Amari Cooper was a Freshman All-American last season, finishing his first year in Tuscaloosa with 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns. On its own, for any player, that should be enough to strike fear in opposing defenses. But Cooper terrifies foes for an additional reason:
He's just scraping the surface of his potential.
As a sophomore, Cooper might become the best receiver in college football. He has a two-time BCS National Champion throwing his passes, a spate of great receivers by his side and another All-American candidate, running back T.J. Yeldon, occupying defenses in the backfield.
Often likened to Julio Jones, Cooper might be set up to exceed anything the former Alabama star ever accomplished in Tuscaloosa. But there a some things a defense can do against him—not necessarily to stop Cooper from dominating, but at least to contain him:
Safety Help is NOT Optional
This one sounds obvious, but it's surprising how often teams ignore it.
Because Alabama has an embarrassment of weapons, defenses frequently have to pick their own poison. You can't be everywhere on the field, and, in turn, there will usually be an Alabama player left in single coverage.
But that player cannot be Amari Cooper.
Here Auburn comes out in straight man, with no safety help over the top.
Instead, the Tigers keep two linebackers in the box, loading up to stop the run. But because Alabama was running a vertical route, it leaves them in no man's land during the play.
Auburn was showing respect to Alabama's running game, but doing so left two defenders guarding an unoccupied section of the field. And it also left Cooper, possessed of elite straight-line speed, running past his man for an easy touchdown.
The Tide's offense is far more aggressive than people give it credit for. Then again, the running game is just as dominant as its reputation. That's why Alabama is so hard to guard—but if a defense's goal is to stop Cooper, shading against the aggressive is a necessary concession.
Overplay Double Moves
Cooper is a complete receiver, or at least he has the tools to eventually become one. But right now, though capable on possession-type plays, his sole elite quality is going deep.
On the rare (and unfortunate) (and misguided) occasion when Cooper ends up in single coverage with no safety help, forcing him toward the middle of the field is the lesser of two evils—by a long shot. It keeps him underneath the defense, if only for a few seconds longer, and mitigates his potential for yardage.
Here's an example from the SEC Championship Game, perhaps the most well-played (and even) contest of the entire 2012 season. Alabama has the ball on the 45, trailing by three with 3:27 left in the game.
As you can see, Cooper is matched up on the outside with Damian Swann. Swann is a very good corner in his own right, but leaving him, or anyone, on an island with Cooper is dangerous.
Alabama runs a play-action pass, which catches Georgia biting since they're trying to keep the Tide out of field goal range. Cooper fakes and explodes on a double-move to the outside, leaving Swann flat-footed.
Swann's error is egregious, and against Cooper, it's also fatal. He has too much speed on the outside; if he catches a corner biting on his go-route, he will separate in an instant.
The cornerback must be willing to concede some yardage to Cooper—not on every down, but at least in one-safety man coverage. He has to overplay the deep ball, keep him underneath and frustrate him to no end.
Otherwise, he's playing into Cooper's strengths.
Winning in the Trenches
Those are the easiest ways to get burned by Cooper, and avoiding them is the easiest way to not. But as alluded to throughout the piece, they also run counterintuitive to stopping the run. Auburn had no deep safety because it was packing the box; Swann bit on a play fake before Cooper beat him deep.
Alabama is so hard to guard because even when you DO properly guard Cooper, it usually means T.J. Yeldon will have room to rip off a run. If we took screenshots of every time someone overplayed a double move or did employ deep safeties, Cooper might not dominate—but Alabama would still move the ball.
So the third way to stop Cooper is not best illustrated with media but with basic football philosophy: You Must Win in the Trenches.
No team can shut down Alabama's passing game unless its defensive line excels—not just to generate a pass rush on AJ McCarron, but also to stop the run without blitzing. It must stop the run in base packages and be confident in its ability to keep doing so, or else run the risk of Cooper beating it deep.
In the past, the years before last year, Alabama's offense was less explosive because they didn't have as many receiving threats. Even when Julio Jones played for the Tide, he wasn't surrounded by Kevin Norwood, Kenny Bell and Christion Jones. Teams could get away with playing lax coverage but shading it Jones' way.
With Cooper, they aren't as lucky.
Many teams gave Cooper a free run last year, whether through conceit (believing he wasn't good enough to burn its corner) or necessity (loading up to stop other weapons). He's proven enough to avoid seeing the first one in 2013, but he should still enjoy the second.
Only by stopping the Tide's other weapons, by negating that necessity to NOT focus on Cooper, will a defense ever be able to truly shut him down.
And that part, as you might imagine, is much easier said than done.
All screenshots via Youtube User: MockingNFLDraft