Expectations were likely tempered for the former first-round selection (No. 7 overall by the Arizona Cardinals in the 2013 draft) when he was claimed off the waiver wire after being released by the New England Patriots. Cooper did not make it to his rookie season as he broke his leg and was placed on injured reserve before camp started.
The former Tar Heels’ time with Arizona was unremarkable at best, as the guard saw spot duty along the offensive line (recording 11 starts) while dodging questions about an inconsistent work ethic. Cooper was traded to the Patriots last March as part of the Chandler Jones deal, but did not see any snaps this season as he injured his foot during the first week of training camp. Just days after being removed from the Patriots’ injury report, the 26-year-old was released the Monday after the squad’s week 5 victory over the Browns.
The OBR’s Brent Sobleski recently provided an excellent breakdown of Cooper after reviewing two starts from his 2015 season:
“The former seventh overall pick certainly has talent, but he's had a long injury history. That can't be overlooked. But I wanted to refresh the old memory regarding his performance when he was on the field. As such, I rewatched two games against the Baltimore Ravens and Chicago Bears. Why? Because he received his best and worst grades in those contests.
Now, here's what I saw when I turned on the tape:
-- Cooper's length is immediately noticeable, as Palmer mentioned. At 6'2", he has 33-inch arms. It's difficult to get into his body or work around him.
-- The guard's athleticism became his biggest selling point as a prospect. He consistently and effectively got to the second level to block linebackers.
-- Along with his length, Cooper was quick and patient in pass set. He didn't lunge. He sat back and let everything develop in front of him. He wasn't beat clean once.
-- His length and patience was fortified by solid technique. Cooper kept hands inside and rarely looked like he was holding.
-- The major concern about his game reared its head in limited opportunities. The Cardinals didn't run directly behind Cooper often. He's not very physical or strong at the point of attack. This extends to his pass protection when he can be thrown off blocks.
-- The Cardinals opened each half by pulling Cooper to lead the way for effective ground gains. He located well on the move and looked very comfortable in space.
-- When asked to fire off the ball, it's the exact opposite. Bears defenders stood him straight up and very little movement followed.
-- Whereas, Cooper's lateral movement is exceptional. He was very good working down the line--although, he can be driven back--he picked up stunts with ease and almost always stayed square to the line of scrimmage.
-- For some linemen, they're lazy when not covered up or attacked in their pass set. Cooper found work. He helped on blocks even when uncovered.
-- His athleticism worked against him at times when he came off a double too quick in search of a second-level block.”
A close look at Cooper’s first start as a Brown confirms Brent’s film review. Pro Football Focus (PFF) agreed, saying of Cooper:
“RG Jonathan Cooper (80.7) got his first action of the season with the start against the Bengals and relished in the opportunity grading as 2nd best Browns offensive player and 3rd best guard through the all of the Sunday games save for SNF. Cooper allowed just 1 hurry while dominating as a run blocker.”
The guard was active in pass protection, showed excellent awareness, displayed outstanding lateral movement, and worked well in space.
Cooper’s presence was certainly impactful in the run game.
Tailback Isiah Crowell averaged 11.3 YPC on ten carries while Duke Johnson Jr. while Duke Johnson Jr. received four carries for 24 yards.
The new right guard flashed on the offense’s first play of the game as the unit came out in a heavy formation with eight players on the line of scrimmage.
The play concept is Inside Zone with a backside (BS) read and possible quarterback bootleg. At the snap, the BS tight end will ‘arc’ release the defense end and climb to the second level defender. The arc release serves two purposes:
- It puts the defensive end in conflict as he will now be ‘read’ out of the play. If he squeezes inside to tackle the TB, the QB will pull the ball and run into the area he just vacated. If he stays wide, the QB will hand the ball to the TB knowing that the defensive end cannot chase the play down from behind
- If the ball is pulled, the arc block serves to seal the alley as the most dangerous player to the ball carrier has been blocked
On any zone concept, the offensive line wants to create horizontal displacement along the defensive front, forcing the defenders to run sideline-to-sideline. The tailback will read the displacement and blocks using pre-set rules to determine where he should cut. Note that inside zone blocks will generally create some vertical displacement - due to its downhill nature – as well as a horizontal stretch.
