opportunities. In two games, they’ve faced third down and longer than five yards just eight times in 23 third-down plays. So the plan could be to sell out to stop Jacobs on the ground and force third-and-long, then take their chances with those situations.
The Patriots defense has a big opportunity to bounce back on Sunday in Foxboro. But it comes against some truly dangerous talents.
More things to think about ahead of Patriots-Raiders…
Can the Raiders get to Cam? Vegas doesn’t have as many playmakers on defense as it does on offense. But they have a solid group of pass-rushers with Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby off the edge, and veteran Johnathan Hankins is a tough block inside. The Patriots’ pass protection has been excellent to start the season; Cam Newton has been sacked only three times in 63 pass attempts, and one of those was by Seahawks safety Jamal Adams on a chase-down kind of play. Newton showed significant growth as a passer in the Patriots’ system last Sunday, so it will be key for the Raiders to get more pressure than the Pats’ first two opponents have – and the same can be said for New England’s offensive line to hold up their blocks.
West to east. The Raiders in Gruden’s second stint as head coach have been a poor road team – especially when traveling to the eastern time zone. They’re only 1-3 in those spots, and their only win was in the 2020 opener at Carolina, which is a little different from traveling mid-season. Their three losses have been by a combined score of 96-40. So they have something to prove here about their ability to play well traveling from west to east, and they’ll have to do it against Belichick and Newton in Foxboro.
Rookies on the rise? Patriots rookie safety Kyle Dugger played well last Sunday in Seattle in an increased role (34 snaps). The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Dugger showed impressive power as a disruptor up front, and he also has the speed to potentially play well in coverage against bigger receivers and tight ends. He’s shown good versatility in the early-going. It will be interesting to see how Belichick uses Dugger, and how much. Elsewhere among the rookies, linebacker Josh Uche and tight end Dalton Keene did not appear on Wednesday’s injury report, giving them a chance to make their Patriots debuts on Sunday.
Alex Barth and I recapped the patriots’ loss to the Seahawks, discussed their quarterback situation in both the short- and long-term, and looked ahead to Pats-Raiders in a new podcast for 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a listen below.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff or send him a nasty email at firstname.lastname@example.org.