The Dallas Cowboys head into New Orleans Sunday night to face a Saints team also dealing with uncertainty at the quarterback position as future Hall of Fame member Drew Brees is “probable” to play against the Cowboys. But no matter who the Saints signal caller is this week, 2nd year wide receiver Brandin Cooks should be the Cowboys’ greatest concern.
A week after being torched by the Atlanta Falcons’ wide receiver Julio Jones, arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL; the Dallas Cowboys face a completely different task in trying to contain Cooks.
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Unlike the big physical Jones, Cooks is a diminutive 5’10” and 189 lbs. He is no threat to overpower the Dallas Cowboy’s secondary but at any moment he can be a blur making opposing linebackers look as if they are crippled yetis trying to catch a rabbit.
In 2014 Brandin Cooks had an impressive rookie season. The former Oregon State rookie caught 69 passes for 740 yards and three touchdowns.
These stats would have been even better if not for two factors. First of all, Cooks’ season ended after only 10 games due to injury and secondly, the New Orleans’ offense featured one the game’s top tight ends as its primary passing target in Jimmy Graham.
Graham is now in Seattle and Cooks is emerging as a versatile play maker. As is the case with most young speedy wide receivers, Crooks was mostly a one trick pony last year primarily running deep go routes from the outside receiver position.
But now the Saints have begun to put Cooks in the slot making him an easier target, especially for backup quarterback Luke McCown. This adjustment resulted in Cooks catching a season high in receptions (7) and yards (79) last week.
This year, the NFL’s version of Sonic the Hedgehog is averaging a fantastic 11.9 yards per reception, up from 10.9 yards per reception in 2014. The 2013 Biletnikoff Award winner as college football’s best receiver ran the fastest 40-yard dash at the 2014 NFL combine with a blistering time of 4.3 seconds.
This speed could be a huge problem for the Dallas secondary. Each of Dallas’ top three corners, Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Tyler Patmon prefer to play physical man-to-man coverage in which they can get their hands on the receiver and knock him off of his route.
Look for the Saints to combat this by putting Brandin Cooks in slot and having him lineup a yard or two off of the line of scrimmage. The extra space from the line will be enough for him to use his amazing initial burst to maneuver past the defender.
In the video below, notice the number of ways New Orleans used Cooks last season, especially as a runner on the fly sweep. But also pay attention to the plays in the red zone where Cooks was placed in the slot because that is what the Saints have done more of this season with him.
Players like Cooks are best dealt with in zone coverage where they may catch the ball but are quickly corralled by multiple defenders in the area. But unfortunately, Carr and Claiborne have struggled in zone defenses while in Dallas.
The key may be Dallas’ ability to stop the New Orleans running game thus allowing defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli to play a form of his preferred Tampa Two system and utilize the safeties in pass coverage to ensure no one gets deep on them.
If Dallas can’t stop the run without safety help, it might have to drop a safety into the box making the corners vulnerable. A single-high free safety is not in position to help with slot receivers running slants and crossing routes so Tyler Pattmon could be on an island with Brandin Cooks: advantage Saints.
As always, Dallas could limit Cooks by getting pressure on the quarterback from the defensive line, something which the undermanned unit has struggled to do thus far. The less Marinelli feels he must blitz a linebacker to create havoc for the quarterback the more often the linebackers can stay home and muck up the middle of the field while helping to keep Cooks from running free.
It doesn’t matter who starts under center for New Orleans Sunday night. Cooks is often the first read for the Saints’ quarterback simply because his speed allows him to get open almost immediately.
If the Dallas defense can find a way to bracket Brandin Cooks or use bump and run coverage to knock him off his route, the New Orleans offense shouldn’t be too lethal. This dynamic young player is the Saint’s top big play threat and the Cowboys must make sure that unlike Julio Jones, Brandin Cooks does not have a massive day against them.