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BEN VOLIN | ON FOOTBALL

Brandin Cooks continues his hot start, and other Week 4 thoughts

Brandin Cooks has 452 yards and a touchdown on 26 catches through four games.
Brandin Cooks has 452 yards and a touchdown on 26 catches through four games. (Harry How/Getty)

Week 4 was a banner weekend for Patriots receivers — former ones, anyway.

Brandin Cooks was deemed not worth an $8.5 million salary in New England and was traded away to the Rams in the offseason. Jordan Matthews was released during training camp, unable to get on the practice field because of a lingering hamstring injury.

But both receivers looked productive last weekend. And it’s not as though the Patriots, ranked 22nd in the NFL in passing offense, couldn’t use the help.

The Patriots’ issues at wide receiver, and the debate around Cooks, lead off our NFL Week 4 review:

■   On Thursday night, Cooks had his fourth straight big game for the Rams, catching seven passes for 116 yards and a touchdown. And Sunday afternoon in Nashville, Matthews, signed recently by the Eagles, sure looked healthy enough when he blew past Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler for a 56-yard touchdown.

The Patriots could certainly use help at receiver. They have gotten just 396 yards from their wide receiver group, accounting for only 43 percent of their total passing yards. Both numbers rank 29th in the NFL, per Globe research. Julian Edelman’s return should be a significant boost to the offense, but the Patriots discarded a productive receiver in Cooks, and one who possibly could have contributed in Matthews.

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Cooks was good for the Patriots last year, catching 65 passes for 1,082 yards and seven touchdowns. But he has been an absolute superstar for the Rams, with 26 catches for 452 yards and a touchdown through four games — a pace for 104 catches, 1,808 yards, and four TDs.

Cooks’s performance has prompted a lot of debate about whether the Patriots should’ve kept him. But that shouldn’t be the debate.

What's cookin' A look at Cooks's stats in 2017 and so far this season.
Season Rec/G Yds/Rec Yds/G TDs/G YAC/Rec Catch % 1st down % 3rd down %
2017 4.1 16.6 67.6 0.44 3.7 57% 64.6% 27% (7 of 26, 7 conversions)
2018 6.5 17.4 113 0.25 5.4 78.8% 76.90% 67% (6 of 9, 4 conversions)
SOURCE: STATS Inc.

I was 100 percent in favor of the trade last offseason and still am. Cooks was not a great fit for the Patriots offense, as he didn’t fight for the ball on contested catches, didn’t show great awareness, and never quite got on the same page with Tom Brady on the option routes. He is a much better fit for the Rams’ run-first, play-action, deep-shot style of offense.

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The real issue: Why couldn’t the Patriots figure out a better way to use Cooks? His numbers are significantly better almost across the board this year, most notably his catch percentage and third-down percentage. Cooks has been as reliable for the Rams as he has been dynamic, which couldn’t always be said last year in New England.

I don’t blame the Patriots for trading Cooks, but I do wonder why they couldn’t make him a superstar the way the Rams are doing this year.

■   Speaking of the Rams, they have re-created the Greatest Show on Turf, ranking No. 1 in the NFL in total offense and No. 2 in points (35 per game). Two aspects of the offense stick out:

1. The distribution and balance of targets is fairly astounding. Robert Woods has 34 targets, Cooks has 33, and Cooper Kupp 32. Cooks has 26 catches, Woods and Kupp 24 each. They all are averaging better than 13 yards per catch, and catching more than 70 percent of their targets.

2. The Rams are top heavy. Their top four offensive weapons account for 89.3 percent of their total yardage: Todd Gurley (532), Cooks (468), Kupp (361), and Woods (342). They also account for 14 of the team’s 15 touchdowns. If one of them goes down with injury, it could have a significant effect on the offense.

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■   I understand what new Colts coach Frank Reich was trying to prove Sunday against the Texans. Facing a fourth and 4 from his own 43-yard line with just 27 seconds left in overtime, Reich went for the first down instead of punting and taking a sure tie. The Colts failed, the Texans took over in great field position and kicked a field goal with three seconds left.

