In some ways, the most notable Titans player from last Thursday's game against the Steelers was tight end Jared Cook. After a great start to the season where he was virtually the only part of the offense that was working, his role had been minimized the last couple weeks. Part of that was due to injury, but Matt Hasselbeck admitting after the Vikings game he should have looked for Cook earlier than he did. Cook during the week then had an at times uncomfortable radio appearance in Nashville.
When Thursday rolled around, I (and many others) were expecting a larger role for Cook. He finished with four catches on as many targets for 54 yards, including a 25-yard grab that set up the game-winning field goal. Three of those four targets came in the two-minute drill at the end of either half, though, which seemed to put the lie the idea that the Titans were looking to actually feature Cook.
Still, given everything that's happened with him lately, I thought it would be worth taking a look at Cook's day against the Steelers in more detail. So, after the jump, what I saw from Cook.
First, the running game. One of the things that may have been a problem with the Titans the last couple years is that they've been hamstrung into allowing personnel to dictate their playcalls. I first became concerned about this in 2010, when the Titans were stuck between running playside behind an ineffective Bo Scaife or letting teams overload the other side of the offensive line.
In the first half of Thursday's game, it seemed like the same concern would be quite valid. Almost invariably, Cook was the backside blocker as the play went away from him. He most commonly faced OLB Jason Worilds, though he also had James Harrison a couple times, and did fine on his non-crucial blocks.
As soon as I was ready to start ripping on Chris Palmer's predictable playcalling, though, it became clear that he was using alignments to create predictable tendencies he could then counter. In the second half, the Titans ran the ball behind Cook as an inline blocker. None of those four runs was in fact successful, though only once did he really bear responsibility for that failure, on a first down run that picked up two yards after Worilds was able to stand him up and a pulling Leroy Harris struggled to get around him. The other runs, well, something else went wrong.
In the passing game, well, my working hypothesis from last year is that Cook's production was going to be inherently inconsistent due to his role in the passing game. The Steelers game was a validation of that hypothesis.
One of the things I noted early last year with the Titans' offense is that a very high percentage (half or more) of Matt Hasselbeck's throws were to a single-covered Kenny Britt letting him make a play or to Nate Washington working in the middle of the field against the backside of coverage tilted toward Britt. The Steelers game was another example of this kind of thing.
The Steelers lined up primarily in a single-high look. Cook almost invariably lined up inside (he lined up outside only once), either inline, on the wing, or in the slot, and his routes normally kept him in the middle of the field. While he ran a curl route much more frequently than the seam that normally threatens a single-high safety, he still drew the attention, creating one-on-one opportunities for Britt. While he struggled to win those matchups, Kenny was still the Titans' most-targeted receiver because he had pretty favorable matchups, some of which were created by Cook's play.
One thing that surprised me about Cook's job in the passing game was how frequently he stayed in to block. As I've written before Chris Palmer is fundamentally a believer in a 5+1-man protection scheme who wants a lot of receivers out working against the defense. On four occasions, though, Cook stayed into block as part of a 7-man protection scheme. Granted, 4 times on 32 total pass plays with Cook in may not seem like a lot, but the Titans only went max-pro 4% of the time last year. Moreover, it happened 4 times on 12 third downs. To some extent, I'm sure that was a reaction to the Steelers' ability to bring creative pressure, but that's something I'll have to watch going forward.
I thought after Hasselbeck's and Cook's comments in the wake of the Vikings game that Palmer might try ways to intentionally target Cook, especially with the Steelers' non-Timmons linebackers not being particularly fleet of foot. His first target, a 6-yard grab in the red zone, came with him as the underneath waggle option on a bootleg, so you could say that's a play where he was targeted; Hasselbeck isn't going to run, and the underneath man is the most likely target for any throw.
After that catch, he wasn't targeted again until consecutive plays at the end of the first half. Both of them came when he lined up in what I termed the close slot, standing up but a slightly detached from the formation. The first came on a quick out that went for 4-yard on 2-and-1. Hasselbeck's pass did not allow for much YAC. On the second one, he ran a shallow cross, and the linebackers seemed to get confused-nobody picked him up and he got 19 big yards before safety Ryan Clark was able to knock him out of bounds.
Before those two grabs, there was, well, a play Ben Roethlisberger made that Matt Hasselbeck had no chance at making. It came in fact immediately after Roethlisberger long touchdown pass to Mike Wallace. Hasselbeck was pressure and stepped up into the pocket. So many times this game (and in many others), that sort of thing was a cue for Ben to find an open player downfield for a big gain. Well, here's what the scene looked like, with Cook and Hasselbeck highlighted.
Cook's defender has stepped up to respond to Hasselbeck's scramble threat, and the deep cross has come up. If Hasselbeck can keep his eyes downfield and get off a good throw, this is a huge gain and very possibly a 73-yard touchdown. Instead, Hasselbeck is under duress from a defender who's gotten away from Fernando Velasco and picks up 2 yards.
Fortunately, though, this wouldn't be the only time Cook would come open on a crossing route for a potential important play. Fast-forwarding to late in the game, it's time for a much more efficient play by Hasselbeck.
Cook isn't running free here the same way he is in the previous shot, but Hasselbeck has seen enough to know that he's cleared the underneath defender in the middle of the field. With the defenders on the right side of the field occupied by the receivers there, he's open and with a decent throw has plenty of room to run. Hasselbeck makes the right read and a good throw, and Cook picks up 25 yards. One short run later, Bironas hits the game-winner.
With Cook's productivity early in the season, I thought he might be starting to become a consistent week-to-week threat in the passing game and not the same sort of player whose production has fluctuated wildly in the past, going from 8 targets to 1 in any given week. He has been more consistent in a way, with at least 4 targets every week, but I think the Steelers game still shows the level of his production will be dictated in large part by the opposing team's scheme and how they choose to play against the Titans.
The big question with Cook is still whether he has a long-term future with the Titans. I've been leaning toward "no" on that question for a while, but it's a pretty soft lean. He's not grossly incompetent as a run-blocker the way he used to be, but at the same time he's not a great one, nor is he the sort of tight end who I think will regularly make plays in the passing game even against tight coverage. One of the concerns with him has been his adjustment to Chris Palmer's offense; I didn't write in this preview about how many of his curl routes should have been seam routes or vice versa, just because I can't really judge that. Breaking down this game didn't really help me get a more macro-level picture of where Cook stands, so my expectation is to see more of what we've already seen.