The Las Vegas Raiders just pulled off a miraculous overtime win against the Steelers’ AFC North division rival Baltimore Ravens on Monday night (the AFC North standings showing Steelers 1-0, Bengals 1-0, and Browns/Ravens 0-1 is an odd but welcomed sight). When looking at the stat sheet from the game, the pass catcher that jumps off the page is Darren Waller. Waller is a top tier tight end (top 3 as of right now IMHO with Travis Kelce and George Kittle, the latter possessing more blocking chops). He will require most of the attention from the Steelers’ secondary this upcoming Sunday. However, the Raiders’ wide receivers cannot be forgotten when doing so, because they were also key to fueling the Raiders’ comeback victory. The three names to know and look out for on Sunday are Bryan Edwards (#89), Henry Ruggs III (#11), and Hunter Renfrow (#13). So, let’s get into their All-22 tape from Ravens-Raiders Week 1.
First, let’s talk about Bryan Edwards. In the Raiders’ Week 1 box score stats, sitting just below Waller’s 10 catches for 105 yards and a touchdown on an astronomical 19 targets, is Edwards’ 4 for 81 on 5 targets. Having put together strong (reported) back-to-back training camps, Edwards is finally seeing starting playing time after having his 2020 rookie season diminished due to injury. Hence, Bryan Edwards is no household name, but he may become more well known around the league (at least for more casual fans) as the season wears on. Labeled a mix between Terrell Owens and Randy Moss by Raiders’ coaches/media (Jon Gruden said he “looks like” T.O.), Edwards quite obviously has a looong way to go to reach those heights, but he’s a promising young receiver that the Raiders are excited about, and he did post a solid outing Week 1, as the stats show. He caught 4 of his 5 targets, and he provided key catches late in the fourth quarter and in overtime.
Schematically, Edwards is the Raiders’ X receiver. Standing at 6’3” 215, Edwards possesses a strong physical stature that allows him to win in contested catch situations. He has solid hands to finish in said situations, as well as ball tracking ability to position himself to get hands on the pass. He isn’t an elite separator at this point in his career, but he is a pretty crafty technician that understands how to get open or finish catches even with a defender still challenging him. He runs sudden routes and knows how to use his hands, feet, and body to manipulate or outmuscle a defender to make grabs. While he’s not the burner that his teammate Henry Ruggs is, his speed matches his size and once he gets going, he can be difficult to bring down after the catch.
I don’t expect any one Raiders WR to dominate the target share on a weekly basis, and viewing a WR as a team’s WR1 solely due to his role in the offense is a bit outdated. NFL teams know this, and that’s why TE Waller will be the Steelers’ main defensive focus in terms of pass catching weapons. But, Edwards, Ruggs, and Renfrow can all be a problem for defenses in specific situations based on down, distance, and the look of the defense. Quarterback Derek Carr will be able to constantly vary who he targets based on the Steelers’ defensive coverage per play. The Steelers must come ready to defend all three of them.
Now to the clips.
Last Monday night, all of Edwards’ catches came either late in the fourth quarter with the clock winding down or in overtime. Edwards came up clutch in Week 1. In this clip, he’s lined up out wide field side. At the snap, he gives the DB a hop release towards the sideline to which the DB opens his hips facing towards the inside of the field. Edwards then sees his opening. He switches his tempo and accelerates, and with the DB trailing him in his hip pocket, he’s able to cut inside and get his eyes to the QB for a nice chunk of yardage with little time remaining in the game.
Here’s another catch with the clock running down in the 4th. Edwards is in a tight split in the slot boundary side. He’s being guarded in press by DB Marlon Humphrey who is in an outside shade with an edge rusher just next to him. At the snap, Edwards immediately angles himself towards the sideline. In response, the DB plants hard to the outside with his left leg, then he tries to get hands on Edwards. Edwards swats through the hand fight and gets upfield, despite what looks like a jersey tug on the All-22 view. Then, he turns inside and snags a pass as he goes to the ground between two Ravens defenders to protect himself from a hit and the ball from being dislodged from his grasp.
Now to overtime. Edwards is the sole wide receiver out wide at the top of the screen. At the snap, he shoots vertically and puts his head down to sell a go route to the DB. However, right before he reaches the sticks, he sinks his hips smoothly to put on the breaks with crispy footwork, then he works his way back to the football. If he were to indicate a break sooner, the DB could’ve gotten a jump on the throw. Great route by Edwards.
This is the last Edwards clip for this breakdown. Here, he’s on the line boundary side with a defender walked up in press coverage. The DB gets hands on him with a jam at the snap, but Edwards puts his physicality on display by muscling through it to the outside, then he leans to slip around the DB and gain ground on him which he was unable to do at the line. As he gets even with the DB, he then attempts to stack him, still fighting through contact. He does get a step on the DB, but Carr places a ball behind and to his back shoulder. So, Edwards lets the DB walk himself out of position as he tracks the throw, then traps it by the sideline. After securing it, he turns upfield to try and get in the end zone. Wasn’t a TD, but it was a good play by Edwards.
