October 08, 2011
That "Dream Team" stuff? Yeah, it's out the window in Philly. The Eagles are 1-3 after an offseason in which they put several new cogs in the machine, including cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha(notes) and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. It was thought that the addition of those two, put together with elite cornerback Asante Samuel(notes), would make it very dangerous indeed for any quarterback to test the Eagles' defense.
It hasn't exactly turned out that way, and the worst example of the Eagles' pass defense this season may have come in the second half of their 24-23 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, in which the 49ers came back from a 23-3 deficit in the final 30 minutes of the game. San Francisco running back Frank Gore(notes) said after the game that the Eagles "threw in the towel," but I'd argue that by putting a number of players in positions where they're not most comfortable, the Eagles' defensive coaching staff (led by new defensive coordinator Juan Castillo) may want to keep the towel and burn their playbooks. Asomugha is being used very differently than he was with the Oakland Raiders, and it's messing him up — he's given up multiple big plays this season. It was time to go to the tape and see what was going on with their pass defense against San Francisco.
Two plays against the 49ers game me extreme pause. The first one came with 7:26 left in the third quarter, and it was a 30-yard touchdown pass from Alex Smith to Josh Morgan(notes). On the play, the Eagles are running a zone blitz with a number of strategic issues. First of all, they're playing nickel and the blitz has cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (24) coming from the defensive left side. At the snap, safety Jarrad Page(notes) (41) also blitzes, and it's the responsibility of linebacker Brian Rolle(notes) (59) to pick up the intermediate zone responsibility. That is the whole point of a zone blitz — you're vacating coverage in one area of your defense to bring extra bodies to the front, and you're supposed to make up for it with coverage concepts elsewhere. Problem is, the zone Rolle is capable of covering is quite a few yards under Morgan, and with the left cornerback taken out by the flare route run by tight end Vernon Davis(notes) (85), there's a major gap in the coverage that Morgan can exploit.
The really weird part of this play is that you have a cornerback, a safety, and a linebacker in what's basically an overload blitz idea, the 49ers (who have had a horrible offensive line all season) don't commit any extra blockers to this, and none of the Eagles' defenders get home. That's where the play breaks down for them — of course, the idea is to force Alex Smith away from the longer route by getting in his kitchen and messing with his timing, but that doesn't happen.
Now on to the real bizarro play. With 5:38 left in the third quarter, the 49ers roll out with an offset-I and two receivers to the right. Michael Crabtree(notes) (15) motions from right to left pre-snap, which causes Page (who's inexplicably playing right corner pre-motion) to motion to Asomugha (who's even more inexplicably playing safety) to switch up coverage. This they do, but the fun isn't over yet.
Crabtree runs a stutter-go down the left sideline, and while Nnamdi's setting up to cover, he's also peeking into the backfield to see if Smith might throw underneath to the fullback. Smith takes advantage of this by executing a great pump-fake, which drags Nnamdi for just a second, and allows Crabtree to blow right by him. Page comes over to help up top (which brings up another point — Smith would have a sure touchdown had he thrown to Vernon Davis up the seam), but it's too late. The throw is perfect, and Crabtree jukes Nnamdi, Page, and linebacker Jamar Chaney(notes) (51) to wind up with a gain of 38 yards.
It's almost difficult to know where to begin when trying to get forensic on this play, but we'll start with the obvious: Nnamdi Asomugha is the greatest man coverage cornerback of his generation. He spent years in an Oakland system in which he stayed to one side and built a reputation that had quarterbacks throwing anywhere else. He didn't do cross-ups with safeties in Oakland, because the Raiders developed a pretty simple philosophy with their safeties — Michael Huff(notes) up top, Tyvon Branch(notes) in or near the box. Blitzing would have been a relative oddity for him, but it seems as if the Eagles have decided that Nnamdi is Charles Woodson(notes) as the Packers use him, which means that he must be put all over the place as a "joker" or moving chess piece.
A ridiculous notion, but not as ridiculous as letting the offense dictate your coverage by motion. And I'll say it again — the Eagles were lucky Smith didn't throw to Davis in the seam, because he already had Page beat before Smith threw the ball to Crabtree, and that would have been a sure score.
To me, this is a simple case of the coaching staff trying to superimpose its ideas about scheme onto personnel that really isn't built for it. Castillo is asking his stationary players to be motion-versatile, his style-point players to be scheme-transcendent, and his star players to act like his rotational guys. In other words, the Eagles bought a bunch of expensive furniture in the offseason, and they have handed over the interior decoration to Wal-Mart. You may also note that I haven't mentioned Rodgers-Cromartie, who hasn't been much of a factor at all.
The Eagles are failing to maximize the attributes of their most talented defensive players, and until that changes, there will be major problems on that side of the ball in Philly.
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