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Raiders want to use Darren Waller more, but it’s complicated

Updated November 19, 2021 - 9:34 am

Conventional wisdom suggested the Raiders would target dynamic tight end Darren Waller even more in the aftermath of the loss of Henry Ruggs.

Waller, after all, is the Raiders’ most dangerous weapon and a nightmare matchup for opposing defenses. With Ruggs no longer in the fold to stretch defenses with his speed, it was assumed Waller would be leaned on even more heavily.

That hasn’t happened.

Waller’s per-game targets since Ruggs was released three weeks ago have risen only slightly from the 8.3 he was getting before the Ruggs situation to nine in the two games since.

On the season, he is averaging 8.6 targets per game, although if you take out the 19 times he was targeted in the season opener, the average drops to 7.1 over the subsequent seven games.

That is nearly two fewer than the nine targets he averaged last season.

On the season Waller has 44 catches for 494 yards through nine games. In 16 games last year he finished with 107 catches for 1,196 yards.

As you can see, he is off his normal pace.

“It is a little different,” Waller said. “Because over the last two years I am used to a lot more volume.”

It probably wouldn’t be a big deal — at least over the last two weeks — had the Raiders won both games without Ruggs. But they didn’t. To make matters worse, they didn’t just lose each game, their offense looked far less explosive and efficient as well.

“We’ll continue to try to find ways to get him the ball and find ways to get him targets,” said Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson. “Because he’s that good of a player.”

Interestingly, Waller pushes back on the belief that the Raiders would be better off by simply feeding him the ball more.

“I don’t think me getting more targets is the answer to everything,” Waller said. “Nor do I think that does something special for our offense.”

Not that he doesn’t understand what he means in the overall scheme of things.

“I do feel like when I get my hands on the ball, it’s a great thing. I do want to be able to make plays for this team,” said Waller. “But there’s only so many things that I can control when I approach a game. If I try to focus on those other things, I can get frustrated like anybody else can.”

That may be true. But after two straight sluggish offensive performances, the thinking now is that it might behoove the Raiders to start tapping into their best offensive player a little more.

Of course, that might be easier said than done given the respect Waller has earned around the league and how that has changed the way opposing defenses approach him.

“There’s a lot more things in play this year,” Waller said.

Some good, some not so good.

On the good side — at least prior to the Ruggs’ situation — the Raiders had surrounded Waller with a better supporting cast than at any point in his career. Ruggs was emerging as a big-time weapon, second-year wide receiver Bryan Edwards was coming into his own and the always reliable Hunter Renfrow was getting even better.

“There’s a lot more guys that can do stuff with the rock,” Waller said.

On the not-so-good side, Waller can sense a new level of defensive focus being paid to him.

“There’s a lot of ways and situations where there’s a lot of bodies around me,” Waller said. “There aren’t as many opportunities where it frees up where I am getting a good look.”

Like the time Waller was streaking free into the end zone against the New York Giants two weeks ago and Carr simply overthrew him.

When it comes to single-man coverage, Waller is the best in the league at getting open. According to Pro Football Focus, Waller has seen that look 60 times and gotten open 40 times. Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley is second best, getting open on 30 of his 54 chances.

To put in perspective the frequency Waller is defended one-on-one, Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen has seen that coverage 140 times, Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown 90 times.

“Whenever I’m out wide … there may be somebody underneath me, somebody outside of me and somebody inside,” Waller said.

That can be frustrating. “I wish it could go back to it just being one-on-one every time, like in 2019,” he said. “But I guess that isn’t the case anymore.”

Contact Vincent Bonsignore at vbonsignore@reviewjournal.com. Follow @VinnyBonsignore on Twitter.

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