SEATTLE — There were myriad elements that came together in the Rams' 42-7 victory over the Seahawks on Sunday. But one that cannot be underrated is Pharoh Cooper in the return game.
Los Angeles' return specialist has been elite in his roles all year and that continued during Sunday's game. Cooper racked up 180 return yards on Sunday — 128 on punts and another 52 on kicks. The South Carolina product had three punt returns of at least 25 yards in the first half against Seattle.
To put that in perspective, the Rams had only four punt returns go for at least 20 yards without penalty in 2016.
"All week we were expecting some big returns," Cooper said postgame.
Expectations turned into reality on Sunday, as the return game was key in helping the Rams have an average starting field position of the Seattle 42-yard line in the first half.
"He is getting a great feel as far as continuing to catch the ball clean and then understand how to set things up — avoiding some of those penalties on those plays for us and being able to flip the field consistently," head coach Sean McVay said. "It has been huge for our offense to be in that type of spot. Pharoh Cooper has done a great job and I have been very pleased with him this year."
"We kept getting it around the 50 and it felt pretty good," quarterback Jared Goff said. "Pharoh had a great day — probably his best day all year. But he has been tremendous all year for us and has done a great job in the return game and has found a little niche for himself there."
The first return he broke went for 53 yards — just short of a touchdown in the first quarter. Cooper nearly broke the plane to get in the end zone but was determined to be down by contact just inside the one-yard line. Running back Todd Gurley scored on the next play with a one-yard touchdown run.
"I think my knee hit the ground and the ball kind of bounced off, I thought I was in for a second but I think I was just short," Cooper said. "I am still a little upset with myself."
Any frustration Cooper had, he took it out on the Seahawks' punt coverage team. He took back a pair of 26-yard returns in the second quarter, each of which led to a Los Angeles touchdown.
"It was just like, the first one broke, came down the one, so it was like, 'Let's get another one, let's get another one," Cooper said.
It's one thing to register a 53-yard punt return, and another to get another of at least 25 yards. But three? Cooper admitted that he was somewhat surprised to keep getting opportunities to return.
"Yeah, I'm going to lie, I was kind of surprised," Cooper said. "I knew they were going to try and kick them short so they can let their cover teams get down the field a lot faster, but you know he kept just booting them far. That just kept giving us opportunities to make more plays. Everything that they are going to give us, we are going to take."
Cooper said that when he and the return unit are able to make those kinds of plays, he can feel the energy lift on the sideline.
"Our teams get hyped, then our offense sees that, you know that gives them momentum because they got a big return," Cooper said. "They see the guys on the sideline jumping — it gives them momentum to go out and make some more plays. It is always a great thing when we get big returns to set up the offense."
At Saturday’s latest update, Cooper was the NFC's Pro Bowl voting leader for return specialists, and could very well be headed to Orlando. And Sunday's performance in the Rams' biggest game of the season illustrates why he's earned that opportunity.
So what did it take for Cooper to get so comfortable in the role?
"Really just to trust and have confidence in my blockers," Cooper said. "They spring me free a lot of time. I do a great job of setting them up to get on their blocks. The confidence they give me back there for the return is everything. I know they are going to block their guys until the whistle and that gives me more confidence to make as many moves as I can and go."