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The Film Room: Brandin Cooks (Part 1)

Let’s look at Deshaun Watson’s newest weapon and the de facto Nuk replacement in Houston.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Cleveland Browns
Brandin Cooks dominates the Browns
Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

A few weeks ago, I did a breakdown of one of DeAndre Hopkins’ best games from 2019. Now, it’s time to move on and look at Brandin Cooks. I am taking the approach of looking at one of his best games, (Week 3 against the Cleveland Browns) and will look at one of his worst games in Part II (Week 13 against the Arizona Cardinals). As always, my breakdowns won’t be framed as highlights and lowlights. I’ll point out anything and everything the film shows to get a better understanding of the player as I review every play of both games regardless of the statistical success.

Now, one thing to look at with Cooks is the overall perception that I, and most fans, have of him and then challenge that perception against the film. Most would agree that when you think Brandin Cooks you think the following:

  • Elite deep threat - DeSean Jackson Light
  • Over 1,000 yards when healthy, but does it with explosiveness rather than being a reliable target all over the field
  • Doesn’t stick with a team while simultaneously trading for high value. Why is that?
  • Not a true WR1; more of a gadget/deep threat guy
  • Injury prone (concussions)

There is probably more to the list, but let’s see what the film can enlighten us on with respect to those points. If you’re new to my breakdown style, here’s how I do it; If you see the play, formation, and play result in bold, that means I’m going to break down the play in its entirety. However, I will also include snapshots and short commentary where a full breakdown isn’t necessary due to repetitiveness or rarity. Let’s get started.

Game: Week 3 of 2019 against the Cleveland Browns

Play: 1st & 10 from their own 14-yard line, 9:04 left in the 1st Quarter

Formation: Double, 11 Personnel

Result: B.Cooks Reception for 18 yards

At the start of the second drive, after a three-and-out, the Rams line up for a play-action pass to Todd Gurley to the left with a boot for Jared Goff on the right. Brandin Cooks runs a middle crossing route through traffic towards the boot side.

In an incredibly simple route, Cooks shows savvy, speed, and good hands. He shows savvy by selling the play-action. Some receivers don’t sell the play action and choose to get into their route too early. Cooks stutters, looking like he’s waiting for the cornerback to engage, then cuts hard into his inside release, which actually causes the defensive back to stumble.

Cooks turns the stumble into two yards of separation on the man-beating crossing route and pulls the ball in with his hands. A late throw from Goff limits the yards after catch opportunity, limiting it to an 18-yard gain.

Cooks at the bottom of the screen running a crossing route
Watch the savvy release, easy separation, and good hands

Play: 2nd & 7 from their own 35-yard line, 8:20 left in the 1st Quarter

Formation: Double, 11 Personnel

Result: Incomplete to Robert Woods

This is exactly what you think of when you hear about fear of speed creating room underneath. Goff never even looks at Cooks on this play, but watch the defensive back that has to cover Cooks deep in cover 3. He starts Cooks off with 10 yards of cushion.

10-Yard cushion on what will be a deep in

The defender stops backpedaling and flips his hips with no underneath help when Cooks encroaches on the 10-yard cushion. Given that it’s 2nd and 7, and not a game critical situation, this is either just plain bad technique from the defender, a sign of ultimate respect, or a bit of both.

Watch the CB flip his hips to run and maintain cushion

Cooks pushes the route even further before breaking it off. Goff never looks his way or to the underneath at the same side (which would have been the better throw). Instead, he locks into the first read. This is a fine read by Goff, he had the right coverage and leverage, but he just doesn’t deliver. Cooks breaks the route off lazily since the ball is already gone, but look at the space he has to work with.

This is wide open by every definition of the phrase

If you remember the off-ball impact I talked about Hopkins having for the Texans last year, Cooks has that level of impact on this play. The defensive back in the middle of the cover 3 shades his way, giving Robert Woods the 1:1 that Goff looks to. Additionally, his speed pushes the defensive back so the underneath route into the flat by Cooper Kupp is open as well.

Watch cooks take two defenders and push the zone to clear out for Kupp

Play: 3rd & 7 from their own 35-yard line, 8:16 left in the 1st Quarter

Formation: Shotgun Trips HB Weak, 10 Personnel

Result: 15-yard completion to Cooks

Cooks flashes speed and understanding of zone depth on this play. The route is nothing special, but it’s by choice. One defensive back goes deep over Cooks’ route and the other goes under the route, Cooks doesn’t waste time at the top of the stem knowing he just needs to run away from the defender that only has the inside covered. The difficulty in this one is just between Goff, air, and the sideline.

