New Orleans Saints

Patriots WR Brandin Cooks set to tee off on Saints

New England Patriots wide receiver Brandin Cooks watches play from the sideline during the second half of an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

I truly believe the New Orleans Saints are moving in the right direction on defense, and there were some promising takeaways from their game against the Minnesota Vikings, regardless of what the final box score suggests. A lot of their young players flashed dimensions of quality, and there should be a general understanding that it will take time for a unit starting three rookies, including two in the secondary, to reach a more consistent level of cohesion.

However, they may not be ready for the hellfire storm heading their way, as the New England Patriots come off a loss perhaps more focused than any other team in the league. Star receiver Brandin Cooks will likely have added incentive when he faces his former team. The revenge game factor should be in play after the fourth-year player was jettisoned for a late first-round pick this offseason.

Cooks caught three passes for 88 yards in his debut with the Patriots last week, including a 54-yard bomb he expertly tracked over his head despite defenders lurking around him. He’s a legitimate deep threat with the speed to get behind any corner, but Cooks doesn’t get enough credit for his ability to track and adjust to the ball downfield. He ran a slot fade and smoothly moved to Tom Brady’s back shoulder throw at one point in the game, making a tough catch despite tight coverage.

New Orleans may have an idea of how to defend Cooks best, but the reality is that New England will scheme ways for him to succeed, especially with Julian Edelman and Malcolm Mitchell out of the lineup. In the Patriots’ Erhardt-Perkins offense, the receivers must be diverse enough to play all over the field and still gain consistent separation. Cooks is a perfect fit in that way, with the quick releases and deep speed to challenge man coverage on the outside, while also offering the short-area explosiveness and nuanced route tree to find space in the slot as well.

Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Terrance Mitchell, left, keeps New England Patriots wide receiver Brandin Cooks (14) from catching a pass at the goal line during the second half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

(AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

The Saints’ young secondary is still getting acclimated to NFL game speed, a weakness which got them spanked on Monday Night Football by Sam Bradford. Rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore and safety Marcus Williams were probably the best two players in the secondary for New Orleans. Veteran Kenny Vaccaro struggled in deep coverage, and P.J. Williams looked overmatched against certain routes in the slot. With Delvin Breaux on injured reserve, undrafted free agent De’vante Harris was a clear weakness. You can bet New England will work hard to expose him on Sunday.

The Saints have two legitimate options: Let the corners play sides on the outside and keep Williams in the slot while hoping the group improves quickly, or have Lattimore shadow Cooks the entire game and force the Patriots’ other weapons — Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett and a host of talented backs — to beat them.

I loved Lattimore coming out of college, but asking a rookie making his second career start to eliminate one of the better receivers in the league is the definition of trial by fire.

Regardless of how the Saints choose to defend Cooks, I expect the veteran to have a big game against his former team. Vaccaro is the only returning starter in the secondary, and if Adam Thielen is popping off for nine catches and 157 yards receiving, Cooks is set up to have a field day. Even without Edelman, the Patriots have too much talent for the Saints to focus all of their efforts on Cooks. Gronkowski is bound to break out. New Orleans should be happy about the fact that the youngest talents in its secondary have flashed their potential consistently, but the reality is that this unit is far from peaking, and it’s about to run into a buzz saw this Sunday


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