Moving on, the Raiders’ Z (he lines up in the slot as well) receiver is Henry Ruggs, their 2020 first round pick from Alabama (#12 overall). He is their speedy deep threat that only needs a few targets a game to put up big numbers in the yardage department. While early returns on Ruggs have his perception/stock down in the eyes of fans/media compared to some of the other WRs that were taken after him (he was the first WR selected in that draft class), he still provides game-breaking speed every week.
Perceptions don’t matter on game day, and I’m sure Coaches Tomlin and Butler are wary of his 4.27 40 speed getting behind their defense on Sunday. For the future, Ruggs will need to further progress as a technician in order to unlock new levels to his game and improve overall. For Sunday, the Steelers should be focused on watching for screens, short routes such as drags, slants, quick outs, etc., and most importantly deep/play-action shots to Ruggs (the Raiders love sending him on over, go, post, and seam routes). If the Steelers send a blitz and play man coverage behind it, Carr will either look to get the ball out quick to let his receivers make something happen after the catch, or (depending on the play call) he may try to stand in the pocket and deliver a strike deep. That’s where Ruggs will have the chance to do the most damage. I’ll get into that in the second clip.
Here’s the first clip. Ruggs is off the line boundary side. Due to his speed/ability to threaten vertically, DBs often give him cushion in order to protect themselves from giving him an advantage in a foot race, which would offer him the opening to stack the DB. As a result, this opens up completion opportunities underneath on hitches, stop, and curl routes. Here, DB Marlon Humphrey respects Ruggs’ speed, side-shuffling to his assignment and keeping him in front. So, Ruggs passes the first down marker and gains even more yardage, then he turns on a curl route for a wide-open completion in front of Humphrey, due to Humphrey keeping him in front (it’s difficult to assign true blame to Humphrey for this reception with that in mind). Whether the defense is in man or zone, the defender in Ruggs’ vicinity will always have to respect his speed. Better for the Steelers to give up some easy completions on Sunday, rather than letting Ruggs beat them deep.
Ruggs also had a big catch late in the game. Lined up in the slot boundary side, Ruggs curves the beginning of his route inwards around the shallow defender that dropped into coverage from the edge. Then, as the deep DB backpedals on a path towards the inside, Ruggs sees this and angles his route slightly more vertically to get the DB to shift a bit back outside. As Ruggs closes space, he puts his left foot in the ground with a hard stick to propel himself across the field. The DB has to open his hips to run, but he’s not running stride-for-stride with 4.27 speed (the DB is cornerback Brandon Stephens who ran a 4.44 40 at his 2021 Pro Day, if you were wondering). Ruggs hauls in the deep ball on the over route. While it wasn’t a TD itself, it was a big chunk play that set up a tying score late in the game. The Steelers will need to know where Ruggs is at all times on Sunday. He’s their main deep threat. Keeping him in front and communicating to prevent coverage busts is essential.
Next, the Raiders’ slot receiver is Hunter Renfrow, a smart, savvy and deceptive slot craftsman. While all of the hype and flash is associated with Edwards and Ruggs, Renfrow is as reliable as they come in the slot. That’s why he was targeted 9 times in Week 1, most of any Raiders WR (he has the longest rapport with Carr, being drafted in 2019). He’s no uber athletic “big slot” matchup nightmare or outside receiver, nor is he the speedster Ruggs is, but when it comes to the understanding of the slot receiver position, Renfrow shines.
His short area quickness/shiftiness paired with his comprehension of routes and reliable hands makes him a very capable option out of the slot. He can win vs. man, and he knows how to find the holes in zones. He’s a high-IQ player, and one that will beat you if given the opportunity to do so. Like I noted for last week’s WR preview on Stefon Diggs, an inside linebacker covering Renfrow would be a mismatch that Derek Carr would key in on, especially in short yardage situations. However, the Steelers came prepared last week, giving the Bills’ slot receivers a variety of different looks/defenders to deal with. I expect this to continue as a trend moving forward. Hopefully DC Keith Butler has finally realized that in modern day football, no matter how athletic your ILBs are, it’s still a difficult ask to match them up against today’s slot WRs.
Here’s Renfrow’s clips.
He’s lined up in the slot field side in this first clip. At the snap, he notices how much space he has to work with, so he gets his eyes to Carr for an easy pitch and catch. What stood out to me about this play was Renfrow’s decision to spin on a dime after making the catch. It prevented the closing defender from laying a shot on him and gained him extra yardage for a first down.
Here’s a play with a similar takeaway. Renfrow is the innermost WR in the bunch set field side. He runs a shallow crosser because he sees how much open space there is on the other side of the field, as well as how far off the defender eyeing him is playing. Another easy catch. Also, another spin to pick up a first, this time on 3rd down. Smart play again, because the defender most likely would have had an angle to bring him down had he tried to race to the sticks at the sideline. The defender was gaining speed while Renfrow had to slow down for the pass, so he used the defender’s momentum against him to make him overshoot, then Renfrow scurried to pick up first down yardage. After he’s tackled, he hurries to the middle of the field with the ball to get his team set up, knowing that there is only 33 seconds left in the half.
