Nnamdi Asomugha: Comeback Year or a Preseason Cut?

Back in early April, the 49ers signed former shutdown corner Nnamdi Asomugha to a 1-year, 1.3 million dollar contract. Nnamdi had a brutal two years trying to fit into the Eagles scheme. He is two years older than when he left Oakland and is very much not the cornerback he was in 2008. At age 32, though, the 49ers are likely not expecting him to be an elite corner who can cut off half the field– instead they are likely looking for a cheap veteran signing who could be a solid starter.

Before going into Asomugha’s 2012, I want to look back and show just what made him so very good as an Oakland Raider. We will be looking at a play from a game against the Washington Redskins in 2009.

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We see Santana Moss lined up across from Nnamdi. Nnamdi is in his typical up-in-your-face spot, ready to get his hands on the receiver whenever he decides to come off the ball.

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Immediately we see Moss going for a double move off the line and Asomugha struggles to get his hands on him. He’s a little out of position for the inside move that Moss is about to make.

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But even with Moss’ small advantage gained here, the DB remains on him. Asomugha made a career of playing up in the receiver’s face and playing what is called the trail technique. He plays the man, not the ball. Once the WR reacts to the ball in the air, Asomugha makes his move and turns his focus to the ball. He is one of the best ever at this technique.

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And we see Nnamdi getting his hand in between Moss and the ball and we get a pass breakup. This is what he did for years in Oakland and is what made him incredibly successful.

With that said, those that watch football closely and are interested in defensive back play will have noticed that NFL teams just don’t play man press all that much. We see a good bit of zone coverage, off-man coverage with safety help, and zone blitzes, and when Man Press is played, it’s usually to send in a blitzing linebacker, instead of to slow down the WRs and allow the safeties to read the play. Nnamdi’s signing in Philadelphia found him joining a team that liked off-man and zone coverage, two areas that he was not well versed in.

To illustrate the difference, I have looked at plays from three different games from 2012– Week 1 against the Browns, Week 6 versus The Calvin Johnson Lions, and finally Week 8, when the Eagles played the Falcons and their talented receiving corps.

ImageOur first play shows our defensive back playing an off man coverage. NFL teams wouldn’t dare attempt this coverage against the Bradys or Mannings of the world, as those QBs will instantly check into a slant route when that happens. But apparently, Brandon Weeden gets the message in his first NFL game and first NFL throw.

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With the coverage off the man, the WR immediately takes off for the slant. Nnamdi is too slow to react and can’t even begin to threaten the ball. This is most definitely a negative play for him. Despite playing off-man, he should have still been able to find a way to attack the ball here.

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This is at the point of the catch. The receiver and cornerback are still separated by a solid two to three yards. Asomguha’s lack of rally ability, which is to attack the WR on a pass route such as this, is showing in his very first game of the season.

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Here in play #2 against the Browns we see Nnamdi in his more comfortable position, up on the ball.

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Look at his jam here. His hands are inside the WR, he’s attacking well, and he seems to have the early advantage in the play. Now it’s time to turn and run after the press:Image

Remember the separation we saw in the last play? It’s not there at all, plus he has safety help over the top. Nnamdi has played this perfectly, and this is not much different than what we saw 3 years earlier in Oakland.

ImagePlay number 3 takes us to Nnamdi playing up. Image

The WR is running a double move, but the Eagles are in a cover 2 zone. Nnamdi has the underneath, while the safety will have the deep part of the field. The WR’s goal is to find the weak spot in this zone.

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The ball is in the air and, but it is overthrown into the sidelines. This is not the easiest ball for a QB to throw, but it’s a pass the top tier guys will hit. There is clearly a large window here to throw the ball as both Nnamdi and the safety are caught in no man’s land. Ronde Barber played a lot of this short-zone Cover-2 technique in his career, and he was always able to follow the WR on plays like this, rather than let them run behind him free until the safety came up. It’s something Ronde was comfortable in and played well. For Asomugha, it’s just more evidence that when asked to play in space, he can look really bad and out of place.

We will move onto the game against Calvin Johnson and the Lions, looking at one play in particular.

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At this point there should be no question as to who the best WR in football is. Calvin can beat every coverage and make terrific corners look bad at times. With that said, Calvin’s game does have one hole, and that’s getting off press coverage. Patrick Peterson was able to get into Johnson’s head by playing very physically with him, and Asomugha does this a bit as well. I’d say this is an effective way defenses can stop Johnson, but Patrick Peterson is 6’1′, 220, and Asomugha is 6’2″, 210– they have size that many cornerbacks just do not.  Image

Here we see Asomugha has gotten his hands on Calvin, forcing the WR to change his route from an upfield attack to now cutting to the inside. The option routes that Johnson runs are very difficult to defend, as he can run a number of different routes on any play and he doesn’t tip his routes based on the offensive formation or on his break. This makes it incredibly hard for a DB to react.

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With that said. we see that in press coverage, Nnamdi was not asked to play in space and instead can sit in his comfort zone. He is now in position to play the ball at the last second, which is exactly what he did in Oakland. And, he is showing this ability against maybe the deadliest wide receiver since Jerry Rice.

The play ends up getting broken up. We can also question Matt Stafford’s decision making with this pass, as he is trying to fit it in with Asomugha shadowing Calvin Johnson as well as the safety in the area to make a big hit.

