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Amari Cooper's impact; Chargers' swagger; waiting for Gronk

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  • By NFL.com
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As the 2018 NFL season rolls on into Week 11, NFL.com's network of reporters collects the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:

-- Marcus Peters' showdown with the Chiefs.

-- Why Casey Hayward thinks THIS Chargers team is different.

-- Tom Brady's anxious wait for Gronk's return.

DALLAS COWBOYS: Getting comfortable with Cooper. Whether the Cowboys' win over the Eagles last Sunday night was a season-changer will probably be determined by how the Cowboys fare against the Falcons this Sunday. No matter how it ends for the team and coach Jason Garrett, though, the Cowboys got at least one thing right this season: the big trade with the Oakland Raiders for receiver Amari Cooper has already made a difference, even though the Cowboys surrendered a first-round pick for him.

Against the Eagles, in his second game with the Cowboys, Cooper had six catches for 75 yards, and his presence is even helping running back Ezekiel Elliott, who rushed for 151 yards, with a per-carry mark of 7.9 yards, in that game. With Cooper, the Cowboys line up with three receivers, one tight end and one running back more often, preventing defenses from stacking the box to stop Elliott. With Cooper in that grouping for two weeks, Elliott has averaged 6.3 yards per run, compared to 4.1 yard per rush with that personnel grouping before Cooper arrived.

In Cooper's two Cowboys games, the offense has improved in nearly every important metric, jumping in passing yards per game (29th to 15th), passing touchdowns (28th to 15th) and third-down percentage (29th to 10th).

The impact of having a true No. 1 receiver has been most noticeable for Prescott. His completion percentage in Cooper's first two games is 70.1 percent, a huge jump from the 62.1 percent he was completing before the Cooper trade. Why? According to Next Gen Stats, Prescott doesn't have to throw into as many tight windows, when the targets have a yard or less of separation when the ball arrives, and his targets have significantly more separation from defenders with Cooper on the team. The average receiver separation before Cooper was just 2.2 yards, which was worst in the league. In the two weeks with Cooper, the average receiver separation was 3.0 yards, 11th-highest in the league. Before Cooper, Prescott threw 23.8 percent of his passes into tight windows. With Cooper, the percentage has plummeted to 6 percent.

-- Judy Battista

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KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Ford feeling fine with surgically repaired back. Chiefs pass rusher Dee Ford is tied for third in the NFL with 9 sacks and is tied for second in quarterback hits with 20. He told me recently that he has "caught people off guard" this season because of how quickly he recovered physically from spine surgery, which he underwent last year, mainly because of the magnitude of the surgery, which Ford described as something most guys don't come back from. He also revealed that it wasn't his first back surgery.

"A lot of people don't know that I had my first procedure in 2011 in college and came back and (coaches were) blown away when (they) saw me healthy," Ford said, of his return to the field from season-ending microdisectomy surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back while at Auburn. "So I knew the second time around, I'm even smarter this time around in how I process, train and take care of my body. I knew it would be the same result all over again."

Ford says the issues with his back should not return, and he feels as healthy as ever. Good news, considering he's currently in a contract year. Ford is loving his time in Kansas City right now, but he doesn't have a clue where he will be after this season, when his rookie contract will run out.

"I'm enjoying the process, and the results will take care of itself," the former first-round pick told me. "This is sports, so if it calls for me to be somewhere else, it is what it is. If I'm here, I'm here. Change is inevitable, so it's a business, and I'll be ready for whatever situation."

If he keeps playing the way he's playing, he should be rewarded handsomely, wherever he lands.

-- James Palmer

Chiefs not sweating Peters revenge game. The offseason trade that sent cornerback Marcus Peters from Kansas City to the Los Angeles Rams left many people wondering how the Chiefs' defense would fare without a two-time Pro Bowl cornerback. The way Peters has played this season -- a year in which he's been repeatedly burned by opposing wide receivers -- has made several of those same onlookers think the Chiefs got the better of that deal, which landed them a fourth-round pick in last year's draft and a second-rounder in 2019. Now the Rams and Chiefs will line up against each other in a meeting of 9-1 teams on Monday night.

One thing the Chiefs believe is that it doesn't matter how Peters has played until this point. He'll be ready, and so will they.

"He has seen all of our stuff and knows what we do," said Chiefs head coach Andy Reid. "We have seen him. You just end up going and playing, then. He plays, we do our thing and see what goes on there."

--Jeffri Chadiha

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LOS ANGELES CHARGERS: Riding high headed down the stretch. The Chargers have won six straight and are poised to welcome back star pass rusher Joey Bosa, who has not played yet this season while dealing with a foot injury. Expectations have grown, and players said that they are aware of the pitfalls of feeling too good about what they've done.

"We're clicking right now," cornerback Casey Hayward said. "We're making those plays. We can't look too far ahead."

Realistically, it would be impossible not to look toward the final stretch of the season, when players know they'll be immersed in divisional play. Regardless of records, division games are almost always competitive. The Chargers are done with the Raiders this season, but they still have three games left against AFC West foes, including the Broncos at home this week and trips to Kansas City in Week 15 and Denver in Week 17.

The Chargers have routinely teased potential dominance and fallen short in previous seasons, but Hayward, a seventh-year pro, said this version of the team is built for the grind.

