SEATTLE, Wash. -- After years as the most devastating cover cornerback in the NFL — to the point where he wouldn't see one-third the targets that Darrelle Revis would see in a single season — Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha is in a different situation than the one which allowed him to be a dominant presence during his eight years with the Oakland Raiders. After all those years as the least-targeted qualifying cornerback in the league (three of the last four seasons, per STATS LLC), Asomugha's been more mortal this year, and the 4-7 Eagles have matched that disappointment. They face the Seattle Seahawks on a cross-country jaunt this Thursday, and winning out is the only thing that gives them any hope of a postseason.
For Asomugha, it's been a bit like that first year you can pitch to an all-time hitting champ. In 2011, he's been burned 13 times on 27 targets in 2011, but two of those burns have been for touchdowns, and he's given up 8.74 yards per target, which is near the bottom of the scale in the NFL at his position. Part of the issue has been the possibility that Asomugha's just not covering quite as well in straight man coverage as in years past, but the switch from Raiders to Eagles has put him in an odd box as well — after years of playing mostly right man cornerback, and only moving around when there was one elite receiver to cover, Asomugha's been asked to play more slot corner, some safety, some pre-snap DB switch, and an occasional nickel linebacker role for new defensive coordinator Juan Castillo.
"There are a few different things," he told the Seattle media on Tuesday. "In Oakland, it was 'Play corner, and take that guy out of the game.' Here, I've been moving around everywhere and just figuring out where I fit based off the calls and based off the particular positions that I'm playing on that down. Pretty much every game I've been at every position that you can think of in the secondary and even some down there in a linebacker spot, so it just depends. They're just trying to utilize the things that I do well and trying to take certain guys out of games, whether it's a tight end, a running back, or a receiver."
But how much of a difficulty has that transition been? After all, it's a bit different than "take that guy and shut him down all day," which is what Asomugha's more used to.
"It's not difficult because we had so many games in Oakland where if we were playing against a top receiver they would just tell me to take him, so whether he was in the left side, or in the slot it didn't matter, I would go with him," Asomugha said. "I think the majority of the time if we weren't playing against a guy like that or a big-time guy that we needed to stop, then we would just stay right and left. But it hasn't been that big of a transition because I've done it before. I think the biggest transition is just the different coverages that we're doing based off me moving around. You can move around all you want and line up and take a guy out of the game, but things change when you're moving around and the coverages are changing and now you're fitting off of the next guy and it's not just about stopping the guy in front of you. That's been the transition."
According to Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's "NFL Matchup," Asomugha always plays on the right side and will generally play man corner in base defenses. When the Eagles go to nickel, he'll move from right corner to slot (he always plays right side because Asante Samuel only plays on the left side), and he will play slot when the Eagles go to their dime formations. Last week in the Eagles' 38-20 loss to the New England Patriots, he was limited because of a knee injury, played just 20 snaps, and they were all in dime.
When I went back and did an X-and-O study of two early Eagles games in October, it was clear to me that the team was trying to set him up to be a Charles Woodson do-it-all type … and despite what some might say, it isn't working very well. Now, he's even getting beaten at times when he's playing man press, which is especially disturbing.
"Nnamdi's done some good things," Eagles head coach Andy Reid said on Tuesday. "We've asked him to do a lot of different things than he's used to doing. We moved him around a quite a bit to the inside; asked him to cover tight ends, slot receivers, outside receivers. We've got him moving all over. He played a little safety for us in a couple games. He's done a good job with all that."
But the disconnect between words and deeds is obvious in the game tape, in the stats, and in the Eagles' overall record. For the team and for its most high-profile free-agent acquisition, things have been far worse than anybody imagined.