The Arizona Cardinals needed help at cornerback.
Every option the Cardinals explored in the preseason failed to pan out, and with the team lacking the requisite depth to enter the regular season feeling confident at the position, general manager Steve Keim made a move.
Keim called up Kansas City, and dealt a 2018 conditional draft pick for soon-to-be-waived Marcus Cooper, who arrived in Arizona with little fanfare.
All of that changed Sunday, as Cooper exploded on the scene with a pair of interceptions, including one he returned 60 yards for a touchdown, that led Arizona to a dominant defensive performance against Tampa Bay.
After Cooper's performance, we went back and looked at the All-22 film to see what enabled his success.
With the Cardinals ahead 7-0 in the second quarter, Cooper is on the field in what looks like a Cover-0 look from Arizona. The Buccaneers use three receivers to the left of Jameis Winston, and have one receiver and a back shaded to his right. With man coverage across the board and no high safeties, Cooper is the furthest Cardinal from the line of scrimmage at nine yards off the ball.
Cooper's responsibility on this second down and nine play is to play man coverage against Vincent Jackson, who is the inside slot receiver in the trips set. Immediately after the snap, Cooper settles into his drop, but doesn't allow the cushion between him and Jackson to grow. As soon as Jackson prepares to cut into an out route (a play that hurt the Cardinals throughout their week one contest against New England), Cooper has his eyes in the backfield reading Winston while feeling Jackson's route.
Jackson actually rounds off his route about two yards beyond the first down marker, but by the time Jackson is into his break, Cooper has already cut up the field in anticipation of a pass. This is great situational awareness from Cooper, who knows where Winston is trying to go with the ball and understands where Jackson is trying to take his route.
By the end of the play, Cooper looks like the receiver, because he was anticipating Winston's pass far ahead of the time Jackson even realized Winston threw the football. Because of this, Cooper makes the interception and then darts up the field on a 23-yard return that sets up a Cardinals' field goal.
With the Cardinals ahead 27-7, the Buccaneers were gaining offensive momentum in the third quarter through a successful use of screen plays. Head coach Dirk Koetter cut down on the yardage of Winston's throws and the reads Winston had to make, and that enabled Winston to be more successful for the first drive and a half for Tampa Bay in the second half.
However, the screen game became predictable, and with the ball at the Arizona 41-yard line, Tampa Bay broke out into an empty set with three receivers to the left and two receivers to the right. A trips set to the wide side of the field, as Tampa Bay has here, is an easy formation to attempt a screen from, because there's two additional receivers who can block and more square footage to work with from an offensive standpoint.
At the snap, defensive lineman Josh Mauro races up field and puts his hand up to block a screen attempt to the outside from Winston, which eventually leads to an interception. But regardless of whether Mauro put his hand up, this play was likely doomed from the start for Tampa Bay. That's because linebacker Deone Bucannon was playing in space, and he read the screen almost immediately off the snap.
Bucannon likely would have come up and stopped the screen, even though Tampa Bay was accounting for him with a blocker. The uncovered player for Tampa Bay was Cooper, who had a slot receiver and a lineman heading his way at the snap. Still, Cooper got a great read and likely would have been in position to make a one-on-one tackle if Bucannon was blocked because as you can see below, he was already moving forward toward the play.
The pass was tipped by Mauro, and then tipped by Charles Sims, and then snagged in the air by Cooper, who caught the ball in stride and raced 60 yards for a touchdown.
On both of Cooper's interceptions, he showed great anticipation skills, which is a necessity within a defense that uses a lot of man coverages. Cooper was on an island frequently in Sunday's contest, and he fared well because he reads the hips of receivers and shadows their movements. It's easier said than done, but Cooper represents an immediate upgrade over Williams as a pure cover corner.