In this clip, lined up in the slot field side, Renfrow runs an out route. He begins the route on an angled path towards the sideline. In his break, he utilizes a stair step and a slight push off to create the necessary amount of separation, then he makes a flat cut to the sideline. Carr puts the ball up high and Renfrow extends outside of his frame to snatch it, making sure to drive his right foot (the left stayed up longer but he got it down as well) into the ground for a completed catch. Awesome grab, even more so when you consider it was from a slot guy.
Here’s Renfrow’s last clip for this breakdown. Like the last clip, he’s in the slot field side, middle receiver in the 3-set to that side. He runs a pivot route towards the sideline, keeping his eyes on Carr as he drifts to the sideline because he does not receive the ball right away. When he does, he looks to get upfield. He slips a first attempted tackle, evades a second, then (the best thing he does in this clip) he drops down with his body covering the football so that he does not risk losing it in OT. Another example of Renfrow’s in-game intelligence. Rather than fighting for extra yards and risking the possibility of turning over the football, Renfrow takes the sure yards that ensures his team maintains possession to try and win the game.
Lastly, I’m going to touch upon two of the Raiders’ depth options at WR. Willie Snead IV (yinz should know him well) recently a member of the Baltimore Ravens, had a crucial drop result in an interception in OT against the Ravens. Lined up as the receiver closest to the O-line in the bunch set with 4 pass catchers on that side, Snead releases diagonally then runs an inverse pivot route to the middle of the end zone. With his teammates pulling the underneath defenders towards the back of the end zone, Snead should have an easy grab for a touchdown. However, Derek Carr is pressured by Ravens’ rookie pass rusher Odafe Oweh, so Carr places the pass over Snead’s head, which he reaches for, but it sails through his hands. Then, it bounces off a Ravens defender and into the arms of another for the shocking INT.
Maybe Snead was playing double agent for the Ravens?! If so, his plot ended up foiled by his teammate Zay Jones, a former second round pick of the Buffalo Bills back in 2017. Like Snead, Jones is a rotational WR who should not out-snap any of Edwards, Ruggs, or Renfrow (barring injury). But, it’s nice to know all the personnel that the opposition can throw at you.
Here’s Zay Jones scoring the game winning touchdown for the Raiders in overtime. Jones is the point man in the bunch set boundary side. Post-snap, Jones gives a jab with his left foot then takes off inside and across the field. DB Marlon Humphrey is delayed in sticking with Jones, due to the tight bunch alignment of the Raiders causing him to run into his teammate as he opens up to run. This leaves Humphrey behind, and Carr spots Jones wide open heading for the end zone. Carr then lofts a sky ball to him for the game winner.
Overall, there is no true main WR that the Steelers’ need to heavily key in on in their Week 2 matchup with the Raiders. Darren Waller is the pass catcher that will require the most attention from the Steelers’ D. The WRs each have their own skill sets that allow them to thrive in certain situations. Give Edwards zone windows and he’ll find the opening to pick the defense apart, play him with a smaller DB in man (he has the size advantage over both Joe Haden and Cam Sutton which is something to watch) and he can use his size and technique to win 50/50 balls. Place too much attention on Waller and/or the other receivers, leaving the DB defending Ruggs on an island without safety help, and his 4.27 speed will turn him into a blur, resulting in a crushing blow to the defense. Play him too soft and he’ll sit down for easy completions or find room after the catch to make something happen.
As for Renfrow, play a linebacker on him or play him too soft and he’ll carve them up for easy receptions. But, with Minkah Fitzpatrick having duties in the slot/intermediate zones on occasion last week, more of the same could be in store depending on the Raiders’ look offensively, considering down/distance/situation of the game (he obviously won’t be defending the slot at all times).
I didn’t present any of this information to say that the Raiders have one of the best wide receiver rooms in the NFL (they have young guys with potential, not a top group currently), but it is crucial to know your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses when entering a matchup with them. After the Steelers’ outstandingly impressive defensive performance against the Buffalo Bills last week (a game in which the Bills played exactly how I expected them to on offense, and the Steelers came ready to stop it), I am confident that the Steelers will have a defensive plan in play to neutralize Derek Carr’s weapons, forcing him to panic in the pocket. Mike Tomlin already discussed the importance of defending Waller earlier in the week. He’s defensive focus #1. Edwards, Ruggs, and Renfrow will each have their chance to make plays in certain situations, it’s up to the Steelers to prepare for each WR’s situational strengths.
Considering how imposing the defense looked Week 1, I believe they’ll be ready to go on Sunday.
Let me know how you believe the Steelers defense will match up with the Raiders’ wide receivers in the comments below. Thank you for reading!