By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
In the Raiders Monday Night game against the Saints, Darren Waller put up two weeks worth of stats (12 catches, 105 yards, TD). It’s a good thing he did, because he recorded almost none Sunday against the Patriots.
Waller entered Sunday the focal point of the Raiders high powered offense. Or as Patriots safety Devin McCourty put it after the game, “We knew, in order for us to win, he was the one guy who couldn’t have a big game.”
It wasn’t a big game, or even a small game for Waller on Sunday. The Vegas tight end was nearly blanked by the Patriots secondary, recording two catches for just nine yards. Both came on the Raiders final drive of the game, well after the outcome had been decided.
How did the Patriots shut down a guy some have called the ‘most unique’ offensive weapon in the NFL? It took a team effort.
By live count during the game, Waller ran 38 routes on Sunday. The Patriots threw nine (!) different defenders at him, with none covering more than eight plays. Here’s how it looked, counting the closest defender to the route as a ‘coverage’ for each play.
Joejuan Williams: 8
Kyle Dugger: 6
Jonathan Jones: 5
Jason McCourty: 5
J.C. Jackson: 3
Adrian Phillips: 2
Stephon Gilmore: 2
Devin McCourty: 2
Terrence Brooks: 1
*No obvious coverage assignment visible without film review
Joejuan Williams got the majority of the workload, and seemed to be the go-to option on third downs. That’s not a huge surprise, given how the second-year defensive back was used to defend Mike Gesicki is the opener. While Waller is the superior player, he has a similar skill set and would require a similar strategy to stop.
Raiders quarterback Derek Carr didn’t target Waller once when Williams was in coverage. A defensive holding was the one thing pot hole in an otherwise impressive performance.
Kyle Dugger also saw his share of snaps on Waller, especially late in the game. The rookie actually wasn’t used to defend the Raiders tight end until the second half, but still recorded the second most snaps against him. Dugger allowed one of Waller’s two catches, although it came on a play late in the game when the Patriots were in zone and giving cushion.
Jonathan Jones and Jason McCourty were also both heavily used in the game plan as well. Neither saw a target while covering Waller on 10 combined snaps. Devin McCourty was targeted twice, with both passes falling for incompletions. One of those was a nice reactionary play in the second half, when Waller actually beat Jones on an inside move, but McCourty read the play from his zone and jumped in the passing lane to save a touchdown.
And even when guys weren’t directly covering Waller, they were still contributing. “Every time they come to the sideline, they’re talking,” McCourty said after the game.
It was that fervent note sharing that allowed the Patriots defense to not miss a beat as they rotated coverages. “Constant communication of ‘he did this, he’s running this way, he’s making moves,'” was key, according to McCourty.
By passing along the intricacies (things to small to be seen on tape during film study) of what he was doing, the New England secondary was able to find a kind of rhythm in guarding Waller without a single guy taking him play-in and play-out.
The strategy employed by the Patriots secondary on Sunday was as unique as the player it was designed to stop. New England faces a formidable tight end once again next week, when they visit Travis Kelce and the Kansas City Chiefs. Will they use a rotation again? It’s not likely, as such a system wouldn’t be as effective against a team with KC’s all-around offensive firepower (Zay Jones and Nelson Agholor aren’t exactly Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins).
Still, in what was a complementary team win for the Patriots, a true team effort by the defense was at the center of it, cutting off the opposing offense’s most potent weapon. It took everybody doing their job, and they did just that.