USC's Marqise Lee was the best wide receiver in college football last year, and barring something unforeseen, he will retain that title again in 2013.
He finished his sophomore season with 118 catches, 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns, earning First-Team All-American status and positioning himself to get selected in the top 5 of next April's 2014 NFL Draft.
But every lock has a key, and even though it may seem impossible, there are little ways to slow Marqise Lee down. Stopping him may be implausible, but containing him is not. You just can't play to his strengths.
Here are three of the best ways to slow down Marqise Lee, complete with specific examples of what happens when these guidelines aren't followed:
Use the Sideline:
Lee excels after the catch, taking short-to-medium passes and turning them into big gains. Sometimes it seems like 11 guys on defense just aren't enough to slow him down.
He also does most of his work in the middle of the field, which is rare for a homerun threat of his ilk. Those guys are usually known as "outside receivers" because they prefer to beat you deep. But Lee wants to beat his man inside first, then outrun him down the seam.
Because of that, a team's best bet of keeping Lee in check is keeping him away from the middle. Defenders must use the sideline as an extra defender, one that never misses a tackle once a player steps there. If not, Lee will almost always make them pay.
Take this play against Arizona last season. Lee is working in man against the Wildcats' Derrick Rainey. After a quick hesitation move, Lee gets inside position to work with him:
Immediately Rainey is at a disadvantage. There is safety help over the top (though we don't see him from this angle), and by forcing Lee outside, he could funnel him between himself, the safety and the sideline. Instead, Lee is one good route away from a big seam, which is exactly what he runs:
Now Lee has the ball, separation and 20 yards on each side of him to work with. Using his speed—of which he has a lot—he breaks away from Rainey and outruns the entire Wildcats defense to the endzone:
Making plays in the middle of the field is Marqise Lee's strength. And if you play into the strengths of someone that talented, you hardly ever stand a chance.
See the Ball:
Marqise Lee has phenomenal ball skills, using not just his size, but his vision to haul in passes. He always knows when the ball is in the air, and that enables him to bring down passes in traffic.
Even when a defender plays him properly—tight coverage, sees the ball—Lee makes extraordinary adjustments on the ball. Just like this huge 53-yard catch in the fourth quarter against Notre Dame last year:
Still, one of the most egregious sins a defensive back can commit is not turning to see the ball. It's tempting for a player to keep his eyes pinned on Lee—lest he shake free and get wide open—but if he sees Lee's head turned toward the ball, he needs to follow suit.
Take, for example, Lee's second tuchdown grab at Syracuse last year. He only gained 66 yards on 11 catches in that game, but caught three touchdowns because Syracuse couldn't guard him in the red zone.
Here's the second one. Barkley takes the snap from the four-yard line and Lee runs a simple fade. Once the ball is out, though, Lee recognizes it:
Lee turns his head back to the play, but the cornerback doesn't. He's playing with his back to the quarterback, trying to face-guard Lee from catching the ball. But Lee's vision is too good to fall victim to that. If the corner wants to defend a fade against him, he'll need to play the ball himself.
Which he doesn't...
Because Lee saw the ball, he was able to make adjustments. And he makes some of the best in-air adjustments in the game. The cornerback didn't see the ball and put himself at a fatal disadvantage.
A cornerback who did know where the ball was would have trouble breaking it up, but a cornerback who doesn't stands no chance at all.
Tackle With Discipline:
The simplest in concept is actually the hardest in practice. Marqise Lee does most of his damage after the catch, and he doesn't just run in straight lines. He loves to cut across the field and make east-west runs, leaving defenders in the wake of his shiftiness.
The only way to stop that is with disciplined tackling—players staying in their lanes and refusing to chase the ball. One reverse against Arizona State began like this last year:
A clear advantage for ASU, right? Lee is 11 yards in the backfield, and even if he broke free of Will Sutton, there are five more Sun Devils waiting to track him down.
Lee makes a few nifty moves and picks up a block, which allows him to get back to his own 48. He's still got two Sun Devils on both sides of him, which is good. But look at their depth:
The four ASU defenders are split into two groups, and both groups are standing right next to each other. They're swarming as individuals instead of as a unit. Look at the two white helmets to Marqise Lee's right—they're on top of each other. And look how much daylight there is around the outside!
Those defenders collide as one messy group—a group that Lee managed to shift out of, into the open space he sensed before.
From there he's in the clear, and with one useful cut block from quarterback Matt Barkley, he's turned the corner and sprinted down the sideline for a 38-yard gain:
If a team breaks contain against a guy like Lee—even on a "broken play"—he's gonna make them regret it every time. He's like Peter Baelish, thriving in entropy; chaos is his ladder, and he's gonna climb it into the opposition's endzone.
A team's best bet is to keep the ball out of Lee's hands entirely. But once he does get the ball, which he always will, they need to attack him in disciplined ranks. Taking the big play away from Lee is like forcing Manu Ginobili to go right.
Against players of that caliber, it's a defense's only hope.
All screenshots courtesy of YouTube user CaliforniasGold