Time for a positive X's and O's. Or at least I think it will be. We'll start where we always start, with my thoughts prior to watching any of the film.
I think Cooper is perfectly fitted to be a 3-4 ILB. He's smart, he's good in coverage and he's strong enough to be considered a run-stopper as well. The only thing he lacks is the sideline-to-sideline speed that would be necessary to play MLB in a 4-3 defense. Outside of his failed drug test getting him suspended for the first four games in 2008, I don't know that Cooper showed a flaw in his game last season. I think, going into this, that the only thing that could improve Cooper's game is experience and a better player standing next to him. While the ILB spots are not the most crucial to the defense's success, having one or two weak players in the middle of your defense could be disastrous.
Now, onto the stats. After that, the film. Since it undoubtedly took a few weeks for Cooper to work himself into game shape, I'll be watching tape of games played after the Week 9 Bye.
Stats: In only 12 games, Stephen Cooper managed to collect 98 total tackles. If he would've played at this pace or 16 games, he would've ended up with a little more than 130 tackles. In only 3 games during Weeks 14-16, Cooper intercepted 4 passes. Stephen's season-high number of tackles (13) came in the playoff game against the Steelers, showing that he is not afraid of the big-time games. Surprisingly, in his first two seasons as the Chargers starting ILB, there has been only a very small statistical drop-off between Donnie Edwards and Stephen Cooper (who was a special teams standout prior to Edwards being released). Considering the differences in their age (Cooper is 30, Edwards is 36) and Edwards dislike for the Chargers front office, I believe the right move was made.
What the Tape Says: I'll start with some disappointing news. There is just no way to capture the Inside Linebacker position with pictures. With Clary, it was easy to capture what was going on because on running plays and passing plays the camera stayed watching the line for a while. With Hart I was able to capture some long passing plays down the field. While watching Stephen Cooper it became evident that the plays in which he stayed in the frame (mostly running plays) were mostly uneventful. You'd end up with a bunch of pictures of Cooper getting blocked. On passing plays that he was involved with, since they were in the middle of the field and usually only 7-8 yards in front of the line of scrimmage, they were typically over by time the camera got there and was stabilized. It would be impossible to me to try and capture images to show you where Cooper was and where he was supposed to be. So while there's one picture mixed in here, you're going to have to take my word on the rest of the info written about Cooper. If I have the time and there's enough of an outcry for pictures to back up the points made, I'll do a follow-up post. Now, onto what I saw:
My favorite thing about doing these X's and O's posts is that I always catch something that I wasn't expecting, both about the player I'm looking at and otherwise. On the side of things that I caught that didn't really have anything to do with Stephen Cooper:
- Shaun Phillips is really good. It's kindof a shame that he's not getting any respect because Merriman was gone in 2008. After watching him on tape for a while now, he's our best linebacker. Not the best pass-rusher, that's obviously Merriman, but Phillips is the best linebacker. He's similar to Adalius Thomas in all of the things he can do well. He could probably play SS if we really wanted him to. Now that he's in the hands/system of a creative defensive coordinator, you're going to see how talented he is.
- Ron Rivera's hands are all over the defense in the last few games of 2008. On some plays Shaun Phillips is playing nickel. On others, Antwan Applewhite is playing a "Joker" position which is similar to a QB spy but is sneaky in it's pass-rushing abilities as well. I think English or Phillips will be playing a lot of "Joker" this year. Phillips would be better at it. Also, I saw some plays where Cooper played centerfield (basically as a safety covering the middle of the field) and the defense basically was a big moving puzzle. The Broncos, with as good an offense as they had last year, never figured it out. The Chargers will have some kind of dynamic defense in 2009.
Okay, now the stuff that is related to Cooper. It pains me to say this, but Stephen is not as great as I had originally thought. Perhaps I had my expectations too high, but the man has some gaping holes in his game. Let's go over them one-by-one before we get to his strengths:
Zone Coverage: This one is a hard thing to break down for a couple of reasons. One, typically a second or two after the ball is snapped Cooper has backpedaled out of the picture. When the ball is thrown to a receiver in the middle of the field, I can estimate by where he is whether or not he's in the right position. However, that's the best I can do. Going on that alone, Cooper is not very good at zone coverage. When the ball is thrown to a tight end or receiver over the middle, Cooper should be breaking up that pass or laying the lumber on the receiver and that happens very rarely. BUT, this could be swayed by the second factor: teams seem to avoid throwing to the middle of the field when he's in zone coverage there. Is it because he's good that they're avoiding him? Quite possibly. It could be the only time they will throw to the middle of the field is when he's not there or when he's made a mistake, which makes him look bad on the game tape that I'm watching. Without seeing where he is on the passes that are not made, relative to the receiver or zone he's covering, it's tough to know. If I were to give a slightly-educated guess, it appears to me that Cooper plays smart on the field and is OK, but not great at zone. If zone coverage is a weakness in his game, it would help to explain the Kevin Burnett signing. Very rarely do you need both ILBs playing zone over the middle. If one is doing that, the other is free to rush the passer or double a slot receiver (or sometimes play centerfield). I think this season, Burnett will handle the majority of the zone coverage over the middle.
