Carr's Aggression Key to Raiders' Success
There is a different aura surrounding Derek Carr this season. Inklings of a new and more aggressive Carr began to surface last year, but it was not quite convincing enough to believe that he had legitimately leveled up his game. He had taken a step in the right direction, but he was not over the line. Six weeks into the 2021 season, however, Carr has crossed that line by leaps and bounds. Carr has been more willing to make all the toughest throws to the intermediate and deep areas of the field, which was always the next step he needed to take to truly be considered one of the league's best.
From a broader perspective, the numbers bear that out. Carr has produced an average depth of target of 9.8 yards this season, per NFL GSIS. That not only ranks fourth behind Justin Fields, Lamar Jackson, and Aaron Rodgers right now, but it is the highest figure of Carr's eight-year career by over a full yard. That is especially important seeing as Carr was rightfully criticized en route to hitting his lowest career marks in 2018 (7.0) and 2019 (6.7). Carr did return to a more normal 8.5-yard average depth of target last season, but what he has done this year is a clear step beyond even that.
The difference this year is Carr's willingness to throw those deeper routes when things are not picture perfect. He has always been capable of throwing down the field given his arm talent, but previous versions of Carr tended to shy away unless he saw the perfect coverage look and/or the pocket was squeaky clean. Rare moments of playmaking cropped up from time to time, but it was never quite a feature of his game. This year, it feels as if it finally dawned on Carr that he has a special arm and can make the toughest throws on the field whenever he pleases.
This is third-and-12 with the Raiders just outside field goal range. Nobody expects to convert a down-and-distance like this, much less rip off an explosive play. Carr sees the weak safety to his left roll down just before the snap, though, and feels Denver's Cover-0 blitz. Carr's big-play alarm bells start going off—a not-so-familiar sight out of him. With the weak safety blitzing, Carr knows he just needs to check the field safety after the snap to assure that Henry Ruggs is being covered one-on-one on the post route. Carr does just that, backpedals for some space in the pocket, and lets one go off his back foot while he gets clobbered by an army of pass-rushers. That kind of "screw it, my guy can go get me one" play style has too often been absent from his game.
In other instances, Carr has been more willing to move off his spot and keep his eyes downfield. That does not always mean taking off and sprinting all the way to the sideline before making a throw, but even just sliding a few steps outside the pocket while prioritizing deep routes has been a boon for this offense. Carr has typically been someone whose willingness to throw down the field wanes the longer he holds the ball, instead opting to just look for an outlet if things are not open or clear early. He has done a better job this year of staying focused on pressing down the field.
In most other seasons, we would all expect Carr to check this down. For one, the deep safety is playing with eyes and leverage on the deep crosser moving from right to left. There is no guarantee his guy gets open as he moves across the field. On top of that, one of the Chargers' edge defenders breaks through the protection and forces Carr to shuffle out to his left. Right then and there, old versions of Carr instantly trigger to throw the ball to the flat, but 2021 Carr is willing to hold out for his guy on the deep crosser and force the ball into a tight window. The ball does get knocked away thanks to excellent coverage by safety Nasir Adderley (24), but Carr proved his willingness to play for an uncertain 20 yards instead of a certain 2 and placed a perfect throw under pressure. It's not like Carr has never done this, but these types of throws are showing up more this year than ever before.
There is another layer to Carr's aggression this season as well. Carr is more consistently playing like a quarterback who wants to beat coverage with his arm. Up to this point in his career, Carr's willingness to force tight windows in the intermediate to deep range has largely been absent. He has often preferred to work quick-game or rush to checkdowns in a timely manner on concepts that attack the intermediate or deep ranges. Carr has been exceptionally efficient that way, but defenses could often bank on him not getting enough chunk plays on them to win. That is no longer the case.
