For the first time in NFL history, a rookie will making his first start in the playoffs. The hopes for the promising Raiders will fall squarely on the shoulders of Conor Cook. Matt Mcgloin was knocked out of action against the Broncos and Cook actually sparked the offense against one of the best pass defenses of all-time. Cook showed an abnormal sense of confidence for a rookie in a tough situation. He made some mistakes and his performance wasn’t jaw dropping, but this experience was invaluable to him.
In his first action of the season, he showed a quick, smooth release that is similar to Derek Carr’s. He looked comfortable in the pocket and moved well in it, routinely climbing the pocket and making some impressive throws.
Against a blitz, Cook stayed calm while having to turn his back to the defense for the play action. He climbed a constrained pocket and used his quick release and arm talent to deliver a beautiful pass to Amari Cooper for the touchdown.
Out of all the positive traits he displayed against the Broncos, the most important one was his ability to learn on the job. He made mistakes as expected for any rookie, but he learned from them and made some in-game strides.
Learning on the Job
On Gruden’s QB Camp, Gruden talked to Cook about his 57% completion percentage. He told Cook that he was way too accurate of a passer to be under 60%. His low percentage had more to do with his decision making than physical accuracy. Cook takes pride in the label “gun-slinger” but he had to evaluate when is the right time to take a chance and when to check the ball down. At times, he was almost allergic to hitting his check down and Gruden implored him to take pride in being able to find his check down when the situation calls for it.
Musgrave dials up a shot play to Jalen Richard, who is suppose to run a slant and go. Richard is lined up outside to the bottom of the screen. Musgrave was probably hoping to get man to man coverage and pick on a mismatch with Richard on a linebacker, but the Broncos come out in quarters coverage, which would put a bracket on Richard in this route combination.
Roberts is running a shoot route against a linebacker. In a second and six situation, the wise choice would have been to glance at Richard to see if the corner bites on the double move, but be ready to throw to Roberts on the shoot. If he hits Roberts on time, he would have some room to run and might have gotten the first down or set the offense up for a third and short. Instead he throws to Cooper who is bracketed on a pivot route.
Later in the game, on first and ten, the Raiders run a similar route combination to the top of the screen with Roberts running a shoot, while the outside receiver runs a deeper route.
The Broncos are disguising their cover-3 and Cook sees the deep alignment of the defensive backs and the deep drop of the linebacker. This time, Cook hits Roberts on the shoot route on time and Roberts gets six yards. It seems like a small play, but it sets the offense up in a favorable second and four situation.
More importantly, the play shows that Cook is a quick study.
Learning when to be Aggressive
Cook showed he isn’t afraid to throw the ball downfield on his second throw of the day.
The Raiders run a switch concept to the bottom of the screen. Cornerback Aquib Talib played a trail technique for most of the day because he had safety help over the top. This allowed him to possibly help or trap routes to the inside receiver.
Cook shows some great anticipation, letting go of the ball before Walford breaks. He gets the ball to Walford in the perfect place away from inside coverage and with plenty of space before Talib on the outside. However, the ball comes a little too quick for Walford and he drops a catchable ball.
Later in the game, the Raiders run the same concept against a similar coverage. This time the safety does a good job of covering Walford’s out route. Once again, Talib has his eyes in the backfield and could have put a big hit on Walford if he caught the ball. However, by helping too much on Walford he leaves Crabtree some space down the sideline in between him and the safety.
After this drive, the coaches probably showed Cook the play on a tablet on the sideline. The Raiders line up a 2×2 formation again. Cook sees that Talib is lined up in press and pump fakes to the inside receiver, Talib bites, and again leaves Crabtree with a sliver of space on the sideline. Cook throws a perfectly placed ball in between Talib and the safety for a big gain.
This is a throw that not every quarterback could make. It takes the ability to change trajectory on fades that I don’t believe Matt Mcgloin could do. This play is an example of Cook’s in-game learning and arm talent melding together. It is a beautiful sight for the Raiders because they’ll need Cook to continue to learn quickly and cram in the offense in a short week.
Things to work on:
Know where hot receiver is against the blitz!
The Broncos are clearly showing blitz to the bottom of the screen. On that side, they also have a safety lined up 15 yard deep on third and eight. Richard is lined up wide and running a crossing route. Richard sees the blitz and slows his route down and looks at Cook to throw him the ball hot right away, but Cook doesn’t throw that way. Instead, he looks to the the trips side and throws into a tight window.
Pre-snap, he should have seen where the blitz was coming from and how much space he had to the two receiver side. It wasn’t a guarantee that Richard would have gotten the first down, but Cook should have seen all the space the recievers had to that side.
Finding hot receivers and making sight adjustments will be key against the Texans, as they will most likely blitz the rookie quarterback a lot. He’ll have to read these blitzes pre-snap and make them pay.
Hang on to the ball!
The Raiders depend on winning the turnover battle every game and have been excellent this year in that regard. Cook was responsible for three turnovers against Denver. One was an interception on play that he actually read well, but just misfired high. The other two came on strip sacks. He has to be more aware of the pressure to cling on to the ball when getting hit.
For the Raiders to pull of an upset in Houston, they’ll need a lot of factors to go their way and winning the turnover battle will be a major factor.
Cook was criticized during the draft process for his “entitlement. I’m not sure how true those reports were, but he certainly seemed to have an abnormal amount sense of confidence for a third string quarterback playing in Denver. Hopefully, that arrogance will override the immense pressure that a rookie making his first start in the playoffs is supposed to feel.