When I got the notification on my phone my heart sunk. When my two friends sitting across from me got the same notification two seconds later, their jaws dropped. The collective moral of the entire North East must have plummeted at the shocking news: Patriot's Wide Receiver Julian Edelman tears ACL in preseason action versus the Lions. From a strategical standpoint, losing Tom Brady's favorite target was going to be a tough hurdle for the team to get over. But from an organizational standpoint, losing Jules for the year is an even bigger hit to the Patriot's locker room. He is a leader, a source of energy and toughness, and a true Patriot that all fans love.
While my Super Bowl expectations were not diminished by this injury, my concerns about this Patriot team grew because of the significant turnover from the previous team. The departure of key players such as Rob Ninkovich, LeGarrette Blount, Logan Ryan, and Martellus Bennett left some gaps on both sides of the ball. The Patriots' depth was not as strong as it used to be and this worries me because injuries can derail a team's chances in a hurry (see New York Giants.)
The general unfamiliarity of the new players showed itself the first week of the season versus Kansas City. After scoring 27 points in the first three quarters, the offense came to a sudden halt in the fourth. Brady and the offense found themselves unable to create separation from the Chief's pesky secondary and unable to move the ball down the field. Meanwhile, the defense was more confused than Martavis Bryant on Pittsburgh's practice squad. The immediate impact was a shocking 42-27 loss on opening night. Fresh off their Super Bowl victory, many fans couldn't believe what they were seeing. The loss of Edelman was becoming a glaring problem. How will these wide receivers create separation without Jules?
Though there were a few hiccups along the way, the Patriots escaped into their bye week with a 6-2 record. All three phases of the team have struggled at different times throughout the season, but that is to be expected with any NFL team. Julian's presence, though it would've had a great impact on the offense, most likely would not have affected our W/L record. Both losses were inevitable because of the state of the defense at the time and we did not deserve to win those games. In his absence, other players have effectively stepped up to fill the void left by Edelman.
Feature players like James White, Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, and Rob Gronkowski have increased their catches per game from last year while newcomers like Brandin Cooks and Rex Burkhead have offered new wrinkles to an already dangerous offense.
Cooks' acquisition especially made waves around the NFL. The Patriots had finessed one of the best and youngest deep threats in the NFL from the Saints. Incorporating such a major target into the offense was not going to be a quick process. His speed immediately set him apart from our receivers but the Patriot's offense is a complex system in which other skills are just as important. Route running, execution, and timing are key traits needed by Patriot's receivers, all of which were lacking from Cooks at the beginning of the season and the film corresponds with that.
Week 1 vs. Chiefs
3rd and 6 at NE 43
(2:59 - 2nd) D. Amendola goes in motion. T. Brady throws incomplete to B. Cooks.
In the first half of this game, Cooks was used almost exclusively as a deep threat. But as the game progressed and the Chief's defense began to tighten, the offense needed Cooks' speed in their short passing game as we see below. After sending Amendola in motion, Brady recognized that the Chiefs were playing man coverage across the board with a single high safety (not pictured). Brandin Cooks is matched up one-on-one with Chiefs CB Terrance Mitchell at the bottom of the screen.
This is a match up that Cooks should've won, a matchup Edelman would've won. Cooks was trying to run a hitch to the sticks in order to get a first down and move the chains. His speed should've been enough of a threat to get Mitchell to bail. But as you see below, Cooks was unable to get off the hard press coverage of Mitchell. Cooks allows Mitchell to get his hands on him, which reroutes him and messes with the timing of the play.
Cooks can't sell the deep route or get to a speed that forces Mitchell to turn and run. Because of this, when Cooks breaks his route off at the first down yard line, he has no separation from Mitchell and the throw from Brady is easily defended by the defensive back.
1st & 10 at NE 25
(9:19 - 3rd) C. Hogan goes in motion. T. Brady throws incomplete to C. Hogan
The Chiefs had just scored to take a 21-17 lead. Brady sends Hogan in motion across the formation just to confirm that the Chiefs are in their standard man coverage with a single high safety. Brady has the matchup he wants and the strategy to combat the Chiefs' predictable defense.
Once again, Mitchell is lined up on Cooks, playing a hard press coverage at the bottom of the screen. This is where the importance of route running, timing, and execution really come into play. Cooks needs to beat his man off the line and "pick" off Chiefs' linebacker Dee Ford (lined up to the left of Mitchell) who is matched up with Dion Lewis in the backfield to Brady's left. Cooks will accomplish this by running a type of slant. This "pick" should allow Lewis to run a wheel route out of the backfield uncontested for a huge gain. Because of Cooks' inability to beat the hard press coverage, he deviates from his route. This deviation causes him to take an awful angle to Ford, which allows Ford to get around Cooks with ease and cover Lewis coming out of the backfield. Brady is forced to move on from this pre-snap read and fire a long incompletion to Hogan.