Cooks in blue

Again, the respect for speed and the Rams’ use of it keeps the defender on top of his route, instead of allowing the defender to bite down when Cooks turns at the stem.

Cooks finds the open space in the zone, and his speed keeps it open

Play: 1st & 10 from the 50-yard line, 7:41 left in the 1st Quarter

Formation: Trips Left Bunch Open, 13 Personnel

Result: Incomplete to Cooks

This play is similar to the previous two plays. The defensive back is in cover 2 instead of cover 3, but plays Cooks almost identically by flipping his hips to maintain a ten yard cushion. With no underneath coverage, a rare event, he should have paid for it, but the throw is high. Cooks should have made the play. This is example of the type of play DeAndre Hopkins makes with less separation. Cooks has plenty of separation, but doesn’t bring it down. It’s a give and take. Each player has entirely different skillsets.

Cooks in blue
Look at the DB’s hips immediately flip with the large cushion

And this is the moment Goff releases the ball. You don’t get this open in the NFL.

WIDE open
Speed opens the intermediate... Again

Missing open throws to Cooks is something that plagued Goff throughout this game. Here’s another wide open out route that Goff never looked at.

Wide open on another out route similar to a breakdown above

Cooks’s speed soaks up safeties to open throws below. Deep go routes are decoys that create attempts underneath.

Took two defenders with him deep

And sometimes both combine on the same play. On this play, Cooks burned the coverage. If Goff were looking for it and confident in the throw, he has six here. Alas, Goff throws the short route instead.

Burned the DB for what should have been 6

Play: 2nd & 9 from their own 39-yard line, 7:04 left in the 2nd Quarter

Formation: Double (U) Outside, 13 Personnel

Result: Completion to TE for 11 yards

Here’s an element to his game that folks are worried about when it comes to the whole Houston Texans wide receiver corps; physicality at the line of scrimmage.

Here, the defensive back puts his hands on Cooks, instead of giving him the cushion we’ve seen so much before. And Cooks can’t do anything about it. Cleveland would have done a lot better in their matchup with Cooks by bodying him up like they did here.

Cooks on the out-and-up in blue

Cooks can’t use his agility to get off the cornerback so he’s taken out of the play. If he were to fake inside or use his quickness instead of allowing the corner to easily engage him with his hands, he might have had a chance. On this play, he deployed zero tools.

Cooks can’t get away from the DB’s clamps

On the next play, they give him a free release and he’s wide open for an intermediate again.

Free release
Wide open and Goff looks elsewhere

Cooks has this deep out any time he wants it, Goff doesn’t throw it again. I’m starting to think he had a lack of trust in Cooks, his arm, or both at this point. This looks like a copy/paste from above, but it isn’t. He’s that open... Again.

Same route, same result

Finally, the Browns’ defensive back adjusts. He might have been coached up from the tablets and his coaches seeing the wide open outs over and over, or he’s just not respecting Goff’s ability, rather inability, to throw it deep. The defensive back gets tempted to open his hips and run, but he doesn’t, keeps respectable coverage. Cooks is still open, but not like he has been.

DB doesn’t open his hips
DB is tempted to open, but doesn’t and stays on top of the route

Play: 1st & 10 from their own 40-yard line, 14:02 left in the 3rd Quarter

Formation: Trips Left Bunch Open, 13 Personnel

Result: B.Cooks for 19 Yards

So... Stop me if you’ve seen this one before. It’s that same out route and the same coverage, Goff just throws it this time. Right after halftim, McVay probably saw it open too much and decided to punish the Browns for it. It’s the literal same play as those before.

Same play as before
Like getting something out of your teeth

Play: 2nd & 5 from CLE’s 36-yard line, 13:18 left in the 3rd Quarter

Formation: Double, 11 Personnel

Result: B.Cooks for 16 Yards

On this play, either one or more receivers ran the wrong route or it’s just bad play design, but three receivers ended up in the same area. Somehow, all were open, and Cooks makes the catch. If I had to guess, the tight end should have sat in the open zone more shallow. Either way, the Browns play everyone deep, Cooks included. He lazily rounds off his in-breaking route which allows the defensive back to break and make the quick tackle. A better route, and the tight end not drifting back into his path, and Cooks may have had a chance to pick up extra yards. Regardless, this is a great possession catch.

