A marquee receiver vs. corner matchup. When did we last witness one of those, in the barren, desolate post-Chip Kelly era of Eagles wideout talent?
But there we sat Wednesday, listening to Doug Pederson say he expects the Washington Redskins to assign shutdown corner Josh Norman to follow Alshon Jeffery around the Eagles’ formation when the teams open their 2017 seasons Sunday at FedEx Field.
(A little while later, on a conference call with Philadelphia-area reporters, Washington coach Jay Gruden said he hadn’t decided that yet. Then Gruden either snickered or snorted into the speakerphone. Perhaps both.)
But one thing reported out of Washington’s spring work was the decision to let Norman have the opposition’s top receiver this year when the Redskins are in man coverage, instead of keeping Norman on one side. So we’re going to proceed here upon Pederson’s assumption.
Jeffery (6-3, 218), who signed with the Eagles as a free agent in the offseason, has faced Norman (6-feet, 200) twice before. Last Christmas Eve, Washington romped past Jeffery and the Chicago Bears, 41-21, with Jeffery catching five passes on 10 targets, for 92 yards. In 2014, Norman and the Carolina Panthers defeated Jeffery and the Bears, 31-24, with Jeffery catching six balls on seven targets, for 97 yards and a touchdown.
Pederson said he went back and watched all of Jeffery’s targets in the Christmas Eve game, to see how Norman played Jeffery, and the routes the Bears used.
“There’s good and bad on the film … It’s not a highlight film, by any means,” Pederson said. “Alshon won his share. Josh Norman won his share. It’s a good battle. I think those two have a lot of respect for each other. It’s a great competition. But I just wanted to see how he handled a little pressure in those situations.”
Last year, Jeffery wasn’t targeted until more than midway through the first quarter, when he caught an 18-yard pass over the middle off play action. On the same drive, third-and-goal from the Bears’ 4, quarterback Matt Barkley looked for Jeffery but Norman had position and Barkley threw the ball away in the general direction of another receiver.
Jeffery’s highlight of the day came with the Bears down 24-7 late in the second quarter – a 37-yard sideline catch against Norman on a back-shoulder throw, Jeffery making a strong leap to bring down the ball, using his height advantage.
The second half was miserable for the Bears and Jeffery. Barkley threw interceptions on three successive Jeffery targets, two to Norman and one to Will Blackmon. They were all terrible throws, under pressure, heaves that left Jeffery with no chance to break up the play, let alone make a catch. Barkley, a Kelly fourth-round pick for the Eagles in 2013, finished the day with five picks.
“I think it was a great battle,” Jeffery said Wednesday. “A few plays here and there he made, but other than that, I think it was a great battle. … I think the situation [this week] is different as far as overall team and everything.”
Jeffery said Norman “does a great job making plays on the ball. He reminds me a little bit of Peanut Tillman — he was my teammate in Chicago — the way he plays the ball … He does a great job, just like Peanut, of punching the ball out.”
Norman is known as a trash-talker. Jeffery is not.
“I go out and just play football, man. I let my game do the talking,” Jeffery said. “I can’t recall” if Norman had much to say in last year’s meeting.
This spring, when Norman was asked about Jeffery coming to the NFC East, Norman noted that Jeffery is “a big guy. He uses his body.
“And I enjoy going against big guys, because they think they can get physical with me. They think that. [The truth is] quite the contrary.”
Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz said he won’t try to force the ball to Jeffery. Of Norman, he said: “You’re aware of him, but you don’t let it necessarily change your game plan. You don’t actually go into a game fearing anybody, but you’re aware of where a player like that is.”
Wentz said Norman is “sometimes a risk-taker. In zone coverage, he’ll just read a quarterback’s eyes, really heavy. He can jump some things and make some plays. And he’s not afraid to come downhill and make some tackles.
“It’s exciting for the season to start off with a guy like Alshon going against him.”
Jeffery was asked if he understands how eager Eagles fans are to see what he can do.
“They can’t wait to see me play. At the same time, I’m excited,” Jeffery said. “I can’t wait to see what I do myself.”
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