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The Las Vegas Raiders teetered on the edge of the abyss—or a black hole if you will—only to find their way to a miraculous 33-27 overtime victory Monday against the Baltimore Ravens.
Fans booed an uninspired first-half effort during the first fully attended football game at Allegiant Stadium since the pandemic began. The Ravens looked like all-but-certain victors on multiple occasions. The Raiders did everything in their power to give away the contest.
Yet an unheralded bunch of targets emerged throughout the contest to breathe life into the franchise.
Before the turnaround, the Raiders offense had been very predictable in the first half. If quarterback Derek Carr dropped back to pass, he targeted tight end Darren Waller, who in fairness is a unique offensive weapon. After all, he finished fourth among all players in the league last season with 104 receptions.
“He’s the best player I’ve ever coached,” head coach Jon Gruden told reporters after the contest.
But the insistence on feeding the tight end throughout the first two quarters bordered on laughable. In total, Carr targeted Waller 19 times. The sure-handed mismatch caught 10 of those passes for 105 yards and a score.
“If you threw it 60 times, you’d probably throw it to Waller 29 times,” Gruden joked.
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Obviously, teams should take advantage of their best offensive weapon and do so regularly.
In the Raiders’ case, Waller’s production has been both a result of his immense talent and the organization’s inability to properly cultivate wide receiver talent. The team invested heavily in the position over the past two years by bringing in veteran free agents Tyrell Williams and Nelson Agholor and drafting Henry Ruggs III and Bryan Edwards in the first and third rounds of the 2020 draft, respectively.
Williams was released this offseason after struggling with injuries, and Agholor signed a big deal with the New England Patriots as a free agent. Those departures heaped pressure onto the second-year receiving duo of Edwards and Ruggs that combined for 645 yards as rookies. Obviously, that effort wasn’t good enough, even though injuries slowed their progress.
During Monday’s contest, the Raiders received big contributions from Edwards, Ruggs, Hunter Renfrow and Zay Jones.
“Playing against a defense like this—I’ve played [the Ravens] four or five times in my career—it’s the most difficult thing you can do,” Carr said during a postgame interview. “It took us a while to get going. But once we did, we were able to score some points.”
For context, the quarterback completed 12 first-half passes. Wide receivers snagged only four of those, and none of them went to Edwards or Ruggs.
Renfrow became the only target beyond Waller to demand the ball and warrant attention from the defense. The Ravens countered by placing their best cover corner, Marlon Humphrey, on the slot receiver. Renfrow still caught six passes for 70 yards when it was all said and done.
With the Ravens winning 17-10 going into the fourth quarter, the Raiders came alive. A Lamar Jackson fumble in Baltimore’s territory led to the game-tying touchdown. The Ravens immediately responded with a score of their own. From there, the Raiders’ other weapons began to shine.
A 37-yard strike to Ruggs placed the Raiders in the red zone. Waller caught yet another game-tying touchdown. Once again, Baltimore responded. Justin Tucker converted a 47-yard field goal with 37 seconds remaining.
On Las Vegas’ next two plays, not including spiking the football to stop the clock, Carr threw the ball to Edwards over the middle of the field for 38 combined yards. Kicker Daniel Carlson booted a 55-yarder through the uprights with two seconds remaining in regulation.
Edwards nearly ended the game in overtime with an impressive 33-yard grab down the sideline, though the second-year target came up a half-yard short of the goal line. Officials originally ruled the play a touchdown, only to have it called back.
In a truly whacky sequence, the Ravens stopped a quarterback sneak on first down. Rookie right tackle Alex Leatherwood jumped before the snap and cost the offense five yards. Carr then threw an incompletion intended for Renfrow. On 3rd-and-goal, Willie Snead IV came open for what should have been an easy game-winning touchdown toss. The ball went through the wide receiver’s hands, bonked off a Ravens helmet and ricocheted into an interception.
The Raiders couldn’t score from here 🥴 https://t.co/NsPvCUsrYX
Fortunately for the Raiders, Jackson fumbled on the very next drive.
Baltimore’s defense decided to be aggressive since Las Vegas was already in scoring position. After a failed first-down run, Carr and Co. faced 2nd-and-14 from the Ravens’ 31-yard-line. Baltimore defensive coordinator Wink Martindale decided to send eight after Carr. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Ravens are only the second team that has done so in overtime since the start of the 2016 campaign.
Carr backpedaled, lobbed the ball from off his back foot and found a wide-open Jones for the game-clinching scoring connection.
THIS TIME IT’S OFFICIAL. THE @RAIDERS WIN IN OT. #BALvsLV https://t.co/2nKtGc3XmF
“Since Zay Jones got to our team, every time I’ve asked him to throw, he’s been there at 6 a.m.,” Carr said. “He’s never missed one [session]. So to see him come up with a game-winner like that…I hope everyone in the world roots for Zay Jones because he works harder than anyone.”
At his best, Carr is a distributor. He can’t get locked into one target, even someone as good as Waller. The quarterback has weapons, and they’re maturing around him.
“Edwards has great ability,” Gruden said in August. “He’s got great ability. I’m excited about him. You see he looks like [Terrell Owens], he looks like one of the number one wideouts in the league. And Ruggs is putting it together. I think his experience shows.”
True offensive balance is about getting the ball into the hands of all the available weapons. Carr eventually did Monday night during his 435-yard passing performance. It can’t just happen for one quarter, though. Edwards does have the physical traits to be a true No. 1 wide receiver. Renfrow always finds a way to get open. Ruggs’ 4.27-second 40-yard-dash speed adds a scary vertical threat. Clearly, Carr and Jones have a rapport.
The Raiders showed what they can do in a very small sample size. In order to compete in a loaded AFC with other potent squads likes the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns and even Los Angeles Chargers, the Las Vegas offense must build upon what it achieved Monday.
The season could have gone off the rails rather quickly in Sin City. A loss would have resulted in cries for numerous changes. Instead, the Raiders finally have something to be excited about with Carr throwing to multiple talented options other than Waller.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.