Because Cooper is ‘covered’ in zone terminology, his technique is to take a reach step with his play-side foot towards the 3-technique at a 45-degree angle, beat the defender getting the second step down, and punching the chest plate with two hands (elbows tight the body with the thumbs up).
The tailback’s aiming point is the outside hip of the guard. If he does receive the ball, the read is Cooper’s block on the 3-technique:
- If Cooper pins his man inside the TB will hit the B gap
- If Cooper drives his man out the TB will hit the A gap
- If Cooper drives his man out and the 1-technique crosses the center’s face, the TB will bend to hit the backside A gap
Let’s see what happens:
Crowell does not get the ball (rightfully, as the read defender squeezed inside triggering the QB bootleg) but Cooper does not know this as his back is to the play. As far as he is concerned, the tailback is reading is block and looking for a running lane.
The right guard does a great job getting two quick steps down, striking the defender, and running his feet. Notice that as defender attempts to shed the block Cooper uses his feet to reestablish position and pivots to wall off the defender from the A-gap.
If Crowell had received the ball, the offense would likely have recorded a solid gain on first down.
Later in the game, Cooper and right tackle Spencer Drango (#66) execute a beautiful ‘scoop’ block on the backside of another inside zone run.
The scoop is a specific backside combination block that starts with a double team, before the lineman closest to the play direction disengages to climb to the second level and block a linebacker.
The right tackle will take a lateral step, rip the shoulder, get the shoulder underneath the defender, and get to the opposite side of the defender. The guard will take a play-side step, strike with two hands, and climb to the linebacker after the tackle has secured the block.
This is an outstanding scoop block by the right guard and right tackle. The defensive tackle’s hip immediately gives, cueing Cooper it is time to climb to the WILL.
While Cooper has shown a tendency to come off his double-teams too early, in this case he must quickly climb as the WILL is aggressively fitting the backside A-gap.
The second-level technique is solid as Cooper strikes, runs his feet, and finishes the block on the way to a 9-yard gain.
Our final zone block occurs during the second half as Cooper washes a tight 3-technique down the line of scrimmage on the way to another 35-yard-plus gain for Crowell.
Watch the savvy guard take the defender where he wants to go, washing him out of the play and creating a huge cut-back lane for the tailback.
Cooper’s athleticism allows him to work well in space, as we see in our next play, the Hue Jackson-favorite ‘Sweep Read’.
The sweep read is a perimeter-attacking run that utilizes a combination of pulls, reach blocks, and down blocks to get the tailback around the edge into the alley.
The pullers will change play-to-play based on the defensive lines alignment, with the center/guard and guard/guard being the two most common combinations. On this play, Cooper and center Cam Erving will pull, while the backside guard will cut the nose tackle.
The tailback’s aiming point is the tight end’s outer hip. If blocked correctly, the tight end will seal the left defensive end, the first puller will pick up the alley defender, and the second puller will pick up the first linebacker that threatens to cross his face.
Cooper’s speed is evident as he leads around the edge looking for work. Because the cornerback started the play at depth and the drop safety attacked the wrong side of the field, Cooper has no one to block. Notice that he looks back for a block after recognizing the lack of an alley fill, then locates and cuts the nose tackle.
The play was unsuccessful because the tight end was big banked into the backfield and Erving did not look inside to block the scrapping linebacker, but it does demonstrate Cooper’s ability to move in space and his willingness to look for work when a block is not immediately available.
Our final play in the run game is a well-timed “Draw” that resulted in a 42-yard gain.
Facing second and ten after a first-down incompletion, Jackson broke tendency by running the ball on what has been a run-heavy down and distance thus far.
Notice that the offensive line sets with hi-hats like they are preparing to pass block in order to disguise the concept.
Based on the defensive front Cooper is responsible for the 2-technique, a difficult task as he will need to execute a single-team block on an interior lineman.
The basic technique of a lead draw block is to sell the pass by taking a power set, determining which way the defender wants to go and turning with him, attacking the numbers with the hands, and running the feet.