Similar to the first clip, this is third-and-13. The Raiders are looking at a 60-yard field goal if the ball falls incomplete, but a checkdown for 5 to 10 yards could put them in a more reasonable kick range. 2021 Carr does not play for the better field goal. Instead, Carr wants Darren Waller on the corner route past the sticks.
This is the still shot when Carr lets go of the ball. The tight end does not look open, but Carr anticipates that Waller will be so long as he can loft the ball over the linebacker. Carr has to be aggressive and throw the ball this early or else he risks the cornerback reading his eyes to fall off and play the corner route. The cornerback still tries to do that, but Carr's anticipation, trigger, and arm talent make it an indefensible throw. That is what "NFL open" looks like to the intermediate area, and is why, for my money, it is the most valuable area of the field. Carr is more regularly trusting that he has the knowledge and arm talent to make these throws as well as anyone else.
Carr's first touchdown against Denver last week is another good example. By alignment, deep safety Justin Simmons is not playing in the true middle of the field. However, he is still the deep middle defender, even though he is shaded to the right. The ball is snapped on the right hash and all of the Raiders' receivers are on the left, condensing the formation and also making Simmons closer than he looks to being a legit middle player—relative to the offense anyway.
Regardless, Carr knows Simmons is the high safety and that he needs to beat him. Carr does what he can to hold Simmons early in the rep before letting it go to Ruggs on the skinny post route. Simmons plays Carr's eyes and covers ground rather well here, truthfully, but Carr gets the ball out and to his spot quick enough that it beats the coverage. Carr becoming this willing to contest windows he knows will be tight has kept the Raiders passing offense rolling.
In conjunction with all of Carr's developments as an aggressive passer, the Raiders offense has also helped him out by finding creative ways to get players down the field. Sometimes it's four verticals out of 13 personnel, other times it's splitting out Waller by himself and letting him work vertically. Even the Raiders' running backs, especially Kenyan Drake, have been split out and used on vertical routes. Last week, the Raiders dipped into their bag of tricks for one of those running back vertical concepts and Carr delivered a touchdown.
The Raiders called this play (or something very similar) against the Dolphins a few weeks ago, but to no avail. This time, Carr made it count. Denver comes out in a two-high look and forces Carr to think about the safety coming off the hashes to play a deep half and take away his running back's out-and-up route. As Carr works through his drop, he gets to the back-side safety and sees that he stayed tight on the hash. That tells Carr that there is no deep help to the sideline like there would be in Cover-2, leaving the weak linebacker (Alexander Johnson, 45) to handle the running back vertically by himself. Carr knows that is a good matchup and drops a beautiful pass to Drake for a score.
An added bonus for that throw is what Carr does with his feet. With the pocket getting condensed in front of him, there is nowhere to step up. As counterintuitive as it sounds, the best thing a quarterback can do when there is nowhere to make good use of their front foot as a throwing base is to remove it from the equation entirely. That is what Carr does here. He stays light on his front foot and lets it come off the ground as needed in order to let his hips rotate all the way through in this condensed area. Make no mistake, Carr is not Aaron Rodgers, but this is the efficiency of movement that has made Rodgers one of the league's best and it is cool to see Carr pulling some of that off.
Carr genuinely looks like a different player through six weeks in the season. The change in play style is clear as day in the numbers, and the film bears out some encouraging signs that this is something that will continue. Whether or not that turns out to be true, who knows. Carr has looked "better" to lesser degrees before and ultimately turned back into his old self, and that is a valid concern to have here. Carr's makeover has been about as convincing as anyone could ask, though, and it's not unreasonable to expect him to keep this up, especially if Ruggs remains healthy all season.
Hopefully Carr has turned a new leaf for good. Maybe he does not need to remain in the top-five for average depth of target, but it is a meaningful change for the Raiders offense that he is being aggressive and executing on those aggressive decisions. While inconsistency along the offensive line may still doom the offense against the best defensive fronts, Carr being born again as a new quarterback is the foundation of this iteration of the Las Vegas offense.