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Tall, rangy receivers stretch the passing game

At first, a Nick Foles pass in the second quarter of Sunday's win over the Arizona Cardinals appeared to have a better chance of hitting the chain crew than wide receiver Riley Cooper.

Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper. (Matt Rourke/AP)
Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper. (Matt Rourke/AP)Read more

At first, a Nick Foles pass in the second quarter of Sunday's win over the Arizona Cardinals appeared to have a better chance of hitting the chain crew than wide receiver Riley Cooper.

But Cooper, who is 6-foot-3 with long arms, extended his right hand and grabbed the nose of the ball as it sailed overhead. Cooper spun away from a defender for a 24-yard gain on a highlight-reel catch that offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur described as "awesome."

"Next time I'll throw him an easier ball, but he'll get some good pictures out of it," Foles said. "It'll probably be the backdrop of his phone for a while."

For the record, Cooper eschews cellphone photos. However, discussion of the play highlighted a popular term being used at the NovaCare Complex on Tuesday.

Foles complimented Cooper's "radius" on the catch. Earlier in the day, at the Eagles' first practice leading up to Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions, defensive coordinator Bill Davis said that Lions receiver Calvin Johnson's "catch radius is second to none."

The "catch radius" is the distance a receiver can stretch for a ball. Not every pass hits the target between the numbers. And depending on the coverage, not every pass should be directed there. A long catch radius is especially beneficial in the red zone, where it can be used to advantage in jump-ball and fade situations.

On Sunday's pass to Cooper, Foles said, the ball was a "little bit higher" than he wanted to throw it, but he knew he could put it in that spot to avoid danger and allow Cooper a chance to make a play.

"It gives you a lot more freedom with passes, especially deep balls," Foles said. "Most of the time you know [receivers] are going to be bigger than the DBs, so you can really throw it out there if you put height on it and let them make a play. Most of the time, the worst thing that can happen is the ball will be incomplete. But more than often, he's going to make a play, and he's going to make a big one."

Johnson has more than catch radius going for him, but it stands out to Davis because it encompasses so many physical qualities. Johnson is 6-5 and once ran the 40-yard dash in 4.35 seconds at 239 pounds. He also has a 421/2-inch vertical leap. The size, speed, and leaping ability allow Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford a lot of space to throw the ball to Johnson.

Johnson is not the only Lions receiver with a big catch radius. Stafford has 27 touchdown passes this season, including 19 in the red zone. Eight of those red-zone scores went to Johnson. Five went to rookie tight end Joseph Fauria, who is 6-7. Two went to Kris Durham, who is 6-6, and two more to Brandon Pettigrew, who is 6-5.

"There's a lot of different ways you can help yourself there, and then at then at the end of the day, 6-5 is 6-5, and 6-7 is 6-7," Davis said. "You can't always jump up and be at the higher position than they are, but you can do little things like rip their arms down and get the ball where it's not a two-hand catch. It has to be a one-hand catch after the ball."

This is a strategy that cornerback Cary Williams uses. Williams is 6-1, which is tall for a cornerback. But he's giving away size to many of the pass catchers on Detroit's roster. Williams said the key is playing the hands, because the receiver must "bring it back to their body at some point." If he can keep the receiver from getting two hands on the ball, the catch becomes more difficult.

"Radius makes a huge difference and is a huge deal," Williams said. "But if we're physical at the point of the catch, that's going to pay dividends."

The Eagles feature Cooper, Zach Ertz, and Brent Celek, all of whom have a big catch radius. Yet the team's most prolific receiver is DeSean Jackson, who is 5-10.

Jackson compensates with elite speed, which is a different kind of catch radius: He can chase after a ball that is thrown ahead of him. But he still wouldn't have been able to catch the pass that Foles volunteered for the wallpaper on Cooper's phone.

"That's definitely an advantage, having a bigger target," Cooper said. "I'm not going to say bigger target is better, but when you are a bigger target, there is more room for error."