In defense of the rounded off route, he may have recognized that Goff was under pressure, some routes are more rounded depending on what they’re looking for, and the defensive back played it well.

Cooks in blue
Cooks at the bottom of the screen

As Los Angeles traveled into the red zone, the Browns’ defense really tightened up and played much better with the limited space. Cooks’s usage changed in these instances. He went into decoy mode. He slows up so his routes bring him into two or three defenders. McVay then used this to his advantage by designing routes for his bigger receivers to get single coverage.

Play: 2nd & 8 from LA’s 27-yard line, 04:04 left in the 3rd Quarter

Formation: Double, 11 Personnel

Result: B.Cooks for 13 Yards

Here’s another reception he had cut from the cloth of the others. The defensive back flips his hips to run with Cooks. Cooks cuts it short to stay open. Goff is very late on the read, but Cooks does a good job drifting to his quarterback to make the reception.

Cooks in blue
Speed kills and the threat of speed also kills

The very next play, they go to the well again. Cooks runs an route JUST like the others. Only this one is picked off. You might think it’s because they finally realized Cooks was going to break these off until they stopped him and the defensive back stayed in his backpedal...nope. Goff waited way too long and threw a terrible slow pass. Cooks goes after it too, it’s just that badly thrown. Goff’s personal inability to capitalize is probably why he failed to attempt these open throws previously.

Right before the break, good cushion again
Plenty of room on the break, again
And Goff doing a 2013 Schaub impression. No velocity, late read = pick

Play: 1st & 10 from LA’s 28-yard line, 02:00 left in the 3rd Quarter

Formation: Double, 11 Personnel

Result: B.Cooks for 23 Yards

FINALLY. Goff gets Cooks the ball with timing and room to run, let’s take a look at the juice he has as a runner in space. When he catches this ball, he eats the ten yards in front of him very quickly. He looks less like Will Fuller with the ball in his hands and more like Duke Johnson. Quick, fast, and running with favorable angles.

Cooks on a crosser in blue
Cooks at the bottom of the screen

Play: 2nd & 6 from LA’s 42-yard line, 08:42 left in the 4th Quarter

Formation: Trips Left, 11 Personnel

Result: B.Cooks run for 8 yards

Nothing special, he reads the blocks well and does a good job getting what’s there. Included to show that he looks like Duke Johnson to me when running with the ball in his hands.

Cooks following his blockers

On this last play, Cooks does everything he did as explained above to get open, but with this play there’s one exception. There’s a defensive back that reads Goff’s eyes and release and breaks on the ball to separate Cooks from the ball. It’s a great bang-bang play. Sometimes the defense wins. This time it’s new Houston Texans’ safety Eric Murray.

Eric Murray making plays
I see you, Eric

With that, let’s review the previous assumptions about Cooks from the start of the article and what has been unearthed from examining his game against Cleveland.

  • Elite deep threat - DeSean Jackson Light

Perhaps, but the Rams didn’t successfully use Cooks this way much here. There seems to be some credence to his inability to remain elite with the Rams due to scheme decisions and/or Goff.

  • Over 1,000 yards when healthy, but does it with explosiveness rather than being a reliable target all over the field

He can eat yards. I can easily see how he was able to hit the 1,000 yard mark consistently, and nothing here shows me that will be different.

  • Doesn’t stick with a team while simultaneously trading for high value. Why is that?

I was resistant to the prevailing idea that it was Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Goff’s inability to use Cooks that led to this, but it may legitimately be the case. The film looks good, I see why people spent the resources necessary to acquire him. But he needs someone to use him correctly. Someone like Deshaun Watson? We’ll see.

  • Not a trueWR#1, more of a gadget/deep threat guy

He’s not as limited as I thought. He can win at every level. I need to see him against press and see what the teams that limited him did to accomplish it, but he has a good base to work with and is a threat at every level.

  • Injury prone (concussions)

He doesn’t take stupid or bad contact. Some guys just don’t take hits well. Deshaun Watson is a good example of this in his earlier in his career; every hit just seemed awkward. Kevin Johnson, on the defensive side, also didn’t have break mechanics when it came to contact. Cooks doesn’t come off this way. He gets low, protects himself, and the concussions may be a fluke that disappear. For his sake, I sure hope so.

Overall, Cooks is not much different than what I thought he was, aside from his usage last year. In Part II, we’ll take a look at why Cooks struggled later in the 2019 season.

Follow me on Twitter @RJMetzger1, where I’ll be breaking down Texans film every week of the 2020 NFL season.