“I mean, we’re not playing to tie,” Reich said. “We’re going for that 10 times out of 10. That’s just the way it’s got to roll.”

Reich was the Eagles’ offensive coordinator last year, and they won the Super Bowl because of their aggressive decision-making against the Patriots. And the Colts players seemed to universally support the decision to go for it, as Reich was showing confidence in them to make a play.

But Reich also sent a message to his team and his fan base: Setting a tone for the organization is more important than making the playoffs this year.

Because if the Colts are serious about qualifying for the playoffs, taking the tie was absolutely the way to go. Even if they had converted that fourth and 4, they’d still be at midfield with about 20 seconds to go, and victory was hardly assured. The downside to not converting — handing the ball to the Texans a few yards away from field goal range — was not worth the upside of going for it.

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The loss hurts them in the standings, as 1-3 is worse than 1-2-1, no matter how you slice it.

The decision might help the Colts in the long run, if it makes them believe in their coach and the program he’s building. But Reich is also telling his team that he’s worried more about setting a tone than maximizing the record.

■   Mike Vrabel also showed some fortitude, and it paid off in a big way for the Titans. Trailing, 23-20, in overtime to the Eagles, Vrabel eschewed a 50-yard game-tying field goal attempt and instead went for it on fourth and 2. Dion Lewis caught a 17-yard pass for the conversion, and four plays later, Marcus Mariota hit Corey Davis for the game-winning touchdown.

This was a great example of when to be aggressive — when the upside far outweighs the downside. Vrabel has the Titans at 3-1, and this first-time head coach looks like he knows what he’s doing.

■   NFL fans have been treated to a ton of free football this year, and if the first four weeks are an indication, more is coming.

Already, this year marks just the second time in 20 seasons that the league has seen two ties (2016). Week 4 saw three more overtime games, pushing the total to 12 this year. That’s a pace of 49 overtime games, which would be the most in the NFL since 2002 (50). The last four years have seen 28, 26, 42, and 22 overtime games.

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And the new OT rules — shortening the clock to 10 minutes, and giving both teams a chance with the ball unless there is an opening-possession touchdown — greatly increase the chances of more ties.

■   Tough weekend for rookie quarterbacks, with all four taking an L. Baker Mayfield threw for 295 yards and two touchdowns, but also had two interceptions and two lost fumbles in the Browns’ 45-42 loss to the Raiders. Sam Darnold completed just 50 percent of his passes for 167 yards in the Jets’ 31-12 loss to the Jaguars. Josh Allen was sacked seven times and threw for just 151 yards in the Bills’ shutout loss to the Packers. And Josh Rosen, in his first career start, threw for only 180 yards and a touchdown in the Cardinals’ 20-17 loss to the Seahawks.

It’s early, but so far, only Mayfield has shown that he’s a true franchise quarterback and has the talent to last for the long haul.

■   Remember when the NFL made a big deal about this new lowering-the-helmet rule in the preseason, calling it 51 times in the first two weeks? Apparently the league has decided to stop calling the rule altogether.

In the Raiders-Browns game Sunday, Marshawn Lynch looked to be a blatant offender, consistently lowering his helmet to ram into opponents for extra yardage. The Chiefs’ Kareem Hunt did the same Monday night against the Broncos. Their infractions were blatant, yet neither was flagged.

Per NFLPenalties.com, this penalty has been called just three times in four weeks. Glad we wasted all that time and energy on the rule back in training camp.

■   You will never see me criticize a player for holding out and fighting for a better contract, and that point was driven home yet again with the unfortunate injury suffered by Seahawks safety Earl Thomas.

He took plenty of heat from fans and media for holding out of training camp for a new contract. But the NFL is a business, and players have every right to look out for themselves, especially when their careers could end on any play, and teams will cut them the second their production no longer matches their contract.

Sure enough, Thomas suffered a fractured tibia Sunday, is out for the season, and now may lose value as a free agent next year.

So leave alone Thomas, Le’Veon Bell, and anyone else who holds out for a better contract. The window to make money in the NFL is short, and the players have many factors stacked against them.

