A first-round pick in 2014, Brandin Cooks has managed to stand out among a superstar class of receivers that includes the likes of Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Sammy Watkins, and Kelvin Benjamin. For the second year in a row, Cooks posted over 1,000 yards receiving and 75 catches, and did so with a huge motivator in Michael Thomas. Thomas commanded more and more respect (and targets) throughout the season, which allowed Drew Brees to proliferate the ball more effectively than even he has in years.
Playing with a quarterback like Brees is a blessing and a curse for receivers. It’s always difficult to pin down a true number one receiver due to Brees’ propensity to hit everyone, but Brees also hits everyone. In that regard, Saints’ receivers take the good with the bad. Cooks voicing his frustration after the Rams game where the Saints dropped 49 points may have rubbed some people the wrong way, but it seemed to be a case of a receiver that wanted to be fed not getting the targets he’d gotten all season and being used as a decoy. Cooks has earned his keep with the Saints, and after putting up 1,173 yards in 2016 (quietly first on the team despite Thomas’s greater number of catches and overall monster rookie season), he will surely continue to be targeted.
It simply isn’t a Cooks’ Year In Review without looking at his biggest play of the season. With the Saints backed up against their own 2-yard line, New Orleans comes out with 11 personnel with a wrinkle: They have Tim Lelito in the game as an extra offensive lineman (thus insinuating run this close to their own goal line). In reality, the play is a simple wheel route for Cooks, a seam for Fleener, and a curl for Snead. This is a bread-and-butter Saints play, as the seam route freezes the free safety. With the Raiders in Cover 1 defense, free safety Reggie Nelson is forced to stay home in order to account for the mismatch of Fleener on a linebacker.
Once Brees sees the man-to-man coverage on Cooks on the outside, he knows where he’s going with the ball. Many tight ends in this situation run what are called “meander routes”, in which they pick out the weak parts of zone coverage and wander into them (see: Jason Witten). Since the Raiders are in man-to-man, however, the defense can account for the seam route. The middle Raiders defenders are in a forced zone, since they have no one to cover, which will change Fleener’s mindset. Whether Fleener breaks into a post or an in, either the free safety or Mike linebacker will be able to break on the ball. Brees checks into a three-step fly route, and despite all of the window dressing, the play simply comes down to speed on the bottom part of the screen.
At this point, the Saints have three Raiders trapped in what’s called “The Bermuda Triangle” of coverage. It’s also around the point of the play that all sympathy is lost for Nelson. Nelson is staring Brees in the eyes while he’s winding up to throw, knowing that he has Sean Smith isolated against the speedy Cooks. Brees never even looked off of Cooks, implying it was a hot read. The Saints’ personnel group and play calling effectively took three Raiders out of the play, two of them to no fault of their own. While Brees is winding up to throw it, Cooks is only getting more separation. Nelson should have recognized that no matter what happened on the top-side of the field, even if Snead or Fleener had made a play, it wouldn’t have had the result that Cooks making the play does.
The adage “speed kills” exists for a reason. Nelson has an angle on Cooks once he makes the catch. Sure, it’s a 40-yard completion, but a 40-yard completion doesn’t result in six points. However, Nelson is simply no match in speed for Cooks, who takes off down the sideline for 98 yards and a score (and the longest play in Saints history).
Another play in which Cooks excels is the tight catch between two defenders, as evidenced by this play action pass. Denver is playing single safety high man-to-man coverage. New Orleans runs an out-and-up with Cooks and a skinny post for Michael Thomas. Fleener runs a chip and slant route, designed to sell the run, while Tim Hightower is to leak into the flat after the play action. Bradley Roby is forced into man with Cooks.
All things told, the Broncos’ matchups are fairly straightforward. Fleener is being covered by the weak side corner, Hightower by a linebacker, Thomas by the strong side corner, and Cooks by the nickel. This leaves the single-high free safety with a decision: whom to assist? Although intuitively Thomas may be the clear choice, as he is going to break into the middle of the field, the free safety makes the right read and reads Brees’ eyes (where Nelson failed). He begins to break towards the sidelines before Cooks turns upfield. Roby is on Cooks’ hip on the out, ready to make a play should the ball come his way.
Roby, of course, was unable to read what Ward did. Cooks breaks upfield, creating separation. This gives Brees a tiny window to throw into, a minute opportunity. Although it’s hard to see due to the black jersey on the black Fleur-de-Lis at midfield, Brees is winding up to throw as soon as Cooks breaks out of his route.
This is a difficult catch that Cooks thrives on making. When he catches the ball in between a corner and a safety, he immediately tucks the ball into his chest using his hands, lowers his helmet, and readies himself for the inevitable hit. This is an extremely difficult catch to make, and it’s a throw that very few QBs attempt. It seems like Brees is good for several of these completions to Cooks a year, which is an invaluable target for a QB with Brees’ accuracy.
This is what’s called an inverted levels route. Normally on a level play, the outside receiver will trail the inside receiver on a route that is higher than the inside receiver. Cooks (in yellow) would be running Snead’s (in red) route, and Snead would be running Cooks’ route. The Saints add a twist to deceive the Cardinals defense and create a mismatch. The Cardinals adjust to this play as well as they can. They’re in man-to-man coverage, and they invert their coverage just as the play is inverted in order to combat it.
This play is a classic example of what to expect versus how to adjust. In the top still, those are how the matchups should play out. Tyrann Mathieu on Snead, Eddie Whitley on Cooks. Snead throws an inadvertent screen on Mathieu and Whitley, which gives Cooks the underneath drag. Mathieu stunts down to cover Cooks, which for a recently injured strong safety is a mismatch, while Whitley stays over the top on Snead.
This is the natural beauty of a level route. It clears out a defense against man-to-man and gives receivers a chance to make a play. The single safety is focused on Thomas, who is running a flag route away from his DB. The top-side corner is stuck on Fleener, who is running a high out route. This gives Cooks all of the room in the world to run after the catch.
Cooks’ big plays being against man coverage isn’t a coincidence. Against zone coverage, receivers are relied on far more heavily to make plays after the catch. Cooks isn’t the best at running after the reception, unless he’s outrunning someone. He isn’t a guy that will shed a lot of tackles, as his explosiveness is his strength. This is why Cooks and Thomas complement each other so well. Thomas is fantastic at picking his spots and breaking tackles after the catch, whereas Cooks can make a safety’s angle disappear in a heartbeat. It’s no wonder the Saints had two receivers over 1,000 yards for the season (and Snead finished just five yards short of 900), and New Orleans looks to have a strong receiving corps for seasons to come.