It has been three years since the Raiders have played the Patriots, and it could be argued that it has been eighteen years since the Patriots played a competitive Raiders team. That wait could finally be over. This current iteration has flown under the radar, whilst all the media focus has been on the move to Las Vegas, Derek Carr has been leading the charge.
Carr was a MVP candidate a few seasons ago until his untimely leg break on Christmas Eve 2016 versus the Colts. It has been a long four years since then, with his status as QB1 called into question, as well as a lack of talent surrounding him, but in 2019 things started to pick up. Very quietly, Carr had his best season since 2016 with career highs in completion percentage, (70.4), yards, (4,054) and average yards per attempt (7.0). He was also careful with the football notching up an impressively low 8 interceptions.
2020 has started where last year left off for the Fresno State alumni and whilst the sample size is small, he has been the driving force behind the Raiders renaissance. Both games this season have been against decent opposition, and Carr’s offence have hardly been helped by their porous defence, a 34-30 win on the road to Carolina and a 34-24 (albeit with some of the Saints points coming in garbage time).
So, why fear this iteration of Derek Carr? What should the Patriots be looking for? Well the first thing that jumps off the page is that Carr is not afraid to spread the ball around. He seemingly has a comfort level with everybody in the offence whether it is Full Back Alec Ingold or rookie receiver Henry Ruggs. In the Patriots first two games, FitzPatrick and Wilson used 7 and 8 pass catchers respectively. Through his first two games Carr has used 9 versus the Panthers and 11 versus the Saints.
This seemingly small piece of information means that now the Patriots Defence has to think that each eligible receiver is a threat to get the ball at any time. Outside of Darren Waller, no other player except Josh Jacobs has caught more than four passes. It also means that the Patriots might have to do something about J’Whaun Bentley’s inability to go sideline-to-sideline in coverage. With such a wide net to cast their defence over, they cannot afford to have Carr pick Bentley apart. Josh Uche was tried in this role in training camp and he is a much more athletic option, but he has been inactive for the first two games and is unlikely to be thrust into an every down role so soon.
A knock on Carr in previous seasons is that he was seemingly afraid to turn the ball over and so was taking the safe option with short passes rather than trying to make downfield plays. Not this season. Henry Ruggs is a pass interference call waiting to happen. Think of Brandin Cooks during his time with the Patriots. With Jacobs as a big running threat, Carr and Gruden have been able to work on the play-action which is giving him more time to read the receivers and the defence downfield. The Patriots will have to be disciplined and focus on the O-Line movement rather than any distractions during the handoff.
An underrated part of Carr’s game this year has been his accuracy in his short and intermediate passes. Not only is he hitting his receivers, but he is putting the ball in a place where the receiver can catch in stride and gain extra yards. A favourite play of Carr’s is the 5-7 yard out route, either to a Back coming out from the backfield or to a Tight End. He is able to throw it from under centre and rolls out to the right frequently too. It is the same basic play but the look presented to the Defence is different. Carr used this perfectly on his TD pass to Alec Ingold. He took his 5 step drop and almost without looking lasered a pass into his Full Back’s hands.
Through the first two games Carr’s accuracy and ball placement has been so good that he has rarely had a pass broken up, or look like it could end up in the hands of the opposition. The key to this seems to be this repetition of similar, high percentage plays from different looks. The 5-yard out and the Tight End 10 yards over the middle. He has complete trust in his pass catchers to be in the right place at the right time and his own ability to make the throws.
Carr looks like he has worked on his release this offseason too. This was most visible if you go back and watch his throw to Nelson Agholor for the TD against the Panthers. On 3rd and 2, Carr throws a lofted ball from the 25 yard line that is out of his hands so quickly it gives the defence little time to make a read, the ball is already in the air and on its way down into the sometimes questionable hands of Agholor.
The best pass from the first two weeks is his TD pass to Zay Jones. Carr in the shotgun from the 15 yard line, throws a beautiful pass in a place that only Jones can catch it – down low, over the sideline, with the receiver between him and the Cornerback. Exquisite. If Rodgers, Mahomes or Wilson had thrown the same pass it would have been on repeat the following day on Sports Center.
Carr has quietly gone about his business this year and looks refreshed and every bit like the top ten Quarterback he played like in his first few seasons. If the Patriots are to bring Carr back to his old habits, then one way in which the Patriots can attack is via pressure up the middle. Carr loves to step up into the pocket to make throws but is pretty statuesque once he arrives there. If Guy, Butler and Cowart can get some push up the middle it could really knock him off his game.
–Luke O’Brien is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on twitter @lukeobrienNFL