Tracking ex-Patriots

■   Lewis has become a major weapon for the Titans in the passing game. He rushed only four times for zero yards in Sunday’s win, but he co-led the Titans with nine catches (on nine targets), for 66 yards. Lewis converted not only the crucial fourth down in overtime, but also a key fourth and 1 in the fourth quarter with an 11-yard catch. The Patriots sure could use Lewis’s dynamic skill set this year.

■   Butler can’t buy a break. He had a great game on the stat sheet — 10 tackles, a forced fumble, and a sack — but the only highlight most people saw was him being burned by Matthews for a 56-yard touchdown. It looked as though Butler expected safety help over the top and let Matthews run right past him.

It was the third touchdown in four weeks allowed by Butler, who is struggling to live up to the big contract the Titans gave him.

■   Miami’s Danny Amendola had just two catches on three targets for 21 yards against the Patriots. He’s not going to have a $6 million impact for the Dolphins, though the Patriots absolutely still miss him on third downs and in key situations.

■   Nate Solder and the Giants offensive line allowed three more sacks in a 33-18 loss to the Saints at home. Solder is just one piece, of course, but he hasn’t shored up that offensive line as hoped. The Giants have allowed 15 sacks this season, fifth-most in the NFL.

■   Adam Vinatieri is now the NFL’s kicking king. He made two more field goals Sunday to give him 567 for his career, two more than Hall of Famer Morten Andersen for the most in NFL history. Last Sunday’s game also was Vinatieri’s 341st, moving him past George Blanda for fourth all-time.

Quick hits

■   Bill O’Brien’s Houston team blew a 28-10 lead and was gifted a win by Reich. The Texans should be sitting at 0-4 or 0-3-1. This team is a mess, and Deshaun Watson, coming off a torn ACL, just doesn’t look right yet.

■   “Fitzmagic” was fun while it lasted, but no one should be surprised at Dirk Koetter’s decision to bench Ryan Fitzpatrick and turn back to Jameis Winston, who will start this week for Tampa Bay. Fitzpatrick was bound to turn into a pumpkin at some point, and the Bucs need to figure out whether Winston is the long-term answer.

■   Don’t blame the Browns loss on the officials and the questionable overturn of the spot. The Browns let the Raiders march down the field for the tying score, then allowed a 2-point conversion, then couldn’t get it done on offense or defense in overtime. No coach snatches defeat from the jaws of victory more than Hue Jackson.

■   Case Keenum isn’t the answer in Denver, and the Broncos should go hard after a quarterback in next year’s draft. They blew a 10-point lead Monday night against Kansas City, and per NFL Next Gen Stats, Keenum has a 78.1 completion percentage this season on “wide open throws,” the second-lowest rate in the NFL (Andy Dalton).

■   The Patriots’ Week 7 game at Chicago suddenly doesn’t look so easy. Khalil Mack has revived the Monsters of the Midway, who are No. 3 in the NFL in points allowed (16.2 per game), lead the league in sacks (18) and forced fumbles (8), and are allowing just 3.4 yards per rush attempt.

Our favorite stats and nuggets from Week 4

■   For the first time, five quarterbacks threw for 400 yards in the same week: Jared Goff (465), Andrew Luck (464), Derek Carr (437), Kirk Cousins (422), and Matt Ryan (419). In today’s pass-happy NFL, 400 is the new 300.

■   The Falcons, decimated by injuries on defense, became the first team since the 1966 Giants to lose consecutive games despite scoring at least 36 points.

■   Atlanta receiver Calvin Ridley, passed over by the Patriots in this year’s draft, has six touchdown catches, the most by a rookie through four games. The Patriots took Isaiah Wynn at No. 23, and Ridley went 26th.

■   Houston rookie receiver Keke Coutee, a fourth-round pick, had 11 catches for 109 yards in his debut. Only the Houston Oilers’ Sid Blanks (13 catches in 1964) had more catches in his NFL debut.

■   Philip Rivers now has 51,504 career passing yards, surpassing John Elway (51,475) for eighth-most in NFL history.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.