LB Stephen Cooper (Rick Stewart/Getty)
After breaking for Indy, SDBoltReport.com continues its series examining the four most important Chargers players. After starting with Philip Rivers and Quentin Jammer, we’ll stay on the defensive side of the ball for Part III. This is a pick many fans will disagree with, but Chargers coaches offer no argument.
Stephen Cooper is one of the most indispensable players on the Chargers roster. He doesn’t always get recognized as such because he lacks the flash and sizzle of fellow linebackers Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips, but the fact is Cooper is the best three-down linebacker on the team.
No matter what criteria are used to judge a player, Cooper scores a high grade.
Cooper’s statistics are phenomenal. He averaged 8.16 tackles per game last season, a better rate than even Ray Lewis (7.31). He also led all linebackers with four interceptions, all of which came during San Diego’s four-game December winning streak that propelled the team into the playoffs.
The mental aspect of Cooper’s game is just as strong as the physical. He is in charge of calling the defensive plays and making adjustments based on what the opposing offense is doing.
Cooper’s work in the playoff matchup vs. the Indianapolis Colts was nothing short of sensational. The Chargers forced Peyton Manning to complete less than 60 percent of his passes, something none of the Colts' previous seven opponents were able to do.
Perhaps the real measure of a player’s value is the way his team performs in his absence. The Chargers started last season 0-2 while Cooper served his four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, and it is not an overstatement to say the team would have won both of those games with Cooper on the field. Both contests were lost in the final minute when the opponent made a big play over the middle of the field, exactly where No. 54 would have been.
The defense improved substantially when Cooper returned from suspension and took another step forward when Ron Rivera took over as coordinator after Week 8. Rivera simplified the play-calling and allowed Cooper to rely more on his instincts.
“[Rivera] made it real simple for us on defense to go out and play football,” Cooper said. “We just go out there and play whatever calls are made.”
Rivera, for one, has no problem with Jammer and Cooper being singled-out as two of the Chargers' pillars.
“I’m really partial to those two,” Rivera said.
To read about the team's first pillar, Philip Rivers, click here.
The read about the team's second pillar, Quentin Jammer, click here
Check back later this week for the team's fourth and final pillar.
Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003.