This is one of the formations I was talking about with Rivera by the way. You'll see there are three down linemen, with Applewhite playing the "Joker" position between NT and RDE. Cromartie, Cooper and Jammer are playing zone for the left, middle and right sides of the field. Weddle is lined up in man on Royal in the slot and Cason is at the end of the line ready to jam Brandon Marshall. Gregory and Oliver are providing deep Cover 2 (out of the picture). I won't show you the rest of this play because at this point this game was a blowout, but Cooper blew the middle-coverage by focusing too much of Putzier and allowing Marshall a wide-open catch after getting off the line and past Cason.
Man Coverage: Man coverage is easier to identify and break down than zone coverage. Cooper does a great job on man, using his size and strength to muscle himself in the way of the ball. Similar to his play in zone, you can often see quarterbacks shying away from throwing to the player Cooper is covering (keep in mind that the games I'm watching are late in the season, when he got a bunch of interceptions). The only things Cooper has to work on as far as pass coverage is concerned are play-action fakes, which he bites on almost every time, and quick slants. Like a lot of defensive players, Cooper waits to see what happens in the first second after the snap to decide what he's going to do. Basically, he does not "read" the receiver but instead "follows" him. This is not a major weakness, because he's a linebacker and not a corner. However, The Chiefs (in their Pistol formation) used this to their advantage by throwing quick slant after quick slant to Gonzalez and Bowe right next to Cooper. It's not something he should be expected to do, but it's a way in which he can try to improve. It's me being nitpicky really.
Blitzing: A dedication to his move at the snap rather than a second after would also help his blitzing. I have yet to see a play where Cooper ends up in the backfield (unless he's coming around the outside on a pass rush or they forget to block him). By time he sees a run or decides to rush up the middle, a blocker has seen him and is in the proper stance to receive him. More times than once this has led to a big play for the opposition, with Cooper being blocked and a running back run right by him. Getting caught up with a blocker for a second might be okay for a linebacker with great speed, but Cooper seems slower than most of the RBs we face and cannot afford to be playing catchup with them. The other thing that hurts him as a blitzer is the lack of any move. He's not strong enough for the bullrush (a Merriman special) and he's not quick enough for a spin or swim move. Cooper brings almost nothing to the table as a pass-rusher up the middle.
Tackling: This Cooper can do. He has upper-body strength to spare and uses it well. If a ball-carrier gets within five yards of him and Stephen's not chasing him from behind, that guy is going down. The tackles are not necessarily jarring, but he does a good job of wrapping up and bringing the ball-carrier to the ground. You really can't ask for anything else.
Positioning: Here is Cooper's bread-and-butter. He stops rushes not because of his speed or overpowering strength, but because he's good at reading the direction of a play and he's patient. He could do a better job at reading blockers while going after the ballcarrier (he gets blind-sided a fair amount), but he fits the job description for a 3-4 Inside Linebacker well. Stay in your lane, wait for the play to come to you and make the tackle. Have good enough hands to scare QBs from throwing over the middle in zone coverage.
Summary: So I was wrong. I thought Cooper was probably the best 3-4 Inside Linebacker in the league. Actually, he still may be, but he has flaws in his game. Dobbins is a better a better pass-rusher and run-stopper, partly because he is better at the bullrush and partly because he reads the snapcount and jumps into the backfield from time to time. However, Dobbins is lost in zone coverage and falls even further behind receivers using the same "Follow" technique as Cooper. Dobbins also relies more on his strength and speed than positioning, which will lead to more mistakes...especially if he's injured. Cooper, in my mind, is always compared to Donnie Edwards and in that comparison he breaks about even. He's stronger and plays the run better, but Donnie played the ILB position like a cornerback or safety and had great success against the pass. They're about equal in their positioning and patience.
My final evaluation of Stephen Cooper is that he's a grinder that's good at a lot of things but not great at any one thing. In the right kind of defense, he could accomplish even more than he did in 2008. With a great rush off the edges like the Chargers had in 2007, there will be more holes in the middle of the line for him to rush the passer. Also, there will be less time for receivers to create space by running away from him if the quarterback only has two seconds before getting sacked. So, just like the answer to every defensive problem, Cooper can get better with a pass rush. The signing of Kevin Burnett is one that will benefit him as well. He can learn from Burnett about coverage, but at the same time he'll be freed up to push the pocket or sniff out a run and his jumping on play-action will have less of an impact on the rest of the defense. I actually think if Burnett is as good in coverage as he's rumored to be, that in the formation picture above he'll take the place of Cooper (playing "centerfield) and English will take Applewhite's place as the Joker. So maybe that wouldn't benefit Cooper as much. We'll see.