Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Davante Adams shook his head and shouted after he was forced to head to the locker room and leave the Raiders’ Week 2 game on Sunday at Buffalo with three minutes still on the clock.
The anger mostly stemmed from taking what he called an “unnecessary” helmet-to-helmet hit that drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and forced him to be evaluated for a concussion. But the Raiders’ struggles with downfield passing in the 38-10 loss to the Bills surely didn’t lessen the star receiver’s frustration level.
The deep pass attempt from Jimmy Garoppolo had little chance of being completed even without the illegal hit from Buffalo safety Taylor Rapp as the quarterback threw it into triple coverage. Las Vegas’ passing offense has performed fine, if not well, in its first two games since Garoppolo took over in all except one area — deep throws.
It’s an area that must improve starting in Week 3 at home for Sunday Night Football against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Las Vegas needs some semblance of a vertical passing attack to bring the best out of Adams, who cleared the protocol and was ruled not to have suffered a concussion, and its offense as a whole.
“It’s no secret so it doesn’t matter what I sit up here and say, but at the end of the day, teams are out to try to take me away,” Adams said Wednesday after participating in full in the first practice since the head injury scare. “So more opportunities when they’re not trying desperately to do so, we’ve got to take advantage of those.”
Garoppolo has shown off both his scouted strengths and shortcomings as a passer during the Raiders’ 1-1 start to the season, split almost evenly down the middle. In the Raiders’ first seven drives of the year, the longtime San Francisco 49er who signed with Las Vegas in free agency displayed his accuracy and ability to get his playmakers the ball with space to work.
The Raiders scored three touchdowns in the span and mounted a game-clinching drive at Denver.
But in the last eight drives, limitations have reared their heads. The Bills took control of the Week 2 game and Garoppolo is not as well equipped to execute a more aggressive approach needed when facing a large deficit.
The Raiders are one of only two teams in the league (along with the Carolina Panthers) that haven’t completed a single pass for more than 25 yards so far this season. The best chance might have come in the second quarter at Buffalo when speedy rookie receiver Tre Tucker beat a defensive back, but Garoppolo appeared to underthrow him.
“When we want to call a play like that, the expectation (for me) is to make a play for us,” Tucker said. “My coach always tells me no matter what happens just come down with the ball.”
Garoppolo has expressed little concern that the Raiders’ deep attack will improve. He shrugged off concerns in the area during training camp but took responsibility after the Bills loss and said it starts with him and he plans to be better.
Garoppolo alluded to failure of beating the Bills over the top being a key contributor to the Raiders’ running game hitting a historic low. Josh Jacobs became the first reigning rushing champion since the 1970 NFL/AFL merger to finish with negative yards, at -2 on nine carries.
“We’ve got to play good complementary football, get the run/pass game in order — take advantage when they give us a light box and when they stack the box we’ve got to be able to pass the ball a little bit,” Garoppolo said. “Everyone working together….When you can attack them when they’re in a single-high (safety look) and get the pass game going like that it takes them out of that and makes them play a little more two high.”
Garoppolo may be challenging himself to throw better downfield, even though coach Josh McDaniels said he didn’t see the failure to do so as a “big, big factor” so far.
To McDaniels’ point, Garoppolo rates fourth in the league in both intended air yards per attempt, at 5.2, and intended air yards per completion, at 7.2. Those numbers are somewhat misleading though and more illustrative of the way the offense has mostly operated with intermediate throws.
Las Vegas has thrown far fewer screens and passes near the line of scrimmage to skew the statistics. They’ve more frequently tried deep throws, but they’re just not connecting.
If the Raiders could hit a couple, the thought is that defenses would respect the ability more and cease from deploying so much personnel to stopping Jacobs and the run game. Jacobs faced 340 stacked boxes — defined as any time the defense has four or fewer players in coverage — last year according to StatMuse for the second-most in the league.
The frequency seems even higher this season.
“It’s just complementary football,” Jacobs sad when asked about downfield passing freeing him up. “The pass game opens up the run, the run opens up the pass. If they’re loading up the box, we start passing the ball more and we can complete passes, we’ll be in good shape.”
The Steelers may offer an excellent opportunity to break out of the funk. They tend to run nickel packages — with five defensive backs — less than the NFL average.
It’s only a two-game sample size but that’s resulted in being vulnerable down the field so far this season. Pittsburgh is 21st in the league against deep passing according to Aaron Schatz’s DVOA metric.
Las Vegas could take pressure off everyone and open up the offense with some early success down the field. It might not have happened yet, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to stop trying.
“That’s something we work on every day,” Tucker said of the vertical passing game. “I think it’s a non-stop thing progressing through the season. No one in the NFL just has it correct and they’re all ready to go and connected in Week 1. For us, it’s a never-ending thing that we’re going to keep working on all season.”