By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Brandin Cooks had his first big-time day as a Patriot last Sunday afternoon against the Texans. This coming weekend against the Panthers, the Patriots may need him to be even better.
The good news for New England is, he probably will.
Cooks’ performance on Sunday could actually come down to the ability of the Patriots’ offensive line to keep Tom Brady upright long enough for him to deliver the ball down the field, and that’s a legitimate question in light of how that unit has played so far. Led by Pro-Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short, the Panthers’ pass-rushing has been solid with eight sacks so far (tied for 12th) and the 10th-best “adjusted sack rate” according to Football Outsiders.
But the true strength of the Panthers defense so far has been their coverage, particularly by their excellent trio of linebackers. Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, and Shaq Thompson (one of our three Panthers players to watch on Sunday) will make Rob Gronkowski and the Patriots’ running backs grind for every last yard on Sunday.
That’s why Brady might have to lean on Cooks more than he has through the first three games. Because the Panthers secondary simply isn’t equipped to handle No. 14 down the field.
The starting cornerbacks for the Panthers, one of which will likely be lined up against Cooks at all times, are a pair of second year players who have had up-and-down seasons to this point. James Bradberry could have a bad time if he’s forced to defend against Cooks on deeper routes; his calling card is size and physicality. His only hope against Cooks is that he can consistently jam him at the line and beat him down with physicality, which is also possible. But in studying Bradberry on film, the Patriots almost certainly saw Saints receiver Ted Ginn get behind him rather easily for a 40-yard touchdown last Sunday.
If a good-but-not-great big-play guy like Ginn can toast Bradberry off the line like this, Cooks will leave him in the dust every time.
It’s also worth noting that the Panthers’ safeties have been abysmal so far this year, as Mike Adams and Kurt Coleman have averaged a heinous 48.5 grade from Pro Football Focus.
Covering Cooks won’t get much easier for cornerback Daryl Worley, who also boasts size at 6-foot-1 and 204 pounds. But like Bradberry, he won’t have the speed to keep up with Cooks in the open field. He can also be fooled by double-moves and play-action fakes, as he showed on this touchdown by the Saints’ Brandon Coleman. So perhaps even Chris Hogan can find the end zone against these guys.
Worley is also on the Panthers injury report with a shoulder injury and did not practice Wednesday or Thursday, so he might not even be a go for Sunday anyway. It’s likely that Brady and Cooks will see more of veteran corner Captain Munnerlyn. But with a dismal 48.5 grade from PFF and plummeting playing time (just 11 snaps last week), there’s little reason to believe that he would be any better against the 23-year-old Cooks.
UPDATE: Worley has been ruled out for Sunday’s game.
Ultimately, Bradberry is a much better fit in coverage against a receiver like Hogan and Munnerlyn simply appears to have lost a step. At some point, at least one of them is going to have to chase Cooks down the field. And that’s when he will have himself a day.
If Brady can get the time he needs to throw the football Cooks’ way, it’s likely that the wideout will be there for him. Considering how good the Panthers are in the front-seven, the quarterback is probably going to need it.
Matt Dolloff is a writer/producer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, CBS, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.