"We've played some good teams and beaten them, but this next stretch is going to be very important," said Hayward, whose team entered the weekend second in the AFC West, behind the Chiefs, with a 7-2 record. "Last year, we started slow (3-5 in the first half) and ended up fast (6-2 in the second). This year, we've started fast, and we have to keep up the momentum. If we can win our next two games then look at the next stretch, we'll have put ourselves in good position, but we have to win this next game first."

Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said his defense, which lost sledgehammer inside linebacker Denzel Perryman to injured reserve with a knee injury this week, has a tough test against the Broncos, especially with regard to their running game. (The Broncos rank ninth in the league in rushing, while the Chargers' run defense ranks 17th.) They could use a variety of players to replace Perryman inside, including rookie safety Derwin James in sub-packages.

-- Steve Wyche

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LOS ANGELES RAMS: Dealing with a difficult week. The Rams have been dealing with both logistical and personal obstacles over the last week, and coach Sean McVay has done a great job of keeping his team focused. From heated moments on the sideline during last Sunday's victory against the Seahawks, to the mantra of accountability he continues to enforce among the players, McVay takes the reins in tough situations and leads by example. With wildfires burning in their backyard, a tragic shooting taking place in Thousand Oaks, California (the city in which the team has its practice facility) just days before that, and now the last-minute location change of their "Monday Night Football" showdown with the Chiefs, the Rams' organization has had plenty to navigate. The team received the news that Monday's game would be relocated from Mexico to Los Angeles after they arrived in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where they've been training at elevation to prepare for the conditions in Mexico City, which has a high elevation. Coach McVay decided to keep the team in Colorado and continue with the week of practice, even after learning of the venue change for the game.

When I asked McVay how this time away has served his squad, he said, "The last week has really made you appreciate the perspective that this gives you. What's so special about football is the brotherhood that you share with the teammates, the coaches, the rapport and just the camaraderie. There's nothing like it."

McVay credits his team for responding well. "To be able to go through some of these things, to also know that when you're going through real-life adversity outside of football, that you have a support system, you have people that care about you unconditionally -- that's what's real."

I spoke with Rams quarterback Jared Goff, whose father was a firefighter in Northern California, and he told me he's incredibly proud of how the organization and the Los Angeles community have come together during these tough times. In terms of the game being played at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum instead of Estadio Azteca, Goff said, "Being in Mexico would have been great, but being back in front of our home fans, especially after everything that's happened, will be special."

-- MJ Acosta

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NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Eager to see Gronk again. If Rob Gronkowski plays versus the Jets following New England's Week 11 bye, it'll be his first game in 27 days. The Patriots' all-world tight end has been merely pedestrian this year, hampered by injuries to both his back and ankle. He's appeared in seven games, catching 29 passes for 448 yards. He hasn't scored a touchdown since Week 1 and is below pace to hit all four of the incentives in his contract. That may weigh on Gronk's mind, but his quarterback -- the only one he wanted to play with -- is anxious for the 29-year-old's return.

"Whenever we get him back, I think everyone's going to be excited about that," said Tom Brady. "Hopefully it's soon, but those things are really up to him and the trainers and so forth. I know he works extremely hard at preparing, and I know he wants to be out there."

Gronkowski admitted this has been a trying year, and that watching himself on tape has been difficult. But Brady believes Gronk's presence uplifts not just him, but the entire team.

"Absolutely. I've played a lot of football with him, and I think I have a lot of trust and confidence, and a lot of things have happened over the years," said Brady. "When he's not there, there's just a different level with other players. Sometimes we don't try some things because Gronk's not in there ..."

The Pats' offense has sputtered in two of their last three games, and even their one solid performance -- a 31-17 victory over the Packers -- was marked by fits and starts. Getting a healthy Gronk back would no doubt breathe some more life into a unit that, when in harmony, is one of the best in the game -- just like the tight end himself.

-- Mike Giardi

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PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: Bad time for defensive struggles. The Eagles were forced to change their game plan defensively last Sunday night in their devastating 27-20 loss to the Cowboys. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz had a large number of blitzes planned, but he scratched them because A) they needed help in coverage and B) he thought the four-man rush was getting pressure.

Struggles in coverage could be an issue Sunday in New Orleans against the No. 1 scoring offense in football. The defense will need to show up against Drew Brees. In addition to generating pressure, the Eagles must fix their issues covering running backs in the passing game. Philadelphia has allowed the seventh-most receiving yards (476) and the fourth-most total yards after the catch (556) to players aligned in the backfield this season. The Saints' Alvin Kamara has the second-most receptions by a running back in his first 25 career games (136) since the 1970 merger.

Philadelphia must also start faster than it has to avoid trying to play catch-up against the Saints. The Eagles have scored a league-low 21 first-quarter points this season. In an attempt to get the struggling offense going last week, Doug Pederson decided to go up-tempo to create a spark. The problem with that was, it kept the Eagles from incorporating newly acquired receiver Golden Tate; with no-huddle and a lot of code words being used during those drives, it was best to keep Tate off the field, to avoid miscommunications or costly penalties. Pederson would love to see more than the 18 offensive snaps Tate played in his first ever game with the Eagles.

-- James Palmer

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