The NFL passing game is complex. Mark Schofield shows how quarterback Derek Carr finds Amari Cooper, and why that’s a reason for fans to be excited about the future in Oakland.
Next to the back-shoulder throw, the deep comeback route is perhaps the hardest to defend in the NFL. Similar to the back-shoulder throw, a deep comeback route, when executed well, stresses the cornerback by selling the vertical route, and then creates separation at the cut point as the CB’s momentum pulls him vertically. When you add in anticipation and accuracy from a quarterback, the route is nearly unstoppable. Quietly out west, the young combination of quarterback Derek Carr and wide receiver Amari Cooper have been putting on a clinic with this single route.
In this example, the Raiders face a 3rd and 8 against the Cleveland Browns. The offense lines up with 11 offensive personnel, with tight end Mychal Rivera (#81) in the backfield to Carr’s right. The Raiders have a stack slot to the top of the screen, with Cooper lined up as a single receiver split to the left. The Browns have their 4-2-5 nickel defense in the game, and show Cover 1 in the secondary:
Look at Cooper’s alignment. He is inside the top of the numbers, in a close split from the left tackle. This is a pre-snap indication to cornerback Joe Haden (#23) that the WR will run a route breaking to the outside. Therefore, before the play the CB alters his alignment, establishing outside leverage at the snap and trying to force the receiver back inside – or at least make any outside cut more difficult.
Cooper is running the deep comeback on this play. At the start of the route, he needs to sell the CB on the vertical route and establish positioning outside. His goal is to move the defender vertically. When the CB turns and runs, the WR will then throttle down and pivot toward the sideline. This uses a sharp cut and the momentum of the defensive back to create separation.
Notice that Haden’s first step is to the outside with his right foot, maintaining outside leverage. Cooper sees this, and shuffles his feet to the inside. In response, Haden naturally slides his momentum (and helmet) to the inside, just as the WR begins his move back to the outside. The CB then attempts to jam the WR, but Cooper has the angle and freely releases to the outside. Haden stays with the WR, using his right arm as a contact point as the two players accelerate vertically:
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This shows how the route is designed to gain separation at the pivot point. Haden is watching the backfield as he sinks vertically with Cooper, waiting for a sign that a throw is coming or that the WR is going to continue on a vertical route. Just as Haden begins to turn his head away from the backfield, Cooper throttles down and pivots back to his QB. Haden tries to match the break, but his momentum carries him downfield, creating enough separation between receiver and defender for the play to be completed.
But it takes more than separation to complete this pass. The quarterback also needs to deliver an accurate, well-timed pass anticipating the break. From this angle you can see how Carr starts the throw just as Cooper throttles down:
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Putting all the elements together, we can see how the Raiders converted this 3rd-and-long:
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The Raiders face a 3rd and 2 against the Baltimore Ravens and Carr is in the shotgun, with 11 personnel on the field in a pro alignment to the left, and an inverted slot formation to the right. Cooper is the outside receiver on the right side of the field. The Ravens have their 3-3-5 nickel defense in the game and show Cover 2 in the secondary:
Looking at Cooper before the play, you can see his “plus” alignment: Receivers typically line up in relation to field landmarks. Some plays have a receiver line up at the top of the numbers (“plus”), some plays they line up on the bottom of the numbers (“minus”). On this play Cooper is standing well outside the bottom of the numbers, nearly to the sideline in plus alignment. With the football on the opposite hashmark, cornerback Lardarius Webb (#21) is thinking one thing: in-cut.
At the snap, Webb retreats, using catch-man technique. In this coverage, the cornerback will try and sink with any vertical threat to the outside (streak, corner route) because of that outside soft spot in Cover 2.
Webb jams Cooper at the 5-yard mark, then opens his hips to the sideline to turn and run with the vertical threat. He gives a quick look back to the quarterback to try and find the football.
But it is already in flight:
Carr is flawless on this play. As you can see, both Webb and Cooper are still accelerating vertically, but the football is already on its way. The WR throttles down and pivots back to the sideline perfectly on-time to pull in the throw:
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Here is another good look at how the stop and turn ‒ when combined with a well-timed and placed throw ‒ takes advantage of the separation that naturally occurs when a receiver unexpectedly changes direction. Webb does a good job here of stopping on the dime: sticking his right leg into the turf, and stopping all his vertical momentum. But with the football thrown before the break, the cornerback has no chance to prevent this completion:
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Through three games, when Derek Carr finds Amari Cooper, good things are happening for the Raiders. Carr has completed 63% of his passes for 726 yards and five touchdowns with only one interception, for a quarterback rating of 102.4. The rookie WR Cooper leads the Raiders with 20 receptions for 290 yards and one touchdown, a 68-yard strike from Carr in the Ravens game. But their relationship on this one route in particular is very telling – and a sign of very good things to come for the Raiders.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.
Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.