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Analyzing two Amari Cooper crossing routes for Raiders vs Cleveland

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A Look at 2 Amari Cooper plays with differing results

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Amari Cooper just keeps building on his previous week's work. One of his best traits is his ability to run after the catch; he has a great change of direction and quick first step out of his break that he can often make first defenders miss. He has great burst and gets to full speed very quickly and can split defenders. But unlike other "shifty" receivers like Tavon Austin or Percy Harvin, Amari Cooper is big and strong. Surprisingly strong. He also naturally drops his weight and keeps his center of balance low which gives him great balance. and makes it so difficult for a single CB to bring him down. He certainly won't go to the ground with a single hit; a defender has to bring his feet and wrap up to have a chance.

So the challenge (or fun exercise) for OC Bill Musgrave is to create ways to get Amari Cooper the ball in space. The WR screen is one way and we've seen that used in Weeks 1 and 2. But in Week 3, Cooper was not used in the screen game. Instead, he was targeted in the intermediate game more and an interesting route design is one that helped make Tim Brown so effective over the years : the Crossing Route.

Here's a look at the two plays, both of them are Crossing Routes but they are executed differently and the defense is reacting differently.

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Play 39 : Q2, 2-15-OAK 45 (9:00) (Shotgun) D.Carr pass short middle to A.Cooper to CLV 15 for 40 yards (D.Whitner)

This was Cooper's biggest, most exciting play of the day. The 15 yard throw. A catch, stiff arm, and 25 yards later it shows up on the stat sheet as a 40 yard completion.

So what happened? It looks like a pretty routine play so how did Cooper get so open and then why was there so much space for him to run into?

Here's a look at the details of the play.

First, the Browns are in Cover 3 zone. This means that there are 3 men deep, each covering a Deep Third of the field. This leaves 4 underneath defenders. Their deployment looks like this :

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Typically, in Cover 3, the outside CBs will drop into the Deep Outer Thirds and the LBs and the SS will cover the underneath zones, but in this case, the outside CBs take the underneath outside Quarter (flat area) and the inside defenders (slot CB and S) drop deep. From a scheme-perspective, it's an interesting switch. It also pays off just a bit because this approach allowed the safety Donte Whitner to eventually make the tackle on Amari Cooper. If the Browns had fallen off into a traditional Cover-3, this play may have gone for even more yards.

The main goal of a WR against a Zone defense is to find a clear area (aka a "hole" or "seam") between defenders. The main goal of an OC against a zone defense is to design a set of routes that will force the defenders to move, clearing areas of the field, and then having a WR available to run into that clearing.

On this play, both the OC and the WR achieve their goals. Here are the routes :

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The 4 complementary routes are designed to open up the middle of the field. two underneath routes, one deep vertical route, and a fake screen WR screen all demand attention from the respective zone defender. The way the defenders move will change and open up the defensive coverage.

Here's what they do :

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The two underneath defenders are occupied by the shallow routes leaving Donte Whitner isolated against Cooper.

Normally when a receiver exits a defender's zone, there is a "Pass Off," where the one defender stops covering and allows the adjacent zone defender to pick up the coverage. This only works if there is someone to hand off to.

When Amari Cooper gets into his route, Whitner correctly takes outside and deep leverage (that's his zone), but when Cooper breaks to the inside, there is no help and so Whitner has no "pass off." The combination of routes against this particular defense creates a hole in the middle of the field. Now Whitner is stuck in a poor position and is effectively forced to man-cover Cooper.

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Derek Carr reads the defense correctly and understands the zone. He sees Cooper running his route and waits for him to clear his defender and get into the open space ("hole"). The routes have also created a nice throwing lane for Carr.

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As soon as Cooper clears his zone defender and before he gets to the next defender, Carr makes the throw. Notice how Cooper slows down here ("throttling down" or "Settling in the hole") and how the ball is throw right on top of him.

Typically against zones, the QB is not going to lead the WR. That is because there is often an offside defender closing and a leading pass may take the WR into a hellacious hit. Remember 2010, when James Harrison destroyed Mohamed Massaquoi? Steelers were in a zone with Harrison on the off-side; Massaquoi didn't correctly read the zone; instead of slowing down and settling, he ran himself headlong into the Silverback and we all know how that turned out.

Both the QB and the WR have to read the defense together. If the throw is to the zone and the WR doesn't recognize it and runs full speed as if he were expecting a leading throw, then the throw will be behind him.

Look at this image ...

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... and imagine Cooper had taken 2 or 3 steps inside. That throw would have been right to Donte Whitner (Neil O'Donnel to Larry Brown-style).

This was one of Denarius Moore's biggest problems; he had so many problem reading coverages and often did the wrong thing against zone or man defenses. Recall Week 4 of 2013 against Washington. David Amerson had a big interception of Matt Flynn and returned it 45 yards for a touchdown; that was Moore's fault for stopping against a Man defense. Flynn threw the ball out of in front of Moore, but since Moore had stopped as if against a Zone, the throw went right to the defender.

Fortunately, Amari Cooper sees and understands the defense better than Denarius did; he reads zone just as Derek Carr did.

