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Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods lead rolling Rams WR corps

ATLANTA -- Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Brandin Cooks gently wiped away the beads of sweat pooling on his forehead, then thanked a nearby reporter for a brief interview last week. After that, he quickly tapped the cross dangling from his gold necklace and trotted toward the exit. Cooks was so focused on finishing his final day of practice before his team traveled to Super Bowl LIII that he didn't realize his cell phone remained on the floor, right underneath the chair he'd just been sitting in. When the reporter signaled that Cooks had left his device behind -- and then reminded him that he shouldn't lose something so precious at a time when Cooks was surely receiving many calls -- the star wideout chuckled and shook his head. "That's why you have a little button on here called 'block,' " Cooks said.

Cooks knows full well what comes with preparing for a Super Bowl, given that this is his second straight year on the game's biggest stage. There are all sorts of distractions -- from arranging travel for family to figuring out ticket allotments to dealing with all the extra interview requests that come with being a member of one of the last two teams left in the NFL postseason. As Cooks revealed at the end of that interview, he's also quite aware of how vital it is to focus on what really matters in the days leading up to this game. That means spending ample time preparing to attack the New England Patriots in the same manner he and his fellow receivers have gone after all their opponents this year.

Of all the interesting matchups in this year's Super Bowl, the one pitting the Rams' wide receivers against the Patriots' defensive backs will be among the most intriguing. New England just stifled two of the best pass-catchers in football -- Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill -- in their AFC Championship Game win over the Chiefs. Los Angeles has utilized targets like Cooks, Robert Woods and Josh Reynolds to produce one of the most explosive offenses in the league. In other words, something has to give here.

Given the way the Rams wideouts have performed all season, it's fair to assume they'll make more than a few plays in this contest.

"We all can do everything," Cooks said. "There's not just one particular guy doing one particular thing. I think that's what makes this offense special. [Rams head coach Sean McVay] is able to put us in different positions to attack in different ways, so to be able to have guys that can run a complete route tree is huge for us. That's what separates us."

There is no secret to what makes the Rams' receivers so dangerous. McVay prefers to run most of his offense out of three-receiver formations, usually with his wideouts bunched together on one side of the field. That tactic often allows L.A. to utilize crossing routes to create separation and to take advantage of the play-action fakes quarterback Jared Goff can unleash with the threat of running backs like Pro Bowler Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson. The most commonly heard assessment of the Rams' system is that their receivers are quite adept at making every play look exactly the same.

Los Angeles has been so prolific this year that both Woods (86 receptions, 1,219 yards and six touchdowns) and Cooks (80 catches, 1,204 yards and five touchdowns) had the best seasons of their respective careers. The Rams actually had a great chance of producing three 1,000-yard receivers before Cooper Kupptore the ACL in his left knee midway through the season. Kupp had 40 catches for 566 yards and six touchdowns in eight games before his season-ending injury. Reynolds replaced him in the lineup and finished the regular season with 29 receptions for 402 yards and five scores.

It says plenty that the Rams could lose a weapon like Kupp and continue rolling. As Woods said, "We take pride in our work. We're getting the extra work in. We're working on our timing, working on our routes, and we try not to let the ball hit the ground. If the ball touches the ground, then something must be wrong with the ball."

"Those guys have been playing with each other the whole season," Patriots safety Patrick Chung said. "They're definitely working with each other, and they know how to hide tendencies. They know how to do their thing. If you're working with someone for so many games, for so long a period of time, you're eventually going to start to mesh and be able to jell. They've definitely jelled."

What makes the Rams receivers even more appealing is the lack of diva in them. Woods takes as much pride in his downfield blocking -- something he learned while spending the first four seasons of his career in a run-heavy offense in Buffalo -- as he does big plays in the passing game. Undaunted by the task of replacing Kupp, Reynolds posted a season-high 80 yards on six receptions in his first start after Kupp's injury (L.A.'s epic 54-51 win over Kansas City on Nov. 19). The Rams also wouldn't be in this game if Cooks hadn't been so clutch in a 26-23 overtime win over New Orleans in the NFC title match.

When the Rams trailed 13-3 late in the first half, Goff hit Cooks for two huge completions -- one for 17 yards on third-and-10 and the other for 36 yards -- to set up a 6-yard touchdown run by Todd Gurley that cut the deficit to three. The biggest play Cooks made in overtime was actually a drop. He intentionally mishandled a throw from Goff on a bubble screen that, if caught, would've resulted in a significant yardage loss. Given that Greg Zuerlein won the game on a 57-yard field goal on the next play, that decision by Cooks made that impressive boot a tad easier.

Even Goff didn't know how smart the play was until long after the Rams had won.

"I wasn't aware that he did it intentionally," Goff said. "I found out afterwards that it was a good decision. I probably should've thrown it at his feet, but he saved us about 4 yards on that kick."

Not much surprises the Rams about their receivers these days, especially not when it comes to Cooks and Woods. They are a huge part of the chemistry that has become the trademark of this passing attack, largely because there are some similarities in their backgrounds. They're both California natives (Cooks is from Stockton, while Woods grew up in Carson). They both became All-Americans at Pac-12 schools (Cooks at Oregon State, Woods at USC). They also understand plenty about losing a loved one.

