Derek Carr left the pocket on second-and-6 Sunday at the beginning of the second quarter and saw no one open. All four of the route concepts being run by eligible Raiders receivers curled or stopped right at the first-down marker, with a Steelers defender draped on or bracketed around them nearby.
And so Carr folded the ball in his right arm, a little like a fullback relishing his lone screen pass reception of the season, and darted upfield into a crowded mess of Steelers defenders. Because his legs were tangled by linebacker Alex Highsmith, it prevented Carr from going to the ground smoothly. He was, as a result, set up like a tackling dummy for Robert Spillane to destroy in open space. Carr was knocked to the ground (the play was flagged for a helmet-to-helmet collision), before rolling back up to his feet quickly. He would complete a handful of passes to end the drive, resulting in a field goal.
A Jon Gruden team is always going to be about Jon Gruden. Jon Gruden’s plays. Jon Gruden’s scowling facial expressions. Jon Gruden’s frantic roster decisions. But if you’re looking for an explanation behind the Raiders’ 2–0 start to the season, the quarterback probably hasn’t been discussed enough. Carr’s narrative-reshaping campaign through the first two games of 2021 has been worth keeping an eye on. In the past, Carr has been dinged by onlookers for everything from aggressiveness to toughness, despite those being nebulous qualities that are often difficult to quantify and lead to opinions that are hard to support without a large number of brutally honest testimonials. He was, in some ways, the anti–Philip Rivers or anti–Ben Roethlisberger, unable to establish himself in the public eye as the typical, swaggering brawler capable of lifting his team beyond the scheme, which made it hard to accept him as the top 10–12 quarterback he’s typically been.
Then he threw for 435 yards against the Ravens on Monday night in Week 1, despite being pressured on one in every four snaps. In a violent contest against Pittsburgh, in which he was hit another five times, Carr was solid. A handful of back-shoulder throws and in-stride post-corners stood out. All five of Hunter Renfrow’s catches felt essential and certainly aided in 126.2 passer rating. Bryan Edwards’s raw physicality after the catch was also a benefit.
But a lot of Las Vegas’s success right now has been a result of Carr’s elevating his level of play beyond what we’ve seen, which is a strange occurrence for a quarterback in his age-31 season who has been in the same system for a handful of years.
Playing in Gruden’s West Coast hybrid system is not easy. The play calls are biblical in length. Gruden is a football fanatic who enjoys digesting the greatest plays of the week and, after an offseason spent submerged in film study, one can imagine how many shiny gadgets he is trying to add into the mix, like a dizzy chef in the Chopped kitchen.
Sometimes this results in brilliance. Despite liking to have our fun with Gruden, it’s easy to point out that he can create some noticeable schematic advantages for Carr from time to time. Sometimes—lately, anyway—it’s been helped by Carr’s making difficult throws.
On the game-winner against the Steelers on Sunday, a 61-yard pass to Henry Ruggs, Carr was facing a free runner blitzing from Pittsburgh’s secondary and delivered a perfect deep ball to the second-year wideout. Carr and Ruggs’s development is less a scheme’s unfolding and more Carr’s trusting Ruggs to run under some passes that Carr may have been more hesitant to throw in years past. Like Pittsburgh, Baltimore was not shy about sending pressure, counting on the narrative that Carr was prone to skittishness and more comfortable checking the ball down. In overtime last week, facing a similar blitz against Baltimore with a free runner, Carr rolled to his right while simultaneously fading away and lofted a pass to Bryan Edwards, who cradled the ball near the sideline and ran the ball to the one-inch line. Would Carr have checked that ball down a year ago?
Through two weeks, the Carr of 2020 has been nonexistent. His intended air yards per pass are up almost a yard over last season and his completed air yards are up almost two yards. So much is working for Las Vegas right now, including a pass rush performing well over expectation and a threadbare secondary that has yet to be exposed. Carr, and this newfound fearlessness should not be lost in the fold.
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