Tom Brady-Brandin Cooks connection X'd out in recent weeks
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The numbers say Tom Brady's chemistry with Brandin Cooks is getting worse, not better, and it all started last month in South Florida, where the Miami Dolphins devised (and executed) the blueprint on how to disrupt the Brady-Cooks connection.
Rugged cornerback Xavien Howard, listed at 6-foot-1, 196 pounds, gave Cooks a heavy dose of physical, press-man coverage at the line of scrimmage. It resulted in one of the worst games in Cooks' career and a historically bad night for Brady.
"Cooks is a very talented and explosive player -- his speed is game changing -- and you need to double him or be physical at the line to have the best chance to defend him," said one AFC personnel executive, who studied the Cooks-Howard matchup closely.
The Dolphins opted for the latter approach, and they held Cooks to one catch in seven targets. In fact, Brady had more interceptions (two) than completions when targeting Cooks. Howard became only the second player in the past 10 years to intercept the future Hall of Famer twice in the same game.
Basically, the X-man marked his spot.
Starting with his disastrous night in South Florida, Cooks finished the regular season with only 12 catches on 29 targets over the final four games. His 41.4 catch percentage ranked 71st out of 75 wide receivers in that span, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Cooks was the Patriots' marquee offseason addition, and some in the football-mad New England region might label him a disappointment even though he produced 65 catches, 1,082 yards and seven touchdowns. Truth be told, his numbers were slightly down from last season with the New Orleans Saints.
None of that matters now because, in these parts, legacies are forged in the postseason. This will be his first playoff game.
"It's a football game, you can't over-think it," Cooks said of his postseason debut. "You can't make it bigger than what it is."
The Titans don't have a cornerback as big and physical as Howard -- Logan Ryan and rookie Adoree' Jackson are less than 6 feet tall -- so it remains to be seen if they can play Miami's in-your-face style.
When Howard covered Cooks, Brady was shockingly inept -- 0-for-6. On four of the six incompletions, Howard played press coverage, disrupting his routes with sticky man-to-man. The other two were first-and-20 and third-and-16 situations in which he played "off" coverage. The lone completed pass, for 38 yards, came against a zone.
How can Cooks, only 5-foot-10 and 189 pounds, beat press coverage?
"Technique, fundamentals and going back to the basics," he said.
Cooks is so explosive that he can score from anywhere, any time. He will face a secondary that doesn't allow many chunk plays. In fact, the Titans have surrendered the third-fewest plays of 20 yards or more (37).
"Another threat, another guy to have to deal with in an already potent offense," Titans coach Mike Mularkey said of Cooks. "We've got to find out where he's at. There are a lot of things for him, and that's why they brought him in there."
Coach Bill Belichick, who traded a first-round pick for Cooks, has been pleased with his durability (93 percent of the offensive snaps) and stamina. He marveled at Cooks' ability to run several deep routes in a row, showing no signs of fatigue. He suspects Cooks hasn't missed a single practice rep due to injury.
"He's probably more impressive once you're actually around him every day and you see those kind of plays strung together," Belichick said. "I felt that's what he was, but it's been impressive. It's definitely been impressive."
Now Cooks has to take it to the game and reconnect with his famous quarterback.