Cooks' father, Worth Cooks Sr., died of a heart attack when Brandin was just 6 years old. Brandin's mother, Andrea, subsequently raised Brandin and his three brothers after that tragedy. Woods watched his older sister, Olivia, battle cancer for three years as a teenager before she died at age 17. Though Woods was the most prominent athlete in the family, he still credits Olivia for teaching him how to compete, be a role model and, most importantly, fight through adversity.

On the day before she died, Woods sat in his sister's room and listened as she implored him to be the kind of athlete others would want to follow.

"Her perseverance, her strength, her battle has gotten me to this point," Woods said. "She taught me to just keep pushing, keep battling. There's nothing that I'm going through that can match what she went through."

Both Woods and Cooks had to face their own different challenges once they entered the NFL. Woods was a second-round pick by Buffalo in the 2013 NFL Draft, a prolific talent who amassed 252 receptions in just three years at USC. He wound up mired in a conservative offense that never came close to maximizing his potential. In four seasons with the Bills, Woods only logged more than 51 receptions once, and he never surpassed the 700-yard mark.

Cooks, a first-round pick of the Saints in 2014, had a different problem: He couldn't convince anyone to hold on to him. After producing two 1,100-yard seasons in three years with New Orleans, the Saintstraded him to the Patriots in 2017. Cooks caught 65 passes for 1,082 yards and seven touchdowns in his first season in New England -- and then the Pats dealt him to Los Angeles during the ensuing offseason. It didn't take the Rams long to understand what they had on their hands, as all that transition never fazed Cooks.

Goff saw plenty that he liked when he worked out with Cooks during organized team activities last spring.

"The way you can tell if a receiver and I are going to jell is by the way he tracks the deep ball," Goff said. "It's something you can't really teach or drill into a guy. It's just something you either have or you don't from a young age, and he has it. When a guy can do that, you can have a little room for error as a quarterback. When I can throw a deep ball without exact perfection and he can go get it, it causes that chemistry to go up."

"There was not one doubt in my mind that I can play this game at a high level and be one of the best receivers out there," said Cooks, who signed a five-year, $81 million extension in July. "Each of those times (that he was traded), it just gave me more motivation to keep going. I know I had stuff to work on. But at the end of the day, I knew I could play this game at the highest level."

With Woods having signed as a free agent in 2017, the offense had the weapons McVay needed to work his own magic in Year 2 of his tenure as head coach. Woods said McVay's creativity was a big reason why he wanted to sign with the Rams in the first place, even before McVay had coached a game with the team, which had moved from St. Louis in 2016. He had watched McVay as an assistant in Washington and noted how much the receivers thrived in that system. Given all the talent the Rams were assembling, there was no reason for them to operate any differently.

So after leading the league in scoring in 2017, the Rams set their sights even higher in '18. That meant putting the ball in the hands of their playmakers by any means necessary, whether that was on traditional pass routes or bubble screens or reverses.

"We had our first introduction to McVay (last year), with him installing this offense, leaving for the offseason and then coming back to training camp with a whole new twist on this (system)," said Woods, who had 56 receptions for 781 yards and five touchdowns in his first season in Los Angeles. "Coming into training camp, you had a whole new offense designed to your play and how you move and being able to create matchups with our speed, our motion (and) our shifts. He knows how to get us matchups any way possible."

"Each team runs some type of missile motion," Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. "The Rams make it tough because it could be Cooks, it could be Woods, it could be anybody that they have over there that they've run it with. That kind of makes it tough [because] it comes from both sides, to the tight end, away from the tight end. A lot of times, it's just [about] gang tackling."

The Patriots don't believe there's any unique advantage in knowing Cooks from his days with that franchise. They respect his speed and big-play ability, but they recognize that he's being used differently in the Rams' system. Cooks is just as quick to point out that he doesn't attach any special significance to this Super Bowl because he's playing a former team. He enjoyed his time in New England. Now he has a chance to win a championship with another franchise.

In fact, the only advice Cooks has offered Woods and other teammates is straightforward: Just play within yourself.

"Don't try to do anything out of the ordinary," Cooks said when asked about his advice to his fellow Rams. "Continue to trust your process, and if you truly believe that, you don't need to get into the game and try new things or new moves. I learned from my mistakes, so I'm glad I'm able to just share them with my guys."

One of those mistakes Cooks referred to involved his last play in a 41-33 loss to Philadelphia in Super Bowl LII. In that contest, he caught a pass from Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, then whirled around to evade a defender and find some open space. That decision might have worked out better if Cooks had seen Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins bearing down on him. Jenkins barreled into Cooks, knocking him out of the game with a head injury just a few minutes into the second quarter. In his Super Bowl debut, Cooks logged just one catch on two targets.

The only thing worse than not finishing that game for Cooks -- who said he felt like he disappointed the Patriots by not being available for the entire contest -- was losing it. Now that he's part of a vaunted receiving corps that has helped the Rams reach their first Super Bowl since the 2001 season, he's hoping things end much differently.

"I don't believe in revenge," Cooks said. "We had such a great relationship -- [Patriots coach Bill Belichick] and I -- and he blessed me by sending me to a special organization. So there's no bad blood. Winning a world championship alone will mean everything, just because of having a great group of guys. As far as who we beat or who we play, it really doesn't matter. I'm not thinking about any of that."

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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