Over the last four weeks, Patriots wide receiver Brandin Cooks has been in a bit of a slump. Cooks’ averages in targets, receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns are all down across the board:
So naturally, the question is why has Cooks’ production disappeared?
Well, as with most things in football, there are a number of reasons why the connection between Tom Brady and Brandin Cooks hasn’t been as effective lately. With the major factors at play being how defenses have defended the Patriots, some missed opportunities, and Cooks’ role in the offense overall.
Below, I took a look back at Cooks’ routes during the Patriots’ win over the Bills in Week 16 and explained why he only had two catches for 19 yards.
Let’s start with the only two catches Cooks had in the game on Sunday. Both are similar routes aimed to do the same things but in different parts of the field and a different down and distance.
Cooks’ 14-yard reception was a good example of the kind of catch you’d expect him to make that isn’t a deep ball.
The Bills are in one of a few coverages that they used on a regular basis in Sunday's game. Buffalo played a variety of deep zone coverages aimed to take away the big plays in the Patriots’ offense.
The Pats rank second in the NFL with 61 pass plays of 20-plus yards this season and over the last four weeks team’s have made it their focus to eliminate those chunk plays.
Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White, who was on Cooks frequently, is going to make sure he stays over top of Cooks on this play forcing him to catch a pass in front of him. Cooks stops his route and is left wide open and even makes a nice move to gain extra yardage but ultimately those were the kinds of passes the Bills wanted Tom Brady to throw on Sunday.
Despite Buffalo’s best efforts, the Patriots were able to get Cooks open deep a few times, and the context of his two deep targets is critical when examining his performance. More often than not, Cooks’ deep targets come in one of two ways; off of play action and when he draws man-to-man coverage on the outside.
On this first play, Cooks is matched up in man coverage against Bills rookie Tre’Davious White, who has had a stellar rookie season. It’s a straight go route from Cooks, and he gets behind White, but Brady just overthrows the pass by a step or two.
On the very next play, Tom Brady threw his first pick-six of the season. Imagine how different that sequence could have gone if Brady hits that pass to Cooks.
In many ways, that’s the nature of the type of receiver Cooks is, and when you don’t hit the deep passes when they’re available he’s going to have a quiet day on the stat sheet.
On a more positive note, the best way the Patriots have been able to implement Cooks into the offense has been throwing deep shots to him off of power play action schemes. In these schemes, both Cooks and tight end Rob Gronkowski are nightmares for opposing defenses.
Against the Bills, Cooks drew a 44-yard defensive pass interference penalty that is just as good as a catch, and he probably would have scored if Tom Brady got more distance on the throw.
First, look at how hard the entire Buffalo defense bites on the play fake by Brady. The only Bills player that recognizes the fake in enough time is safety Micah Hyde, who’s in full retreat mode trying to save the touchdown. Cooks does a nice job of creating the contact with Hyde to draw the flag.
That’s the fourth defensive pass interference call Cooks has drawn this season, good for an extra 102 yards. The 44-yard penalty was also the longest defensive penalty the Patriots have benefited from this season. For the record, I hate this rule as it consistently bails quarterbacks out after an underthrown pass, but the receiver gets that call all the time.
Taking a look back at these two plays, imagine how the perception of Cooks’ performance would have changed if the 44-yarder counted in the stat sheet or he had connected with Brady on the first deep pass.
OTHER MISSED OPPORTUNITIES
There were a few other instances that could have ended with a Cooks reception that didn’t for various reasons on Sunday.
Here’s the final Brandin Cooks target that we haven’t already seen. The Bills have a good coverage called to defend this pass play initially with an outside corner over the top and the slot dropping in front of Cooks’ route. Cooks does an excellent job working the sideline to create a passing lane for Tom Brady, but by the time it develops the pass rush forces a low throw.
Early on in the game, Brady missed an open throw that appeared to be targeting Rob Gronkowski, but he actually could have had a short gain to Cooks on the play.
Note White once again playing off Cooks at the line, he is open for a short completion on a comeback route instantly, but Brady had excellent protection on the play and threw a pump fake designed to create a bigger play downfield by moving the defense.
The fake doesn’t do much initially, but some pocket movement buys more time for Brady to find a receiver. Ultimately, Gronk gets free late, and Brady missed the touch throw over the defender. It likely would have a been a modest gain for Cooks but a reception nonetheless.
Another potential missed opportunity came later in the game when Brady was brought down for a third-down sack in the red zone.
The Patriots run a combination route with Danny Amendola and Cooks running through similar areas of the coverage. Two Bills defenders end up following Amendola over the middle, which leaves Cooks with outside leverage running a corner route. It appears that Brady sees the route developing but opts to not test the Buffalo safety, and takes the sack.
As much as the Patriots want to get Cooks the ball, like any player on the team winning football games ultimately comes first.
In Cooks’ first season with the Pats, his willingness, especially for a big-time receiver, to take on assignments that won’t show up in the box score is a huge aspect of what has made him a great fit in New England.
In Week 16, the Patriots frequently asked Cooks to run clearout routes, or routes designed to create space for teammates. Here are three examples of this that produced big plays for the Patriots offense.
First, the Patriots gear up here to take another deep shot downfield off of play action going with a six-man protection and two vertical routes by Amendola and Cooks. However, the Bills have a three-deep coverage called and are prepared to take away the deep pass.
Although the Bills defend the big play over the top, Cooks and Amendola’s routes end up drawing the attention of three Bills defensive backs, and it leaves Dorsett wide open in the flat.
Also, because Cooks has taken the corner across from him deep, it gives Dorsett an opportunity to create after the catch with only one man to beat that’s near him. Cooks knows based on the coverage that he isn’t getting the football but runs his route hard anyways to take the coverage away from Dorsett.
On this play, the Patriots have Cooks and Gronkowski run vertical routes on opposite sides of the field.
Once again, the Bills have a deep zone coverage called in what appears to be a variation of cover-4. On the bottom of the screen, Cooks draws the attention of both the corner on the boundary and the safety on his side of the field, which leaves nobody in the flat to cover Dwayne Allen.
Again, taking coverage with him to create opportunities for teammates to make plays.
Finally, here’s another power play action concept from the Patriots with Gronk releasing over the middle and Cooks going deep on the boundary.
First, notice how deep the safety is in the middle of the field protecting against the deep pass, which creates this one-on-one matchup on the inside for Gronk. Second, after Gronk makes the catch, look at how much space he has to run into thanks to Cooks’ route which takes the corner on the boundary completely out of the play.
Gronk gets caught from behind as the Bills defender has decent coverage on the play, but you can see the space available to him if he breaks free of that tackle.
The goal of this piece was not to make excuses for why Brandin Cooks hasn’t been lighting up the stat sheet. But as you can see above, there are a lot of near-misses and strategic reasons from this game that contributed to him having just his second game with under 20 receiving yards this season. And it’s worth noting that his two lowest outputs of the season have both come against the Bills.
Patriots fans’ number one complaint with Cooks’ usage is the lack of easy catch opportunities. Many of his routes are vertical and you’d like to see them implement more crossing style routes in short areas of the field that use his speed horizontally.
I had to go all the way back to Week 1 against the Chiefs to find this play, but I think using Cooks a few more times a game in this fashion would at least make Patriots fans happy.
Although it’s certainly worth a try, it’s also important to remember that defenses have positioned defenders in the middle of the field to take away that area, and plays like this one are gimmicky in nature.
The tape shows that the opportunities for Cooks are there, and with a little bit better timing and execution, he would have had a number of big gains against the Bills last week.