By Steve Corkran
Raiders wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey's inconsistent play during his rookie season made him a lightning rod for criticism. Three games into this season, he is gaining widespread attention for all the right reasons.
Quarterbacks Jason Campbell and Bruce Gradkowski targeted Heyward-Bey 24 times the past two games in an attempt to take advantage of single coverage and Heyward-Bey having matured into a reliable option.
"This time last year, Darrius would have his head down if something goes wrong," Gradkowski said. "Now he knows that this is the game. I am going to miss throws, receivers are going to drop balls, that's the name of the game. That stuff is going to happen, but it's what you do after that."
Plenty went wrong for Heyward-Bey last season, from the time he arrived as the No. 7 pick in the NFL draft.
He dropped passes at an alarming rate, went without a reception in four of his first six games, missed the final five games with a foot injury and was criticized at every turn.
The questions that dogged Heyward-Bey last season resurfaced in Oakland's regular-season opener Sept. 12. Campbell went almost three quarters before throwing a ball to Heyward-Bey, and the receiver finished with only one catch for 11 yards in the 38-13 loss to the Tennessee Titans.
But things changed in Oakland's second game, against the St. Louis Rams. Thirteen of the 37 passes by Campbell and Gradkowski went for Heyward-Bey in that game, and he responded with six receptions for 80 yards, career-highs.
On Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, Heyward-Bey saw 11 of Gradkowski's 34 passes come his way and caught three of them for 49 yards. He also drew two pass-interference penalties.
Already, Heyward-Bey's 10 catches for 140 yards exceed his totals -- nine catches, 124 yards -- in 11 games last season, a campaign in which he had only 40 passes thrown his way.
Raiders coach Tom Cable said Heyward-Bey's maturation is something he expected after seeing the strides he made during the offseason.
"His confidence is growing, and he's making some plays now," Cable said. "For us, it's probably sticking out more because it's happening like it should happen. I don't know that we're really forcing it to happen."
Heyward-Bey said he is encouraged by his heightened role in the offense, especially considering he was the target on a play that netted 33 yards and a first down on a pass-interference penalty against the Cardinals late in the game.
"It's good putting us in a situation to win, but we lost," Heyward-Bey said. "It erases all that when you don't win the game. You could look at all the good, (but) that's not the smart way to look at it."
Making Heyward-Bey a central part of the game plan has benefited fellow second-year receiver Louis Murphy and tight end Zach Miller, as well.
"The receivers are getting more attention now that they are catching more balls," Miller said. "They're doing a good job of pulling coverage off me."
As a result, Miller often gets single coverage, which is something he saw little of last season.
Heyward-Bey is the first to admit that he has a way to go before he develops into a top-flight receiver. To that end, he spends extra time catching balls after practice and working on his route-running.
Murphy caught five passes for 119 yards against the Cardinals. He, too, singled out the added attention given Heyward-Bey as a reason the Raiders passing game is more prolific this season.
"It takes pressure off me," Murphy said. "It helps both of us. They can't double either one of us. For both of us to be making plays, we're just growing. That's what we'll continue to do, to work hard and grow together as two young receivers in the NFL."