Cooper’s power steps are a bit lacking as they don’t gain much depth, but he does an outstanding job taking the initial blow from the defender and hand fighting to maintain his inside position (it is not holding if it is not called!). He finishes the play by putting the defender on the ground as Crowell scampers by for his long gain of the day.
While the technique was not perfect (remember Cooper’s primary weakness is strength at the point of attack) we see a scrappy player willing to mix it up with a physically stronger opponent.
Our next section looks at Cooper’s work in pass protection. Although quarterback Robert Griffin III was abysmal, much of the fault rests with the quarterback for holding onto the ball too long and poor accuracy.
Two areas of Cooper’s pass-protection game stood out:
- His awareness and ability to pick up defensive line stunts
- His willingness to look for work and ‘clean the pocket’ when not directly engaged with a pass rusher
The Cleveland Browns’ offensive line has been plagued by breakdowns in pass protection this season, often due to mental lapses caused by simple stunts and twists by opposing defensive lines and linebackers.
In our first play, we see the Bengals’ defense bring 6-man pressure utilizing stunts on both sides of the offensive line.
Pre-snap the Bengals show pressure with defensive end Michael Johnson (#90) in a stand-up position over the B-gap between the right guard and right tackle. With a 0-technique (heads up over the center) and a wide-9 end outside the right tackle’s outside shoulder, the defense can run a variety of blitz packages from this look, particularly if they loop #55 around to create a 4-on-3 number’s advantage.
Offensive line play requires a level of detail in technique not required of many other position groups, so we will stick to the basics for now.
After executing the appropriate power step, the offensive lineman will give ground if he sees his man looping or twisting away. The blocker want to strike the defender to slow his charge if possible, but he must avoid lunging or losing track of the rushers. The goal is to give just enough ground to allow the new rusher to appear.
The shoulders should remain square and the player must keep his head on a swivel to locate the next defender. A good rule of thumb to follow is “if he’s leaving, someone’s coming”. If a defender aggressively alters his path to the quarterback, another player will likely take his place in the rush lane.
Let’s see how the center and guard handle the twist:
The Bengals’ defense has out-schemed the protection plan simply by bringing six rushers against five blockers. Because the protection does not include a tailback or tight end, the defense will gain a numbers advantage every time. When this happens, the offense must protect the A-gap at all costs as the pressure will come quickest through this lane.
Ignore the breakdown for the moment – which was not Erving’s fault – and focus on the stunt.
The first point of emphasis is just how patient Cooper is in his pass set. His steps are smooth, another indication of his outstanding athleticism, and he steps at the proper angle based on the rushers pre and post-snap movement.
The nose tackle is on Cooper before the looper (#90) has switched his angle, but the guard appears to see him via peripheral vision and prepares his body for the blow just before it is struck. After the initial contact is made, Cooper gets his hands inside the rusher’s chest and easily handles him at the line of scrimmage. Although Erving’s body ends up a bit too extended for my test as he strikes the nose tackle, he shows excellent athleticism and awareness as well, recovering to pick up the stunting end and stonewall him and the line.
Good awareness, athleticism, and execution by both players to stop a concept that has continuously knocked down the Browns’ signal callers this season.
Our final piece of the puzzle is Cooper’s desire, effort, and ability to ‘find work’ and ‘keep his pocket clean’ when he does not have a specific man to block.
Many offensive linemen will become lazy when they don’t face an immediate pass-rush threat. You will see them execute their pass drop, extend their arms to the side, and turn their head looking for someone to hit, but they will exert little to no effort in actually finding work. It looks nice, but the bad intentions are not there.
Cooper is cut from a different cloth.
Watch as he finds work against not one, but two rushers on the play.
While one game does not make a season, Cooper’s performance should excite Browns’ fans as the return of a healthy Joe Bitonio (at the other guard position), along with the development of rookie Spencer Drango could make for a top ten offensive line. The Browns’ are beating Cooper will put in the work necessary to succeed week-to-week, while also remaining healthy. Considering the cost of acquisition, this is a bet with massive upside should it work out. Will we see consistency and development? Like a vast majority of the roster, that remains to be seen.