Since he entered the league, there has always been a considerable amount of chatter around the ability of Brandin Cooks. The 2013 Biletnikoff Award winner and consensus All-American showed flashes as a rookie out of Oregon State, but was ultimately derailed by a thumb injury that caused him to miss the end of the 2014 season. The start of this season saw muted performances from Cooks that caused some to wonder whether or not he would actually be able to live up to the hype that surrounded his elite athleticism.
Since a Week 5 performance against the Eagles where Cooks totaled five catches on nine targets with 107 yards and a touchdown, those narratives have slowly faded away as his performance has stabilized.
Cooks scored two touchdowns on 98 yards receiving last week against Washington, and I thought we could examine a few of those plays to see how his athleticism has transitioned to the NFL in these specific instances.
(Saints: 0 – Washington: 7) 2nd and Goal – 5:56 in the 1st
- The Saints come out in 11 personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end, and 3 wide receivers), and a key feature to their personnel grouping is the fact that Michael Hoomanawanui is the lone tight end on the field. Hoomanawanui is more of a blocking tight end than a receiver, which gives Washington the indication the Saints may run the ball.
- Pre snap, Hoomanawanui is motioned across the field and his defender follows him through the formation; this is a signal of man-to-man coverage, along with the fact that the two Washington defensive backs to the closed side (after motion) of the formation are lined up on top of Marques Colston and Willie Snead.
- The offensive line blocks as if they are running an inside zone, which works well with the route run by Brandin Cooks (i.e. on the inside zone the right side offensive lineman let the defensive lineman work up field, which, in this case, allows a passing lane to open up for Drew Brees). On another level, the offensive line blocking also forces the linebackers to come up and play the run, leaving little help to defend Cooks.
- The way that the play is designed makes me think the play is called to be a run, and the slant route to Cooks is just an additional option for Brees. In other words, if Brees feels like Cooks will be open on the slant (based off of his pre snap read of the defense and its alignment), he can pull up and make that throw; 1-on-1 coverage for any defensive back is a tough assignment in general, but especially so on a quick slant from Cooks.
(Saints: 7 – Washington: 14) 2nd and Goal – 10:54 in the 2nd
- The Saints are in 12 personnel (1 running back, 2 tight ends, and 1 wide receivers).
- Hoomanawanui is given a difficult assignment as he is asked to come across the formation to block Ryan Kerrigan; Hoomanawanui gets there just in time as Brees steps up in the pocket and screens Kerrigan off of his launch point.
- Washington falls back into a Cover 4 defense; in a Cover 4 the strong and free safety are responsible for the vertical release of the #2 receiver to each side of the formation; if there is no vertical route to cover, the safety will move on to the help bracket the #1 receiver to their side of the field. In this particular instance, both #2 receivers stay in to pass protect, and the safeties are now responsible for bracketing Willie Snead (bottom of the screen) and Brandin Cooks (top of the screen).
- Jeron Johnson brackets Cooks poorly from his safety position (he gets completely turned around and is a non factor in the play), and Chris Culliver is unable to keep up with the route run by Cooks as he dino stems (in order to gain more space for his break back toward the middle of the field) before his post; these two issues, along with the fact that Cooks runs a good route, compound together and allow for the long gain into the end zone.
(Saints: 14 – Washington: 21) 1st and 15 – 10:54 in the 2nd
- Washington falls back into a conventional Cover 3 defense and rushes four, while the Saints leave in Ben Watson and C.J. Spiller to provide additional help in pass protection.
- This play is another example of Chris Culliver not being able to stay with Brandin Cooks; while the previous play showed Cooks’ ability to accelerate past Culliver, this play shows how Cooks can rapidly decrease his speed to create separation.
- The route combination the Saints run to free up Cooks is a classic Curl/Flat concept used against Cover 3 defenses. Cooks runs the curl and Hoomanawanui runs the flat underneath. The purpose of the concept is to make the flat defender choose between defending the curl and the flat; if the linebacker pursues the flat route, he leaves a window open for the quarterback to pursue the curl; if the linebacker stays back in coverage, he leaves an opportunity open for the receiver in the flat.
This last May, Scott Spratt wrote an article for Pro Football Focus that calculated Wins Above Average (WAA) for wide receivers in 2014. As Spratt explains in his article, Wins Above Average “credits receivers with caught or dropped targets and debits them for non-caught, non-dropped targets relative to the win rates allowed by the defender in coverage against them.” The basic idea is that WAA looks at a receiver’s ability to get open and adjusts for the quality of defender that is on him in coverage. Right behind Antonio Brown on the list of WAA leaders and ranked third overall for 2014 was Brandin Cooks. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by the way Cooks has played lately, because it sounds like he may have performed better last season than his traditional numbers might have you believe. What makes me most excited about Cooks is that he is only in his age 22 season, and, based off of research I did this last offseason, it seems likely that Cooks will continue to makes strides in his overall ability as he moves forward.