When the Eagles signed Nnamdi Asomugha, almost everyone was in shock. Players, fans, GMs and coaches alike couldn't believe the Eagles landed the big kahuna, the consensus top free agent available in one of the deepest fields ever.
They were in shock because Asomugha was thought to be a difference-maker, not a JAG (just another guy). They thought Asomugha would be the kind of player that when the Eagles played Larry Fitzgerald and the Cardinals in Week 10, you could throw the lengthy, physical corner out there to blanket the lengthy, physical receiver.
It seems to be obvious. We see the Jets do it just about every week with Darrelle Revis, the player many considered equitable to Asoumgha heading into this season. Why should we have expected anything less from his closest peer?
Except that it didn't turn out that way. The Eagles and defensive coordinator Juan Castillo went a different route. They kept Samuel on his familiar left side and Asomugha mostly on the right. When Fitzgerald moved into the slot, which he did eight times, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Joselio Hanson and even an occasional linebacker or safety were charged with the responsibility of covering Fitzgerald in the zone defense.
Here's the breakdown of who matched against Fitzgerald at the line of scrimmage on the Cardinals' 70 plays, which doesn't include the kneel downs in the final seconds:
Asomugha - 32 Plays
Samuel - 27 Plays
DRC - 5 Plays
Hanson - 4 Plays
Others - 2 Plays
So, basically, Asomugha and Samuel split the responsibility. Defensive coordinator Juan Castillo's game plan also called for the Eagles to use bracket coverage on Fitzgerald most of the afternoon, with strong safety Jaiquawn Jarrett sliding underneath to take away the short, quick passes - namely the quick slant that Fitzgerald regularly runs.
For most of the game, it worked. Fitzgerald had two catches for 52 yards after three quarters. One of those was a 42-yarder in tight coverage (the Eagles had three men surrounding Fitzgerald) where the star wide receiver made a really nice leaping grab over the defenders. The touchdown was on a play where he slid inside and was matched against linebacker Brian Rolle.
But the Eagles also scored a touchdown on a pass intended for Fitzgerald in the first half when Samuel jumped a short route. So overall, the first three quarters went pretty well in regards to shutting down the game's top receiver.
But it was in the fourth quarter when Fitzgerald took over, and when Asomugha was on the other side of the field dancing uselessly with Andre Roberts or Early Doucet, two nondescript receivers who have done little this season. Fitzgerald had five catches for 94 yards in the fourth quarter alone, with Jarrett and Hanson unable to make several key plays. Two key passes bounced off their hands and into Fitzgerald's in the decisive quarter.
Meanwhile, Asomugha was covering players who were not going to get the ball. That's not what you pay someone $60 million to do. None of the NFL's best receiver's seven catches, 146 yards or two touchdown came when Asomugha was opposite him at the line of scrimmage.
Certainly, there were plays that Jarrett and Hanson should have made in the fourth quarter. And there is no way Jarrett should ever let a man behind him with the Eagles ahead by three and less than three minutes left to play like he did when Fitzgerald hauled in a crucial 37-yard catch. But that is what happens when you ask your lesser players to make plays against the other team's best player - there is a smaller chance of success than, say, if your best cornerback is in that position.
Andy Reid always preaches it's his job to put players in the right position. Castillo has adopted the phrase. On Sunday, again, it doesn't appear he was successful in the fourth quarter. His best cornerback was on the other side of the field as the Eagles' season was essentially ending.
Other Notable Observations:
• The Eagles appeared upset with Samuel on the drive after his interception return for a touchdown. Immediately after Samuel was dominated by Fitzgerald on a running play, he went to the bench and sat out the remainder of the drive. Rodgers-Cromartie took his place, and Fitzgerald caught a 10-yard touchdown with Samuel out of the game.
• Castillo seemed to make a concerted effort not to wear down his defensive line. The Eagles rotated their entire D-line beginning with the second series of the game. They mixed and matched all game. It still didn't seem to work as the defense suffered another fourth-quarter collapse.
• Colt Anderson made two more special teams tackles and remains a force on punt and kick coverage. He's been so good he deserves a spot in the Pro Bowl for his efforts.
• Arizona must have prepared relentlessly for the Eagles screen game. The Birds called six screen plays in the contest, with four going for five yards or less.
• Derek Landri had another impressive effort. He made four plus-plays; stuffing a run in the second quarter, recording a pressure and a sack in the third, and blowing up a goal-line run in the final minutes.
• Casey Matthews has returned as a piece on the Eagles' goal-line defense.
• Akeem Jordan started in place of Moises Fokou. Jordan or Fokou? Not much of a difference. Neither hurt you badly (the Eagles only use their SAM linebacker sporadically), but neither help much either.
• The Eagles' offensive line and Michael Vick had trouble recognizing pass rushers all afternoon. They failed to block Daryl Washington several times even though Arizona was only rushing four men on those plays.
• Danny Watkins continues to play well. The Eagles have been noticeably better in short-yard situations since his insertion to the lineup.
• Vick took 14 total hits in the contest, with half of those coming on runs or scrambles. That's not a bad number compared to earlier in the season.
• Even though Vick admittedly struggled with his accuracy (probably partially due to his broken ribs), the Eagles had five drops, with two coming from Steve Smith in his first start with the team.