EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Jon Gruden got asked about Darren Waller quite often this offseason, but always sandbagged his answers. They started with the Raiders head coach saying he tried to keep Waller a secret, so opponents wouldn’t know how dynamic the tight end was until it was too late.
Gruden did that in jest, knowing full well Waller’s dynamic athleticism already was on tape after a series of 2018 lightning strikes after being signed off Baltimore's practice squad. This season, he has proven a dominant force demanding your respect. He’s a tenacious run blocker. He can play in-line, outside and in the slot. He’s too fast for linebackers and too big for most cornerbacks and safeties.
Waller was virtually impossible to stop early this season, even as a primary target working with a receiving corps in early-season shambles.
Defenses have grown tired of Waller’s dominance, especially after he torched Green Bay for 126 yards and two touchdowns on seven receptions. Now they regularly are throwing additional coverage his way. They are trying to take him out of the equation, to make other Raiders beat them.
Waller’s efficiency dipped considerably after midseason, but it’s on the rise again as Waller has worked hard to counter to defensive adjustments.
“There’s technique involved, but it’s more so a mindset,” Waller said in an interview with NBC Sports Bay Area. “When you are getting extra coverage thrown your way, it’s easy to just say, ‘I’m eliminated. Other guys have to step up.’ If you are playing really well, teams are going to do that. You need to have an attacking mindset and be determined to find or create space to make a play. You can’t settle or take a play off or assume a play’s over for me based upon what they’re doing. I have to believe that I can get open. It’s a mindset.”
Waller used Antonio Brown as an example of how to fight through heavy coverage. Brown is a four-letter word in Raider Nation, but bear with him for a moment. Brown widely is considered a top receiver and is showered with defensive attention, but always finds a way to get open and produce at a high rate.
Waller saw Brown work during the offseason program and took notes. He also sees how elite tight ends Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz are covered but still are able to get going.
“The best players find a way. They get attention every week and still produce,” Waller said. “They still find moments to make an impact. Look at AB over the years. You know they’re looking for him on every play, and he’s still doing what he does. You’re obviously going against the other team, but you’re also going against yourself. There are obstacles coming your way, but if you focus on them, you’re lost. You have to have the confidence to say that they have to beat me, and not ask how I’m going to beat them.”
Waller went over the previous game against the Bengals, where he had five catches for 78 yards on seven targets against varied coverage. There were instances he cited where he beat tough coverage, where he was getting hit at the line of scrimmage then working through intermediate coverage while maintaining proper timing. There were other moments where he properly found a soft spot in zone coverage and sat in it perfectly to make catches. And, on occasion, whether Gruden schemed him into a favorable matchup or if the Bengals defense was in a tough spot, Waller occasionally got matched up one-on-one in man coverage. He smoked a safety for 32 yards. He beat a linebacker, armed with a two-way go, to get the Raiders near the goal line.
Producing while dealing with all this coverage is a confidence builder.
“It brings out my best,” Waller said. “You have to make sure you’re locked in at all times. There’s more on my plate now, but I like the challenges. The more defenses throwing at me, the more I have to be prepared.”