Darren Waller is one of the best tight ends in the NFL, and it was clear that Bill Belichick was not going to let him beat the Patriots. You can probably guess what happened if you don’t already know. Waller was a non-factor on Sunday, finishing with 2 receptions for 9 yards on just 4 targets. He didn’t catch his first pass until there were 4 minutes left in the game and the Raiders were trailing by 23. We’ve seen this story more than a few times, haven’t we? Belichick forcing teams to play left handed and making sure they don’t win with their best asset. So how did he do it this time?
The Patriots used a few different tactics to prevent Waller from having an impact. They tried to disrupt his routes at the line of scrimmage, especially early in the game. Patriots linebackers jammed him before rushing the passer or dropping into their coverage responsibility. With Waller’s speed somewhat neutralized, that gave whoever was covering him the ability to more easily keep up with him.
This 3rd-and-7 was a prime example. Watch the two defenders over Waller. You’ll see linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley (#51) hit him at the snap before rushing the passer.
As you can see on that play, cornerback Joejuan Williams (#33) was covering Waller. He played 9 snaps on Sunday and took Waller 1-on-1 on 7 of them. All 7 of those snaps came in obvious passing situations – 3rd down and during the Raiders’ 2-minute drill at the end of the first half. Williams is the Patriots’ tallest cornerback, listed at 6’3.” It was clear that Belichick saw his size and speed as a good combo for this matchup.
Rookie safety Kyle Dugger (#35) replaced Williams as the Waller shadow for most of the 2nd half, taking him on 6 snaps. All 3rd-down snaps where the Patriots played man had either Williams or Dugger covering him.
Belichick clearly viewed Waller more like a big receiver than a tight end. He rotated multiple cornerbacks on him at different points throughout the day. In fact, two thirds of the Patriots’ snaps of man coverage called for a cornerback to take Waller.
As the Raiders got closer to the goalline, New England started focusing on him even more. Safety Devin McCourty almost forced 2 interceptions while keying on multiple Waller routes over the middle. On the below play, with cornerback Jason McCourty taking his turn on the tight end, it looked like Derek Carr finally had his biggest play-maker open over the middle.
You can see Devin McCourty started to jump Waller’s route before the ball was thrown, though, disrupting the play and nearly forcing the INT.
That was Waller’s first target of the day – three minutes into the 3rd quarter.
On the below throw, McCourty again keyed on Waller and almost came up with the INT. Watch how Carr tried to move McCourty from the middle of the field by looking to his right initially.
The end zone angle shows a better view. McCourty didn’t bite, aware that Waller was the priority in the red zone.
It’s likely that Waller wasn’t quite moving at 100% due to his knee injury. That said, does it surprise anyone that Belichick had a unique plan for handling him? And was it a surprise to see his defensive backs execute so well?
Belichick certainly had an answer for the Raiders on Sunday. We’ll see what he has in store for a much tougher challenge in Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs next week.
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