As the Eagles defense struggled through the start of the season, one of the questions that kept coming from fans and critics was this: what are they doing with Nnamdi Asomugha? Why not take a guy who excelled in man coverage and simply let him do what he’s had success with?
The answer was twofold: a few weeks back, Juan Castillo said zone allows a player to look back at the quarterback and make plays on the ball. Asomugha told a group of us that he enjoyed the variety because it let him play around the ball more often. When he is in man, Asomugha is locked on to one player. There’s a time and a place for that, Asomugha said in early October, but not always. In zone, he can break off and get more involved, even if the offense hasn’t targeted him directly. That’s what happened on his interception Sunday.
Here’s how he described the play after the game:
“We were in a zone, it’s called quarters, it’s a zone that we’re in and the receiver goes inside, then I can free up because the safety’s going to pick him up. So the receiver went inside and I freed up, just turned around and saw the ball and that’s it,” Asomugha said, giving a nod to Castillo. “It was the call, not like I jumped the route.”
And on a ball that didn’t go to his man, Asomugha was able to make a play, using his length and athleticism to great effect. Eagles coaches conceded that they maybe tried to feed Asomugha too much too soon, but after scaling back, they have begun putting more elements back on the cornerback’s plate.
As we wrote Sunday night, the defense finally seemed comfortable against the Cowboys, as did Asomugha, who played the multi-faceted role that was first envisioned for him, pressing on Dez Bryant at times, going to the slot, playing in zone and lining up where a linebacker might to cover tight end Jason Witten.
“(Castillo) has a great feeling for Nnamdi. They have great communication between the two of them. And Nnamdi's very honest now with what he feels comfortable with and what he doesn't feel comfortable with, and that's important. From a coach's standpoint, that's important,” said coach Andy Reid.
It makes sense to use a unique talent in unique ways. If a corner is elite – not just good, but among the best at his position – he should be able to play zone or man, which are each, after all, fairly standard parts of football. Asomugha is supposed to be elite and to his credit has shouldered the many responsibilities thrown his way without complaint.
(One other reason why it makes sense to move Asomugha: the Eagles leave Asante Samuel at left cornerback on all plays, so it’s not like they can just stick Asomugha on the opponents’ top receiver. If that WR goes to Samuel’s side, Asomugha is going to cover someone else. Zones give him a chance to stay involved even if he’s on a second-tier receiver).
To be sure, Asomugha had some mistakes in zone early, but maybe after a few weeks of feeling out the defense, it has started to fall into place.
“It felt like we were all playing better,” Asomugha said after the game. “The fact that we’re further into it now and we’re all getting a little more comfortable with the defense we’re able to show what we can do, we’re not thinking as much, we’re doing the stuff that we’ve been doing pretty much all year, it’s just now we’ve got a grasp of it a little bit more.”
Two other notes on the Eagles and their upcoming match up against the Bears after re-watching the Dallas game:
-- NBC did a great job illustrating how deep the Cowboys safeties were playing Sunday, giving the Eagles lots of room in the middle of the field. With the safeties and corners wary of DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, linebackers were left to cover Brent Celek and Jason Avant, helping explain how those two broke out for strong games.
What’s interesting this week is that the Bears used deep safeties to slow down the Eagles offense last season, generating a pass rush with their front four. Will they try the same tactic after seeing Celek and Avant go off? And if they instead bring their safeties in to mark Celek, do Jackson and Maclin respond with big games? Of note is that after Sean Lee got hurt the Cowboy linebackers in coverage were Keith Brooking and Bradie James. Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs should present tougher match ups.
-- Danny Watkins did well. He’s not a star at this early stage, but he wasn’t a liability either. The Eagles didn’t put a lot of pressure on him. Many of their runs went left, where Jason Peters holds down the edge. They’re not counting on Watkins to anchor the line. In the rare instances he went one-on-one with Jay Ratliff he had mixed results – holding his ground once, getting tossed off another time – but mostly when he was involved with the nose tackle Watkins was part of a double team. Instead, the team is asking Watkins to be a solid piece of the blocking unit as he learns, and this week, at least, he was up to the task. That’s a positive as he develops.