Last, I want to look at two plays in particular from the Eagles’ week 8 matchup against the Falcons.

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OK, I already see a huge issue here. Nnamdi is in the middle of the field and likely being asked to play in space. As we have seen, that’s just not where Asomugha is comfortable. I also have a coaching point about something that’s bothering me here. The WR set the Falcons are running is what I call a “Triangle”. The farthest-split wideout is off the ball, the middle WR (“2” slot) is up on the ball, and the inside receiver (“3” slot) is off the ball. This type of formation is great for WRs to run “legal” pick plays. I never want to allow that 2 slot off the ball freely, yet the Eagles never “punch the point”– i.e. they don’t jam the 2 slot. A jam here limits the ways the offense can run picks on pick your defenders. It’s a basic principle, and I find it frustrating to see football 101 go out the window just because a coach is so determined to run a zone scheme.

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I avoid showing you guys the picks that go on here, mostly out of disgust. The important thing about this play, for us, is that Asomugha gets lost in space and ends up diving at the ankles of the WR. Overall, it’s a very ugly play for Nnamdi, as he again fails to rally, makes little effort off the ball, looks lost in space, and finally, when he does try to make the tackle, he’s on the ground.

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On our last play, we are looking at Nnamdi lined up across from Julio Jones. This is a tough spot for a press corner, as the WR is playing off the ball and the 2 slot is up on the ball. It’s much harder to press from this spot, as the WR can get a few steps on the DB. In the past, we would see Asomugha give a slight punch to the WR, but he would then play his famous (or is it infamous now?) “trail” technique on the WR.

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And here we go. The punch will come shortly, but Nnamdi so far has barely moved his feet. This is a bit concerning: Compare how much ground Jones has already covered (2 yards) while all Asomugha has done is take one step back. I also want to note the other Falcon WR on this play that is coming down.

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OK, we skipped ahead a little bit here, so let me fill in what happened. The WR I noted ended up laying out Asomugha, and the other Eagles DB is lost on the 35 and now has two offensive linemen in the field of play between him and the ball-carrier. The result of the play is not Nnamdi’s fault, but it’s still another instance where he is left lying on the ground looking at a WR take off for large yardage. So if this play is not Asomugha’s fault, why did I pick it? I’ll explain in my conclusion.

Before I get into where will Nnamdi be, let’s go over what I think about Asomugha’s abilities in 2013. He is not who he was at age 28; that goes without saying. With what I have seen and described here, though, by no means do I think that he should be out of the NFL at 32. Should the Eagles have tried to restructure his contract to keep him? Talent- and ability-wise, I believe so, but mentally, I don’t know if staying in Philadelphia would have been good for him. This factors into that last play.

I truly get the feeling that Philadelphia’s passive play hurts Nnamdi. That last play is a “hustle” play, and I believe Oakland Asomugha makes the play in the backfield. Here, he doesn’t read the play well, but he also gets blindsided, which shocks me. When I watched him in Oakland, he was a very intelligent player. This is a guy that graduated from California-Berkeley with a corporate finance degree– a far cry from the “college education” many other NFL players receive.

He’s played incredibly smart his entire career, but the last two seasons he has seemed lost when playing in space and has not reacted to plays as well. Another contributor to this site, tweedybirdd, made the comment that his ball skills have even diminished. I won’t disagree with that but, I also feel that he was just not put in a great position to succeed.

One more note about the Eagles’ defensive coaching. I’m not one to point figures at coaches and complain about play-calling. That said, from what I’ve watched, the Eagles’ defensive coaching last season was mind-blowingly awful. Playing defensive ends so far outside in the “wide-9”, and then asking them to attack interior gaps… playing off-man coverage on 1st and 10 and 3rd and short… Asomugha playing press man on Calvin Johnson and keeping him in check, just for the coaches to take him off of Calvin in the 4th quarter. I could go on, but suffice to say, it’s simply beyond me just how prideful coaches are at times in their refusal to change scheme, or their ability to dramatically outsmart themselves by taking their best cover guy off of the #1 WR in football.

So where does that leave Nnamdi going forward? With a one-year “show me” contract from the 49ers. I don’t believe Asomugha has a career at the safety position. Rod Woodson made the transition despite playing a similar in-your-face style at cornerback, but Woodson never showed the failures in the open field that Asomugha has. Considering that, Asomugha’s career is likely shorter than a guy who can make that transition.

Nnamdi is fighting for a roster spot on the 49ers right now. I mean, the 49ers have signed Eric Wright and have said that Perrish Cox and Tramaine Brock are in the mix as well. This may not be a good sign for Asomugha. The 49ers are a team that plays a lot of zone coverage. Personally, I have trouble seeing Asomugha sticking around on San Francisco with the defensive schemes they’ve played under Jim Harbaugh– which begs the question, why does Nnamdi sign with teams that do not play to his strengths? I don’t have as much faith in Jim Harbaugh as I do in John Harbaugh, but I do believe that if Asomugha does make the roster for the 49ers, we will see him up on the ball and not playing in space.

If Asomugha is cut, look at a team like the Cardinals or Browns to take a shot at him, as both of those teams like to play a good bit of Man Press. If he is in that situation, I would expect him to play 800+ snaps and have a bounce-back year. If you watch Asomugha play, and he is off the ball or playing zone, expect pundits to be talking about how it’s time for Asomugha to go home to Kerry Washington.

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