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InFocus: The Corner Shuffle

Posted Nov 3, 2012

InFocus

For a variety of reasons, the Eagles have been a major topic of discussion on the national level over the past couple weeks. One popular debate has been the effectiveness of the team’s dynamic duo at the cornerback position. Last offseason, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was acquired in the Kevin Kolb trade and Nnamdi Asomugha was signed as an unrestricted free agent out of Oakland.

Here, I’ll be taking a look at the top receivers the Eagles have faced this season and their gameplan, in terms of personnel, for facing each.

Brandon Boykin, a 2012 fourth-round pick, and Brandon Hughes, a 2009 fifth-round pick of the San Diego Chargers, will also be examined.

Weeks 1 (Cleveland) and 2 (Baltimore) were examined on September 22.

Week 3 - Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona
Player Snaps
Nnamdi Asomugha 21
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie 21
Brandon Boykin 6
Brandon Hughes 5

All-Pro Larry Fitzgerald lines up wide a majority of the time, which plays into the Eagles’ hands of leaving its top corners on the outside. Fitzgerald has played in the slot only 16 percent of the time this season.

Despite getting one of their top two corners lined up on Fitzgerald a majority of the time, the Eagles defense struggled to contain him. Fitzgerald caught all nine of his targets for 114 yards and a touchdown.

Not surprisingly, Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb picked on Boykin when he was on Fitzgerald. He completed all four passes for 51 yards in that scenario. Hughes (one), Mychal Kendricks (one) and Kurt Coleman (two) each allowed receptions in coverage.

The good news here is that Rodgers-Cromartie and Asomugha did a nice job forcing Kolb to go elsewhere. Kolb threw only one ball at Fitzgerald when either of the two was on him. It was a 9-yard completion at Rodgers-Cromartie.

As you might expect, Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie split duties against Andre Roberts and Michael Floyd. Most of Boykin’s snaps were spent covering Cardinals’ slot man Early Doucet.

Week 4 - Victor Cruz, New York Giants
Player Snaps
Nnamdi Asomugha 0
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie 24
Brandon Boykin 31
Brandon Hughes 1

Normally, this would say "Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks," but the latter was out due to an injury back in Week 4. Cruz was left as the team’s top receiver. Domenik Hixon filled in for Nicks and Ramses Barden handled the No. 3 duties.

Unlike Fitzgerald, Cruz spends quite a bit of time inside, kicking to the slot in three-plus wide sets. On the year, he’s been outside 54 percent of the time and in the slot on the other 46 percent of his snaps.

Although you might expect the Eagles to adjust a bit here in order to keep Cruz contained, they did not. Asomugha did not cover Cruz on a single snap. Boykin handled Cruz when he was in the slot and Rodgers-Cromartie handled him when he was outside.

That being the case, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Cruz racked up 13 targets in the game. He caught nine for 109 yards and a touchdown.

Seven of the targets came when Boykin was in coverage. They resulted in four catches for 48 yards and a touchdown. Rodgers-Cromartie allowed two catches on two targets. Kendricks (1/1), Nate Allen (1/1), Coleman (0/1) and DeMeco Ryans (1/1) also ended up targeted while in coverage on Cruz.

Hixon plays mainly on the outside, so Asomugha spent about half of his coverage snaps on him and a few less on Barden. Rodgers-Cromartie was on Hixon 24 times and Barden on 14 occasions. Hughes also helped out on Hixon (14 snaps) and Barden (10).

Week 5 - Mike Wallace, Pittsburgh
Player Snaps
Nnamdi Asomugha 0
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie 60
Brandon Boykin 3
Brandon Hughes 0
Week 5 - Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh
Player Snaps
Nnamdi Asomugha 52
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie 2
Brandon Boykin 5
Brandon Hughes 0

Both Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown see right around 10 percent of their snaps in the slot, which, bodes well for the Eagles’ defensive gameplanning. As you can see above, Asomugha (Brown) and Rodgers-Cromartie (Wallace) were able to stick on the outside while also following their "man" around the field. Note that Brown usually lines up on the right and Wallace the left, which is the opposite of where Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie usually are. The Eagles’ duo had to adjust from their norm, which was yet another indication that the defense is significantly more flexible than they were in 2011.

Brown had a strong game, while Wallace was all but shut down. Brown hauled in seven of nine targets for 86 yards. He caught four of five balls for 41 yards when Asomugha was in coverage. Rodgers-Cromartie, Kendricks and Boykin combined to allow three catches on four targets.

Rodgers-Cromartie held Wallace to two catches for 17 yards on five targets. Wallace’s other three targets came against successful defensive efforts by Allen, Coleman and Jamar Chaney.

You may recall that Brown called Boykin "candy bar" prior to this game, suggesting that the rookie is the sweet spot of the Eagles’ defense. Emmanuel Sanders is Pittsburgh’s slot man and saw Boykin lined up across from him on 25 occasions. Boykin saw Wallace on three snaps and Brown on five. Overall, Boykin allowed four receptions for 46 yards on five targets. Brown was responsible for one of those catches (and two targets) for 20 yards. The Steelers’ No. 4 receiver, Jerricho Cotchery, required coverage nine times. Asomugha handled him each time.

