One roster move was all it took to rejuvenate the Dallas Cowboys’ sputtering passing attack.
Since coming over from the Oakland Raiders for a first-round pick, wide receiver Amari Cooper’s been the catalyst for an offensive surge that’s helped move Dallas into contention for the NFC East title.
Without Cooper, the Cowboys went 3-4 and posted 20 points per game as quarterback Dak Prescott averaged a mere 202 passing yards. But with their new receiver in the fold, the Cowboys have gone 3-1, Prescott’s averaged 252 yards through the air, and Dallas has put up 23.5 points per game.
Prescott’s also recorded an astronomical 136 passer rating when targeting Cooper, who was named NFC Player of the Week for his 180-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Washington Redskins on Thanksgiving Day.
Overall, Cooper’s already caught 22 balls for 349 yards and three touchdowns in four games with Dallas. And the tape clearly shows that his route running and separation are putting the Cowboys in position to succeed, while giving Prescott – who can struggle with ball placement – much easier throwing windows.
Those attributes were necessary for a Dallas receiving group that previously lacked a No. 1 option who could get open consistently. Now, Cooper’s making his quarterback’s job much easier, while his separation is leading to extra yards after the catch and several big plays. Here are a few examples.
On this first play, Cooper (lined up at the top of the image) runs a simple out pattern against Ronald Darby of the Philadelphia Eagles:
First, Cooper sells Darby on a post route that would break to the middle of the field. The defender sees Cooper dart inside for a few steps and sells out to stop it. However, Cooper stops on a dime and breaks to the outside, causing Darby to rotate awkwardly as he tries to keep up:
This is known as the defender “flipping his hips” the wrong way, which we’ll see on a number of Cooper’s routes. Here, it creates the separation and gives Prescott an easy target for the first down.
On the same drive against Philadelphia, Cooper executes a picture-perfect slant route against Rasul Douglas (bottom of screen) on a third down:
Again, Cooper flips the hips of his defender. He initially releases to the outside, selling Douglas on a vertical route. But once the defender opens up his hips to the sideline to try and run with Cooper, the receiver knows he has him beat to the inside. In just a few steps, Cooper cuts underneath Douglas and gets enough separation to move the chains.
Overall, Cooper’s been incredibly effective on third downs for Dallas:
An even better example of Cooper flipping the hips of a defender came late in the first half against Philadelphia. Again, he’s working against Darby, and he runs another route that starts outside before quickly breaking in:
As in the previous play, Cooper sells the vertical release perfectly, and when Darby flips his hips to the sideline to start running with a deep route, the receiver cuts underneath him with precision:
Darby twists around awkwardly before slipping, which also enables Cooper to pick up yards after the catch.
So far, we’ve highlighted how Cooper’s route running translates to separation from man coverage. But the same principles and route designs apply against zones. On this next play from Week 11 against the Falcons, Cooper’s matched up against Robert Alford. The receiver runs a hitch route as Alford drops into a Cover 3 (both cornerbacks deep on both sides of the deep safety):
Without any dedicated safety help over the top on his side, Alford needs to respect a vertical release and stay on top of any potential deep route. So, when Cooper appears to shoot vertically off the line of scrimmage, Alford drops and maintains his cushion. That enables Cooper to snap back toward the quarterback on his quick hitch and create separation for an easy catch:
Again, the route running leads to a massive throwing window for Prescott. Look how far away Cooper is from any defender when the ball is released:
This is the biggest reason for the boost in Prescott’s numbers when targeting Cooper, as the throws are much easier and there’s more room to run after the catch – very good things for an offense.
Finally, let’s break down one of Cooper’s two huge third-quarter touchdowns against the Redskins. Remember that quick in-cut against Darby? On a third-and-2 on Thanksgiving, the Cowboys turned to that design once again – with impressive results:
This time, Cooper’s matched up against Quinton Dunbar. Again, the receiver appears to release on a vertical route and uses a stutter-step move off the line that gets Dunbar to flip his hips to the outside. Once he sees that, Cooper cuts underneath his man, forcing Dunbar to turn awkwardly back toward the middle of the field.
Dunbar then stumbles (much like Darby did) and Cooper gets the separation he needs to pull away. However, that separation did not come immediately on the route. Here’s the moment Prescott pulls the trigger:
Cooper’s yet to get away from Dunbar, but that’s where you see the confidence boost that a receiver with his talent gives a quarterback. Anticipation throws are not Prescott’s forte, but he’s willing to pull the trigger and trust that his receiver will get to the spot. Prescott’s faith is rewarded, and the Cowboys have a long touchdown after Cooper runs away from every defender with the middle of the field wide open.
Dallas now possesses a young receiver who makes the passing game easy for his quarterback. It’s already led to more success for the offense – and three straight wins for the team – helping justify the first-round pick that many believed was an overpay to acquire Cooper.
Mark Schofield writes NFL feature content for theScore. After nearly a decade of practicing law in the Washington, D.C., area Mark changed careers and started writing about football. Drawing upon more than a decade of playing quarterback, including at the collegiate level, Mark focuses his work on quarterback evaluation and offensive scheme analysis. He lives in Maryland with his wife and two children. Find him on Twitter @MarkSchofield.