When Cooper makes the catch ...

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... there's not just free space around him, but there's open space in front of him. He just has to outrun Whitner and then get past the dropping deep safety. The safety actually does a very good job of coming down to cut off Cooper's path, but Cooper's strength and stiff arm allow him to break free and get another 25 yards.

This is such a nice play against this defense. It's a 15 yard gain at least and it gives Amari the ball in space with a chance to do something with it. At best, it's a big run after catch gain. It's so important for the WR to be able to read the defense, understand what he is supposed to do, and then execute it. This play is what happens when Talent meets Game IQ and is sync'd with the QB.

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Play 27 : Q2, 3-2-OAK 20 (13:30) D.Carr pass incomplete short left to A.Cooper.

The previous play was exciting and shows what happens when the offense has a great play call for the defense and when QB and WR read the defense in unison: 40 yards in a heartbeat. But here's a look at what happens when that read is just off by a little bit.

Presnap, the Raiders have TE Mychal Rivera lined up split wide left ...

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... but he motions towards the formation and lines up as the FB.

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On its own this isn't really very exciting. But it is very important to Derek Carr because it helps him identify the defensive coverage.

Notice the LB #58 Kirksey is lined up opposite Rivera on the outside and then follows him inside. This indicates man coverage, so Derek has a pre-snap idea about how to attack the defense.

Here are the routes :

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The two shallow crossers set up a natural pick situation and they will challenge these two defenders :

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It's man coverage, but as in the previous play, the Cleveland Browns will change up the look of their defense just a bit, just enough to make it look a little strange.

They are in 2-Man (2 Deep Shell, Man Underneath), but instead of having Donte Whitner drop to cover a deep half, it is Joe Haden that has that responsibility and it is the Safety Donte Whitner who is assigned to man-cover Cooper. This should be a mismatch for the Raiders.

After the snap, the WRs get into their routes. As Cooper and Seth Roberts cross, Whitner gets shielded well away from Amari while Haden is covering air.

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And he is looking for the ball right here :

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Cooper is open, has room to run in front of him, and just needs the ball.

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An interesting side note is what Cooper does as a target. He throttles down and turns his chest to the QB giving Carr a nice target to hit; he's also aware of where the defender is and so he's creating room between them by bending his route back towards the line of scrimmage. These are minor things, but these subtle aspects are what makes Cooper such a polished receiver.

Even on a crosser, the QB gets to see the #s and Cooper makes himself visible and predictable to Derek Carr.

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But the throw is not there and the timing of the play is gone. Cooper accelerates out and then Carr throws it. The ball is a bit late and a bit behind Cooper for an incompletion; it doesn't really matter because Whitner is right there and would have made the tackle anyway.

On this play, Whitner has to fight over the top of the traffic jam in the middle of the field and the off-field defenders have their backs turned to Cooper. If Cooper can get the ball on time, he has a chance to beat Whitner and turn the corner, if he can do that, this play would be another big catch and run. A missed opportunity on a "simple" 3-yard throw.

In review, it looks like Derek Carr misread the defense, that the changeup by the Browns actually fooled Carr. By having Haden play the safety-role, he ends up standing as if in zone. Carr likely saw that and then started to question the coverage.

Notice this image :

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It looks like zone, especially in the middle of the field. His pre-snap read was "Man," but now his eyes tell him "Zone."

Derek Carr's approach to the play is correct against zone! He sees Cooper get into the bunch and then waits for Cooper to clear the zone defender--if this were zone, then there would be a switch when the receivers cross--and then throws to a spot. Carr made a mistake on this play and it was the one that the Browns were trying to make him make. Carr did not expect the Browns to man cover with Whitner (why would you?) and so when he saw that and then saw Haden guarding air, and then other defenders squared up, he shifted into a zone reaction mode.

It's a mistake but it's the kind of "rookie mistake" that is (a) understandable (b) intentionally forced by the defense (give them some credit), and (c) correctable especially with study and experience.

What's also interesting is that in this case, Amari was right and Carr was wrong. Cooper read the defense correctly and it was Carr that missed it. In just a couple of games, Cooper is already seeing and playing the game like a veteran.

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Finale

It's already clear that Amari Cooper is something special. Already in just his 3rd game, he has transitioned to the NFL level and looks for all the world like a 5 year veteran on the field (when he's not returning punts, that is). His outstanding physical attributes are the most obvious and exciting, but it is the smaller, subtler, more esoteric aspects of his game that are making him so effective already and that will help him continue to grow and dominate as defenses key on him.

Cooper has had an outstanding last 2 games. 15 rec, 243 yards, 1 TD. and incredibly, the team has left yard on the field for him. If Carr makes some throws or times it up a little bit better to Cooper, there were even more yards to be had and possibly even more big plays.

It's actually quite amazing that Carr-Cooper-and even Crabtree haven't even really gelled yet. 2 Games, 665 yards and they aren't playing to their potential. When the timing improves, when they start seeing the same thing, when the throws are on target, the offense will take a significant step forward.

When that happens, watch out.