Prior to the 2013 season, there wasn’t a defense in the NFL that feared quarterback Sam Bradford and the St. Louis Rams offense. Pro Bowl running back Steven Jackson and wide receiver Danny Amendola were the most potent weapons in Bradford’s arsenal.
As good as Jackson and Amendola were, the Rams' fourth-year signal-caller needed additional help. He needed speedy playmakers who could win one-on-one matchups and exploit defenses between the numbers. Fortunately for Bradford, general manager Les Snead and head coach Jeff Fisher had a busy offseason.
Even though the organization let Jackson and Amendola walk in free agency, St. Louis did more than enough during the offseason to replace them. Snead and Fisher signed pass-catching extraordinaire Jared Cook and drafted wide receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey.
Pundits praised the Rams’ offseason efforts. Analysts felt Austin and Bailey gave offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s offense a whole new dimension. They were right. In time, both players have the necessary talent to become superstars.
However, the player best suited to have success right now is Cook. The 26-year-old veteran has a great combination of size and speed. At the NFL Scouting Combine in 2009, he posted an eye-opening 40-yard dash time of 4.5 seconds. Moreover, he recorded a 41-inch vertical jump.
After one regular-season contest against the Arizona Cardinals, Cook assured the Rams that they did the right thing by signing him to a five-year, $35.1 million contract. His seven-catch, 141-yard performance was one for the record books. No tight end, in team history, had ever been able to do what he did Week 1.
Based on the numbers, it’s easy to see Cook has emerged as Bradford’s go-to guy. Yet, we all know statistics only tell a part of the story. The other part of the story reveals itself when one takes the time to analyze and break down the tape.
Let’s take a look.
On this second-quarter play, the Rams offense deployed an “11 personnel” grouping. Cook was on the right side of the formation on the line of scrimmage, Austin Pettis was split out wide at the flanker position, Chris Givens was the split end and Austin was in the slot.
The Cardinals defense was showing a single-high safety look. This, in turn, meant Bradford knew he would have one-on-one matchups galore. As soon as safety Yeremiah Bell dropped down into the box, No. 8 took the snap and locked in on Cook.
As the play progressed, Bradford waited for Cook to come out of his break on the out route.
Cook’s burst and precise route helped him pull away from Bell as he drifted toward the sideline. Once he secured the catch, he immediately turned upfield. From that point on, the only thing he had on his mind was six points.
The end result was good protection from the hog mollies upfront, a well-timed ball from Bradford and a beautiful catch-and-run from Cook. It’s amazing how one player can completely transform a team’s red-zone offense.
This next play hones in on Cook's speed and his ability to create mismatch problems over the middle of the field.
Again, Schottenheimer decided to spread Arizona’s defense out. Cook was lined up on the outside as the flanker, Brian Quick was the spit end and Pettis was in the slot. Furthermore, tight end Lance Kendricks was on the left side of the line and Daryl Richardson was in the backfield.
Cook’s route was long developing. It was designed to either create disparity against man coverage or expose zone coverage by finding a soft spot in the zone. Depending on the Cardinals' defensive call, there was a good chance the play would net significant yardage.
Coincidentally enough, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ defense ran Cover 4. Which meant Cook had a ton of room to run once he got behind inside linebacker Jasper Brinkley (No. 52). By design, there was no defender covering the sideline because the left cornerback had dropped straight back. So all Cook had to do was separate himself from Brinkley.
As soon as Bradford saw Cook kick things into second gear, he unloaded a strike out in front of him.
Thirty-six yards later St. Louis moved into enemy territory, thanks in large part to Cook and a superb play-action fake from Bradford. In addition, the offensive line deserves a pat on the back as well.
The outstanding pass protection gave Bradford 3.74 seconds to throw. In the NFL, that’s an ungodly amount of time. Hats off to every offensive player who did his job. Without perfect execution from all 11 men, this play wouldn’t have had the same success that it did.
According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Bradford’s connection with Cook helped him earn a plus-1.2 pass grade.
Here’s what the star tight end told the media after last Sunday’s game, via Nick Wagoner of ESPN.com. "Sam did a great job. He kept his composure the whole time. He put everybody on his back and on his shoulders, and he carried us to victory."
Cook couldn’t have said it any better. Aside from a couple of bad decisions and a couple of tipped passes at the line of scrimmage, Bradford’s outing was impeccable. His fourth-quarter comeback marked the sixth of his career. Of his six fourth-quarter comebacks, five have come since the beginning of the 2012 season.
When given the opportunity, Bradford should have no problem garnering even more fourth-quarter comebacks. Undoubtedly, Cook will be his safety valve when he needs to keep the chains moving.
Additionally, Bradford and Cook have formed one of the most feared tandems in the NFL. Yes, it was only one game, but coaches and front office members from around the league have already taken notice.
Smith’s praise didn’t stop there. He went on to call Bradford’s quarterback play outstanding.
You can bet Smith’s defensive game plan will be focused around shutting both players down. If he weren't fearful of Bradford and Cook, he wouldn’t have singled the two players out on his conference call.
After years of lackluster playmakers, Rams fans should be thankful that they now have one of the most formidable duos in the NFL.