Making the transition from college football to the NFL can be very difficult for receivers. However, Stefon Diggs and Amari Cooper are adjusting just fine. Mark Schofield examines the rookie route running clinic that these two have been putting on the rest of the league.
When the Minnesota Vikings and the Oakland Raiders meet Sunday, two emerging playoff contenders led by rookie wide receivers will be on display. The route-running abilities of the Vikings’ Stefon Diggs and the Raiders’ Amari Cooper are worth your attention Sunday afternoon.
Cooper and Whole-Body Route Running
While the sudden success of the fourth round pick in Minnesota might be surprising, the hot start of Amari Cooper is anything but. Selected fourth overall by the Raiders, one of the reasons Cooper was atop many WR boards during the last draft season was his ability to give an offense the entire route tree on day one. While at Alabama, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffen used Cooper on a variety of pass patterns and the Crimson Tide receiver rewarded his coaches with a stellar campaign. And his transition to the professional game has been nothing short of impressive.
You want an out route? Here’s a quick out route run on the most imposing of vacation spots, Revis Island:
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The Raiders face a 3rd and 2 here, and Cooper is split wide to the right with New York Jets All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis (#24) across the line of scrimmage in man press alignment. The WR runs a quick out route, and earns separation with a combination of a stutter-step off the line of scrimmage, and a sharp cut. Here is another angle:
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Revis decides not to jam here, and as Cooper releases he starts slowly with the stutter-step, then uses an extra gear as he bends to the outside and shows Revis a vertical route. When the CB turns his hips to run, Cooper snaps his route off, planting his left foot in the grass and knifing toward the sideline on the quick out. Revis is in no position to make a play on the pass, and for good measure the receiver even puts a move on the DB after the reception, gaining some additional yardage by cutting back toward the middle of the field.
What impresses about Cooper is how he is a “whole-body” route runner. Using more than fancy footwork and pure speed, Cooper sells defenders on routes using every part of his body, including his arms and even his head. On this play from Week 9, he runs a dig route and is matched up against Antwon Blake (#41) of the Pittsburgh Steelers:
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How did he get so open on this 3rd and 10 play? Here is how:
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Cooper releases vertically, and Blake gives the WR a decent cushion. As he reaches the top of his stem, Cooper uses some choppy steps to set up his cut. He then drives his outside foot into the turf to begin his break, but at the last moment he flashes his right arm and head to the outside. This combination of moves gets Blake to slide to the outside, at which point Cooper cuts toward the middle of the field on his dig route.
Another route that he runs extremely well is the deep comeback 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 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, trying to establish outside leverage at the snap and force the receiver back to the 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 somehow establish positioning outside, to help sell the CB on the vertical route. His goal is to get the defender moving vertically, and hopefully when the CB starts to turn and run, the WR can throttle down and pivot back toward the sideline, using a sharp cut and the momentum of the defensive back to create separation. Let’s look at how Cooper runs this route, beginning with the battle at the line of scrimmage:
Notice that Haden’s first step is to the outside with his right foot, to try and maintain outside leverage. Cooper senses this, and shuffles his feet to the inside. Haden naturally slides his momentum (and helmet) to the inside in response, just as the WR begins to move back to the outside. The CB then attempts to get a jam on him, but Cooper has the angle and is able to freely release to the outside. Haden is able to stay with the WR, using his right arm to stay with him as the two players begin to accelerate vertically:
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This shows you exactly 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 starts to turn his head away from the backfield, Cooper throttles down and pivots back to his QB. Haden tries to stop as quickly as he can, but his momentum carries him downfield, creating enough separation between receiver and defender for the play to be completed.
A final example of Cooper’s route-running ability is this long touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens, which highlights the idea of a whole-body route runner. Oakland faces a 3rd and 8 on its own 32-yard line and Carr is in the shotgun with 11 offensive personnel on the field. The offense has bunch formation to the right, with Cooper split to the left. The Ravens have their 4-2-5 nickel defense in the game and are showing blitz, with all 11 defenders within 6 yards of the line of scrimmage. Cooper runs a post-corner route at the top of the screen against cornerback Jimmy Smith (#22):
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This angle gives us a better view of how the play ‒ and Cooper’s technique from head to toes ‒ adds up to a long touchdown connection:
Watch how the rookies sets up the defender. Smith is in press alignment, but Cooper uses a quick stutter-step and angles inside, avoiding a jam. As Cooper nears the top of his stem, he gives a quick look back at the pocket, selling Smith on an inside cut. The rookie then breaks the route to the corner, and Carr hits him in stride:
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Talk about using your head.
Cooper is a very impressive route-runner, especially as a rookie. His ability to execute the entire route tree, change direction, sell defenders on routes and gain separation on breaks has made life much easier for his young quarterback.
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.