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Raiders quarterback Connor Cook will be feeling heat from NFL’s top defense in his first start

Connor Cook
Oakland Raiders quarterback Connor Cook passes against the Denver Broncos in the first half on Sunday. The Raiders are going with the rookie quarterback in their wild-card game against the Texans on Saturday.
(Jack Dempsey / Associated Press)

Adjusting to the speed of the NFL is a challenge for any rookie, but Oakland Raiders quarterback Connor Cook must feel as if he triple-clicked the fast-forward button.

After watching almost the entire season from the cocoon of the inactive list, Cook has seen his career progress at light speed in the past few days. Pressed into action because of a shoulder injury to Matt McGloin — who was starting in place of injured star Derek Carr — Cook will make the first start of his career Saturday at Houston.

In the first round of the playoffs. Against the NFL’s No. 1 defense.

“We’ll do the best we can to prepare him,” Raiders Coach Jack Del Rio said Wednesday in announcing the move. “The great thing about it is he’s been here, been in our system, mentally been engaged in what we do and how we do it all year. … There’s only so much you can catch up all at once.”

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A fourth-round pick from Michigan State, Cook was targeted in the draft by the Dallas Cowboys, but the Raiders traded up to one spot ahead of them and selected him. The Cowboys were left to select Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott, who might have been the steal of the draft.

Cook stayed almost entirely in the background this season. After the loss at Denver on Sunday, tackle Donald Penn confessed that until that game, he had never heard the rookie’s voice in the huddle.

Del Rio, looking for the good in a difficult situation, said he was impressed by the poise Cook showed in the 24-6 defeat to the Broncos.

“We didn’t have to start with learning how to be in a huddle and be under center,” the coach said. “He played in a big-time conference, and won a lot of games, very successful. All of that in the background is very good for him, and for us.”

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Cook completed 14 of 21 passes for 150 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

“I felt pretty calm,” Cook said Wednesday. “With hard circumstances just going in there and stuff, I felt like I was confident and I know the offense well. I’ve been in the system for almost a year now. We’re running stuff that I’ve been familiar with, so it was actually fun to go out there and get some reps.”

Asked if he’s had much practice time with standout receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, Cook said he has gotten “a little bit here and there” at practice.

“If it’s just routes on air [receivers running without defenders], if we’re doing quarterback drills and they’re just spot catching, stuff like that,” he said. “That’s really all the chemistry I’ve had with them, or opportunities to work with them in practice in drills like that.”

Now, they’re all on track to make memories, no matter what happens. Directed for most of the season by Carr, an NFL most-valuable-player candidate, the franchise reached the postseason for the first time since getting to the Super Bowl in 2002. Carr suffered a broken fibula in the second-to-last game, against Indianapolis.

In losing their finale at Denver, the Raiders also surrendered the AFC West title, No. 2 seed and first-round bye, with Kansas City claiming those.

Houston finished the regular season No. 1 in total defense, and No. 2 against the pass. A central figure for the Texans is linebacker Brian Cushing, a former USC standout. He has played through more than a dozen significant injuries in his career, including two broken bones in his back during the past month.

Oakland and Houston played in Mexico City earlier this season, with the Raiders winning, 27-20, thanks to two fourth-quarter touchdown passes by Carr.

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Even though they lost, the Texans played stifling run defense in that game, limiting the Raiders to 30 yards rushing. That will be key Saturday, because with the inexperience of Cook, the Raiders figure to be leaning on their running game more than usual.

The key, Cushing said, is “getting everybody involved in the run game, the defensive backs triggering when the running backs are bouncing on the edge, guys rallying to the ball.”

It all will be coming at Cook at a head-spinning rate.

“I think I’ve always been ready to go if they needed me,” he said. “There’s still so much to learn, so much for me to improve on.”

Ready or not, he’ll get his chance in the spotlight.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer

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