AJ Mast / AP
Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020 | 2 a.m.
Darren Waller emerged as one of the league’s most electrifying tight ends last year, as he racked up 90 catches for 1,145 yards and earned a Pro Bowl berth. It was a spectacular season for the young pass-catcher, and the good news for Las Vegas is that he can still get better.
While Waller ran wild between the 20s for most of the season, his output stalled in the red zone. For the season, Waller caught just three touchdown passes, and only two of them came in red-zone situations. The team’s inability to capitalize on Waller’s abilities around the end zone had a debilitating effect on the offense, as the team finished 2019 ranked 22nd in red-zone efficiency.
Las Vegas head coach Jon Gruden recognizes that the offense has to get better in the scoring area and he accepted some of the blame for the team’s struggles in that area last season.
“We stunk last year [near the goal line],” head coach Jon Gruden said. “I stunk inside the 1-yard line. That will really help our offense if I can call some better plays and give these guys a chance to poke it in from inside the 2- or 3-yard line. That’s where your points per game and all the statistics will improve.”
The easiest way for the Raiders to improve around the goal line is to get their best playmaker involved more. So, how can Las Vegas go about converting Waller’s production into points?
The first and most obvious step will be to give Waller more opportunities. Though he was by far the Raiders’ most targeted pass-catching option, he got relatively few looks when the team got down near the end zone.
For the season, Waller got 23.8 percent of the team’s targets; in the red zone, it shrunk to 13.2 percent. That worked out to just 10 total targets for Waller all season inside the 20. For comparison, other elite tight ends like Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, George Kittle and Mark Andrews racked up 19, 19, 17 and 15 red-zone targets, respectively.
Simply getting the ball in Waller’s hands more is a must for 2020. The Raiders did that at certain times last season, but not nearly enough.
On this play, Gruden used misdirection — namely, the threat of a jet sweep/pop pass — to get Waller an easy catch working against the grain of the defense. With open space in front of him and a full head of steam, Waller was able to win the race to the pylon for one of his red-zone TDs:
That’s a perfect example of using creative play design to get the ball in the hands of your best offensive player.
It’s not always a guarantee, though. On this play, the Raiders tried to split Waller wide and set up a quick screen, but the blocking never materialized in front of him:
While that play didn’t work, no one is going to criticize the play call for trying to give Waller a chance to make a play.
Another reason for Waller’s dampened red-zone usage was the Raiders’ depth at tight end. Gruden wasn’t shy about going to heavy packages around the goal line, and that led to Foster Moreau and Derek Carrier siphoning off some goal-line targets. For the season, Moreau was targeted seven times in the red zone and Carrier got four targets.
That wasn’t always necessarily a bad thing. On this play, Waller’s presence helped spring Moreau for a wide-open touchdown when the linebacker, panicked after biting on a play-action fake, instantly jumped on Waller’s crossing route, allowing Moreau to slip across the formation for an uncovered TD:
Getting Waller more involved will be only half the battle. In order to produce more touchdowns he and quarterback Derek Carr will have to put in more time getting on the same page, as the duo had too many near-misses in 2019.
Keep in mind Waller only saw six targets in 2018, so last season was really his first time working with Carr for an extended period. And while they clicked pretty well overall, there were instances where better chemistry would have led to scores.
On this play, Waller runs a corner route and Carr fires behind him for an incomplete pass. On first view, it looks like a miss by Carr, but the blame probably lies with both players. Waller is racing to the corner anticipating a lob, while Carr expects Waller to sit down between the two zone defenders for the easy completion.
The result looks really bad:
Carr’s read was most likely correct, and if Waller had simply sat down in the alley between the two defenders Carr would have hit him for an easy score. But how many times had Carr and Waller run that route against that type of defense in a game setting? That was probably the first time. If you’re Las Vegas, you’ve got to think that next time they’ll see it the same way and make the connection.
There were other instances when Carr and Waller just seemed to be on different pages. On this play, the Raiders put Waller out wide and Carr gives him a back-shoulder throw. That’s a great idea, because Waller is bigger and more athletic than his defender. But the throw is inches too high, just glancing off Waller’s fingertips for an incompletion in the end zone:
Similarly, on this play Waller is again lined up wide to the left and Carr tries to take advantage of the matchup against a smaller defender by giving Waller a chance to high-point a lob. Waller has the defender boxed out, but the throw sails high:
Carr is by nature a very, very, extremely conservative quarterback, so it’s not surprising that he erred on the side of caution by putting both of those throws out of reach of the receiver, and therefore, out of reach of the defender. But with an entire year’s worth of reps under their combined belt, perhaps Carr will develop enough trust in Waller to keep the ball in play with the understanding that the tight end will fight for it and not let anything bad happen.
It would be to the Raiders’ benefit if they figure it out, because when Carr and Waller are on the same page, they can make it look easy.
On this play, Waller gets a matchup against Packers linebacker Treyvon Hester and Carr recognizes the mismatch immediately. Waller is able to shake him easily at the goal line and turn to the post; Carr floats it over the zone defender in the middle of the field for the easy score:
Waller and Carr just missed on these plays and could have easily added two or three more touchdowns to his total in 2019. Assuming they’re just a bit more simpatico in 2020 — an inch here, an inch there — and Waller’s scoring numbers should go up, along with the team’s red zone efficiency.