The Chiefs have to be given some credit for the employment of this strategy on Cooks. He showed for the most part of this game that he was unable to create separation from their corners. If you take away his 54 yard catch, Cooks only had 2 catches for 34 yards on 6 targets (according to ESPN). That is simply not good enough for a player of that skill level. With Edelman out, Cooks is easily the best wide receiver on our team. But because of his shaky route running, execution, and timing, he was unable to exploit the predictable Chiefs defense.
But just like the Patriots do, Cooks improved as the season progressed and it has shown in recent weeks. His route running has become sharper, his timing and execution of the gameplan has improved, and his ability to beat press coverage has taken steps in the right direction.
Week 7 vs. Falcons
2nd & 2 at ATL 34
(0:46 - 2nd) T. Brady completes 5-yard pass to D. Amendola.
This is not big play in the grand scheme of things, but Cooks' timing and execution are important to highlight. This play came at the end of the second quarter when the Patriots were in their no-huddle offense trying to score before the end of the first half. Once again, Cooks needs to run a slant and "pick" off a defender so that Amendola can make the catch. Though he is aided by #34 Brian Poole being out of place, Cooks is able to do his job.
Cooks successfully gets in the way of Poole, forcing him to take a roundabout route to Amendola. This not only allows Amendola to make the catch, but also gives him the time to advance up the field and get out of bounds, preserving a timeout for the Patriots. This is a noticeable improvement from his week one blunder versus the Chiefs, where he failed to successfully pick off Dee Ford. In a high pressure, quick acting situation, Cooks was able to fulfill his assignment and do some of the dirty work that contributes to the success of the offense.
Week 8 vs. Chargers
2nd & 20 at NE 49
(3:42 - 4th) T. Brady completes 26-yard pass to R. Gronkowski.
The end result of this play is a primetime dime from Brady. But the throw overshadows Brandin Cooks on the bottom of the screen getting a beautiful release from the line and beating the hard press coverage of Chargers CB Casey Hayward, who led the league in interceptions in 2016. This is a drastic improvement from week one versus the Chiefs and this improvement shows itself in other aspects of the game.
1st & 10 at LA 45
(8:30 - 2nd) T. Brady completes 9-yard pass to B. Cooks.
This is where Cooks' speed can get him some easy catches. Teams now have to respect his ability to beat press coverage. Because of this, CB Trevor Williams instantly bails on the snap of the ball. Cooks breaks-down and find himself wide open for an easy pitch and catch from Brady, something we did not find ourselves saying week one versus the Chiefs.
Versus San Diego, Cooks was an integral part of the Patriot's short passing game, which was essential in combating the lethal pass rush of the Chargers. His 5.2 average yard per catch was his lowest since week 16 of the 2015 regular season, when he was a second-year player for the Saints (according to pro football reference). This could turn out to be a good thing for Cooks and the Patriots. As he becomes more willing and able to contribute to the Patriot's short passing game, more opportunities will present themselves in the intermediate and deep passing game.
Going forward, the maturation of Cooks' short game will go a long way towards developing him into a complete receiver. At only 24 years old, his prime is still ahead of him. But as we progress through this season, I would look for Cooks to really start turning in some dominant performances.
He has slowly started to get a grasp of what the offense is trying to do and the bye week is always a great time to further familiarize yourself with the plays and concepts. He doesn't need to be another slot receiver like Edelman or Amendola. He simply needs to show that he has the ability to contribute to the short passing game. If that is matched with his elite deep threat ability, the offense will have no problem replacing Jules as we head into the playoffs.
This week's game against Denver will be a great test for Brandin and the offense. Similar to the Chiefs, the Broncos have a talented secondary that likes to play a lot of man coverage. Creating separation from those defensive backs will be imperative to the team's success, but this is a task that Cooks is more suited for now that we are deep into the season. I would also look for Gronk to start coming on strong in the second half of the season like he did in 2014 when he was also returning from injury. He has shown flashes of his greatness but has yet to turn in a truly dominant Gronk performance.
While Edelman's injury was a big hit to the team, the Patriots have shown that they have the talent to overcome the loss and the star power to carry them to another Lombardi trophy. It'll be a tough game at Mile High this weekend (as it always is with the Patriots) but we have the ability to pull out the victory.
Pats 24 - Broncos 13