Those who watched “Monday Night Football” this week saw the New Orleans Saints try and repeatedly fail to cover Darren Waller, the Las Vegas Raiders’ star tight end.
That’ll be the primary challenge for the New England Patriots’ defense this Sunday.
Through two games, Waller ranks second in the NFL in both catches and targets behind Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. He dominated the Saints, finishing with 12 catches on 16 targets for 103 yards and a touchdown in a 34-24 upset win for the newly relocated Raiders. None of his teammates saw more than three targets.
“When you start with a guy like Waller who’s running just as fast as the wide receivers,” Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty said Tuesday, “you already know it’s gonna be a long day.”
Though Kansas City’s Travis Kelce and San Francisco’s George Kittle are widely considered the NFL’s two premier tight ends, Patriots coach Bill Belichick suggested he’d take Waller — who broke out with 90 catches for 1,145 yards and three scores in 2019 — over either of them.
“He’s really, really tough,” Belichick said Tuesday in a video conference. “It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a guy like this. … There’s some other good tight ends, but nobody really does more than this guy does, and he does it very well.”
Waller ran a 4.46 40-yard dash at 6-foot-6 and entered the NFL as a wide receiver in 2015, but he’s blossomed into more than just a big pass-catcher. Belichick said his versatility and multifaceted skill set make him a truly dangerous offensive weapon.
“He’s 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,” Belichick said. “He’s not afraid to mix it up. 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. (He’s) a very versatile player (and a) pretty unique guy in the league. … He’s definitely a matchup problem.”
The Patriots have fared well against tight ends so far this season, holding Miami’s Mike Gesicki to three catches for 30 yards in Week 1 and blanking Seattle’s Greg Olsen on one target Sunday night. Fellow Seahawk Will Dissly caught one pass for 9 yards.
Second-year defensive back Joejuan Williams was New England’s primary cover man against Gesicki. Williams, Devin McCourty and rookie Kyle Dugger all took turns against Olsen as part of a zone-heavy Patriots game plan.
Gesicki and Olsen both tallied more than 500 receiving yards a season ago, but neither comes close to Waller’s talent level. That fact, coupled with the Raiders’ lack of elite wideouts (rookies Henry Ruggs III and Bryan Edwards and second-year pro Hunter Renfrow are their top options), could prompt Belichick to deploy No. 1 cornerback Stephon Gilmore on Waller this weekend.
Gilmore has successfully covered top-tier tight ends in the past, doing so against Zach Ertz last season and against Kelce in the 2018 AFC Championship Game. Neither of those was an every-play assignment, however, as Gilmore only covered Ertz on a handful of third downs and didn’t switch onto Kelce until the fourth quarter.
Whether it’s with Williams, Dugger or a repositioned cornerback, finding ways to defend players of Waller’s ilk will be at the forefront of Belichick’s mind in the coming weeks. Over their next four games, the Patriots are set to face a gauntlet of Waller, followed by Kelce, followed by Denver’s Noah Fant, followed by Kittle.
Kelce, Waller and Kittle are superstars. They ranked first, second and third in receiving yards among tight ends last season, respectively, all surpassing 1,000. Fant, an athletic 2019 first-round draft pick, ranked 14th with 562 and has been one of the league’s most productive tight ends through two games this season (11 targets, nine catches, 138 yards, two touchdowns).
And it doesn’t stop there. The Patriots also will see the Baltimore Ravens’ Mark Andrews (fifth in receiving yards in 2019) in Week 10, the Los Angeles Chargers’ Hunter Henry (ninth) in Week 13 and the Los Angeles Rams’ Tyler Higbee (seventh) in Week 14.
Andrews and Higbee both have multi-touchdown games on their record already this season (two in Week 1 and three in Week 2, respectively). Henry’s 156 receiving yards this season trail only Gesicki (160) among tight ends.
How tough is that stretch? Consider this: Before the season, Belichick attempted to sign veteran corner Aqib Talib with these matchups in mind. Talib, never one to shy away from a fight, admitted he wasn’t up for it.
We’ll see if the Patriots’ current defensive backs are.
Thumbnail photo via Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports Images