Week 6 - Calvin Johnson, Detroit
Player Snaps
Nnamdi Asomugha 69
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie 14
Brandon Boykin 1
Brandon Hughes 0

Very much like the league’s other top wideouts with a size advantage, "Megatron" spends a good chunk of his snaps on the outside. This season, he’s worked the slot only one-quarter of the time.

This time around, the Eagles decided to match Asomugha up with Johnson. Asomugha was on Johnson on over 80 percent of his snaps, compared to just 16.7 percent for Rodgers-Cromartie. On 18 occasions, Johnson lined up in the slot and Asomugha followed suit.

Johnson ended up seeing 12 targets on the day, hauling in six balls for 135 yards. Asomugha was the most successful of the Eagles’ defenders, holding Johnson to one catch for 37 yards on five targets. Asomugha batted one of the throws away and intercepted another. Rodgers-Cromartie allowed two catches for 34 yards on two targets against Johnson. Coleman allowed two receptions for 44 yards on three targets and Allen allowed one 20-yard catch on a pair of targets.

Nate Burleson was Detroit’s No. 2 wideout in Week 6 and moved to the slot in three-plus wide receiver sets. As you might have guessed, he was given the Victor Cruz treatment. Boykin covered him most often (35 snaps). Rodgers-Cromartie handled him when he was out wide (26 snaps). Titus Young is Detroit’s sparkplug on the outside opposite Johnson in three-wide sets. Rodgers-Cromartie was on him 39 times, with Asomugha (11 snaps) and Boykin (nine) helping out occasionally.

Week 8 - Roddy White, Atlanta
Player Snaps
Nnamdi Asomugha 17
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie 39
Brandon Boykin 9
Brandon Hughes 0
Week 8 - Julio Jones, Atlanta
Player Snaps
Nnamdi Asomugha 35
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie 19
Brandon Boykin 2
Brandon Hughes 0

The Mike Wallace-Antonio Brown duo is pretty good, but Jones-White was clearly the secondary’s biggest test so far this season. Unfortunately for Philadelphia, it was the Falcons who won this battle.

The two star wideouts combined for eight receptions, 161 yards and a touchdown on just nine targets.

Both players generally line up out wide, with Jones spending only six percent and White 14 percent of his snaps in the slot this season. Jones is to Matt Ryan’s left 72 percent of the time and White is to his right on 67 percent of his snaps.

With Todd Bowles now in control of the defense, the gameplan was a bit different than we had seen up to that point. Rodgers-Cromartie was on White a healthy 39 times, but Asomugha (17) and Boykin (nine) saw him quite a bit, as well. Jones saw Asomugha 35 times, but Rodgers-Cromartie (19 snaps) was on him quite a bit, as well.

So, what changed?

Plain and simple, Bowles let his guys play sides – very much like what the team did in 2011. Rodgers-Cromartie was at left corner on 59-of-71 (83 percent) of his snaps. He was at right corner five times, in the right slot six times and in the left slot once. Asomugha was at left corner only once, working right corner on 59-of-76 (78 percent) snaps. He played sparingly in the slot, spending six snaps on the left side and three on the right. He also worked eight snaps in the box at safety.

Jones caught all three balls thrown his way when Asomugha was in coverage, including the 63-yard touchdown. The other two catches added up to 47 yards. Jones caught his other two targets, as well. One was against Rodgers-Cromartie (for 7 yards) and the other against Boykin (6 yards).

White, meanwhile, saw four targets against four different defenders. Rodgers-Cromartie did a nice job, holding him without a catch on one target. White caught his other three targets, however, against Asomugha (for 14 yards), Boykin (10 yards) and Coleman (14 yards).

With slot man Harry Douglas out due to injury, Drew Davis filled in. Boykin was on him 24 times, but it was Rodgers-Cromartie who was responsible for covering him on a 15-yard touchdown early in the game. Rodgers-Cromartie lined up on Davis 10 times and Asomugha saw him on nine occasions.

This Monday Night – The Saints

I’m very intrigued to see how defensive coordinator Todd Bowles handles the Saints tough pass offense this week. What will make it complicated is how often their pass catchers move around the formation. Consider that Marques Colston has seen just under half his snaps from the slot this season. Lance Moore is on the outside 70 percent of the time. Similarly, No. 3 wideout Devery Henderson comes off the bench and kicks Colston inside, working on the outside just over 80 percent of the time. The Eagles have not lined up corners on tight ends this season, but they haven’t had Jimmy Graham on the schedule yet. Considering that Graham only lines up on the line with his hand in the dirt about 30 percent of the time, it’s fair to assume that Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie will occasionally see him on Monday night.

Based on what we’ve seen so far, my guess would be that Colston basically gets the Cruz treatment. Boykin will handle him when he’s in the slot and Rodgers-Cromartie or Asomugha will take him on when he’s out wide. Graham will see some Boykin, as well, but Kendricks and Ryans will also be on him quite a bit. Moore and Henderson will usually be covered by Rodgers-Cromartie and Asomugha.

It’s hard to imagine Bowles forcing his top corners to play inside on a good chunk of their targets. It will be interesting to see which route he goes.

That’s a wrap for this week. Check out InFocus throughout the season for the most comprehensive Eagles analysis on the web.

Mike Clay, @MikeClayNFL on Twitter, is the Director and Managing Editor at Pro Football Focus Fantasy. He also works as an NFL Writer for NBC's Rotoworld.com.

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