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The Eagles #1 priority this weekend will be to stop Johnson- could Nnamdi Asomguha be the answer?
One thing former Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson used to excel at, in addition to intricate blitz schemes, was drawing up game plans to contain the other teams main weapon.
This current group of Eagles defensive coaches? Not so much.
Todd Bowles' decision to play Larry Fitzgerald straight up 3 weeks ago is now reaching legendary status in the Philadelphia ranks of bad coaching decisions. Bowels deciding not to double Fitzgerald or at least have one player cover him the entire game backfired to the tune of 9 catches for 114 yards and 1 touchdown. Fitzgerald's success early in the game basically put the game away before halftime.
This week the Eagles are preparing to face maybe the only other wideout in the league that demands an entire game plan be focused on him, Detroit Lions WR Calvin Johnson. How Juan Castillo, Todd Bowles, and the rest of the Eagles coaches decide to cover Johnson will go a long way in deciding how this season will look heading into the Bye Week- will the Eagles be 4-2 on a high note, or 3-3 with reminders of last years 8-8 finish haunting them?
What makes Johnson such a great receiver is his rare combination of height and speed. At 6'5 and 236 lbs, Johnson looks more like a tight end than he does a wide out. Much like Randy Moss used to do, Johnson is simply able to out jump corner backs who are covering him, making him almost impossible to stop with single coverage. That is the image fans think of when talking about Johnson- him out jumping people for the ball.
But in reality, he has done very little of that this season.
With that combination of size and ability, you would think the Lions would send Johnson deep, but defenses have forced the Lions to change the way they use Johnson, and it could end up helping the Eagles dramatically this weekend.
After reviewing all of the times Johnson has been targeted this year, the Lions have started to use him more and more as a slot receiver than an outside threat. This season the Lions have had him run short crossing routes across the middle, hoping the defense either losses him in zone coverage or his size enables him to break tackles and turn a short pass into a long gain.
Of the 42 times Johnson has been targeted this season, 22 of them have been on routes less than 10 yards. In 3 of the Lions 4 games, Johnson was targeted on routes longer than 10 yards 4 or less times. Only in the Lions game against the Tennessee Titans- a 44-41 shoot out- was Johnson targeted down the field consistently. Of the 20 times Johnson has been targeted on a route longer than 10 yards, nearly half of hem (9) came in that game.
On the season, Johnson has 423 yards on 29 receptions- but 99 of those yards have come after the catch. Take those yards away, and Johnson is catching the ball an average of just over 11 yards from the line of scrimmage.
How could this work to the Eagles advantage?
Nnamdi Asomugha may be having a rough season, but if their is one thing he is still capable of doing it is being physical at the line of scrimmage. Unlike most corner backs who line up with Johnson, Asomugha is close in size- 3 inches shorter and only 26 lbs lighter. After watching tape of Johnson this year, he has had success in the short crossing routes because he is able to just push the corner off of him, and by the time the corner recovers, he is a step or two ahead.
Asomugha has had trouble this year sticking with players after they engage at the line because the wide outs have been going deep. Speed, needless to say, is not a strength of his. But while he may not be fast, covering a big wide out who is running (mostly) short routes is one thing he should be able to excel at.
Another thing that was clear after watching how the Lions have been using Johnson this year is that in order to not let him eat up yards all day, the Eagles will have to have great communication between the linebackers- as well as strong tackling. All 3 teams that faced the Lions this year- St Louis, San Francisco, Tennessee and Minnesota- had trouble losing Johnson as he ran across the middle of the field. Time and time again the corner left Johnson and the linebacker was either late picking him up or didn't.
The Eagles defense has improved this year, but one thing that I heard from multiple players was the reason they struggled last year was confusion amongst the players and communication. If those problems return this Sunday, Johnson could have a big day.
Unlike with Fitzgerald, the Eagles would be wise to let Asomugha shadow Johnson all day with a safety going over to help him if Johnson goes down the sideline. If he continues to run the short routes he has all season, let Asomugha stay with him. If there was ever a game for Asomugha to earn his money, this is it.
Hopefully the Eagles learned their lesson with Fitzgerald. If not, it's going to be another long day for Eagles fans.
Follow Eliot Shorr-Parks on Twitter at @EliotShorrParks