Paul Domowitch: Samuel tackling new territory for Eagles

Posted: November 24, 2010

LOOK CLOSELY and you can see the change in Asante Samuel.

You could see it 2 weeks ago on a play in the second quarter of the Eagles' 26-24 win over the Colts when he beat a block on a bubble screen, flew into the backfield, and managed to get his arms around Colts tight end Jacob Tamme.

Yeah, he tried to tackle Tamme, who is about 50 pounds heavier than he is, too high and failed to make the play. But that's beside the point. A year ago, the three-time Pro Bowl cornerback wouldn't have even tried to stick his nose in the middle of that play.

You could see it Sunday night on the first play of the Giants' second offensive possession as well. Lined up against Hakeem Nicks, Samuel was playing off of the wide receiver, which is his habit. Then Nicks started to go in motion and Samuel correctly read that he was planning to crack down on Eagles strong safety Quintin Mikell and free the edge for running back Ahmad Bradshaw.

Samuel alertly got up on Nicks, preventing him from getting to Mikell, who, along with middle linebacker Stewart Bradley, held Bradshaw to a 2-yard gain. Again, not something he would've done a year ago.

"He's more physical this year," Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. "On that play Sunday night, he came right up and got up in [Nicks'] face and helped us have an edge on the defense. That's an important thing when you're talking about a physical defense."

For much of his career, the only thing that's been important to Samuel is interceptions. He felt - and still feels - that the only significant criteria for judging a cornerback is how many passes he's picked off.

To his credit, Samuel has picked off a lot. Thirty-six in the last 5 years, which is far and away more than any other player in the league. He tied for the league lead in interceptions last season with nine, and already has a league-best seven this season.

That's the good news. The bad news is what he didn't do last year, which is tackle. He had numerous costly whiffs during the season, including a particularly infamous one in a 13-9 Week 6 loss to the Raiders when he let tight end Zach Miller slip away on an 86-yard touchdown catch-and-run.

Late in the season, opposing teams regularly attacked the Eagles with bubble screens to Samuel's side, exploiting both his tackling deficiencies and his preference to play off the line of scrimmage.

Samuel is an exceptionally smart guy. While he continued to insist that he was getting paid to intercept passes not make tackles, he knew that his tackling shortcomings had offset much of the good from those nine interceptions. And just in case he didn't know, McDermott and head coach Andy Reid made sure to remind him after the Eagles' playoff loss to the Cowboys last January.

"Asante is a guy that wants to be the best," McDermott said. "He recognizes that there were some areas of his game that he needed to improve. And I think he's improved this year in those areas.

"In this day and age in professional sports, you don't always have that from players. Especially players at his level that have accomplished what he's accomplished, to take coaching from his position coach, myself, coach Reid, and then say, 'Yeah, you're right. I need to work on that area.' And then really work at it."

As those two plays and that Sunday-night lick on Giants wide receiver Derek Hagan have shown, Samuel has been much more willing to get physical this season.

He's also been more willing to play within the boundaries of McDermott's defense. While he prefers to play off receivers, he has been more willing to press them if the situation calls for it.

He's also doing a much better job of communicating on the field with the rest of the Eagles' defense, particularly his teammates in the secondary. Samuel loves to freelance. An inordinate number of his interceptions have come on balls thrown to other receivers rather than the one he has been assigned to.

That didn't work out so well last year with a secondary that never got over the departure of safety Brian Dawkins. While the Eagles finished with 25 interceptions, they also gave up 27 touchdown passes, many of them on blown coverages.

"To Asante's credit, he's really made it a point to learn the defense," McDermott said. "To say, OK, where are the situations where we need to be physical and jam the receivers up at the line and so on and so forth. There's some give and take. Sometimes it's not exactly how we want it. But then he goes out and makes a great play and you say, 'Oh, OK.' "

When the Eagles made Samuel the highest-paid cornerback in the game in March 2008, not everybody in the organization was on board with the move.

The year before, the Eagles had a league-low 11 interceptions. They badly needed a cornerback with a knack for thievery, and Samuel was regarded as one of the best in the business.

But McDermott's predecessor, Jim Johnson, wasn't sure Samuel was the best choice, particularly given the money the Eagles were paying him. Johnson preferred to play press defense, with cornerbacks up in a receiver's grill. That, of course, isn't Samuel's cup of tea.

He prefers to play off the ball so he can read the receiver, read the route, read the quarterback's eyes, then make a play on the ball. That's a fairly significant difference in philosophies. We're not talking, "I like vanilla ice cream and you like chocolate," here.

"The best thing is that when [Samuel] first came here, I was his position coach," McDermott said. "So I was the messenger between Asante and Jim at the time, and getting pulled in both directions. But it helped me develop a rapport with Asante and really get up close and see what he does best."

McDermott has been a little more willing to play give-and-take with Samuel and his style of play than the set-in-his-ways Johnson was.

"The bottom line is you put players in the best position to make plays," he said. "You try to play to their strengths. Let's face it. We're a press defense, or at least like to be a press defense. We worked for years pressing every coverage, every blitz, everything. Well, that's not his strength.

"When a player can do what he does, you've got to be smart with how you coach him during a game. Because if you take him out of his game, you're really handcuffing him.

"When Dawk was here and I was his position coach, it was about the same. Brian was a very instinctive player, a very emotional player. If you try and coach him too much, you take away from them what they do best.

"There were times when Brian was here where we'd just say, 'Hey, play your game.' With Asante, you can do the same thing at times, as long as he stays within the parameters of the defense."

There is no question that Samuel is the best ballhawk in the game right now, maybe one of the best ever. Proved it again Sunday night with the first of his two interceptions when he jumped a curl route by Nicks.

"Anytime you see a player do what he does, it becomes an art, really, for guys that are great at what they do," McDermott said. "He has God-given ability for sure, physically. But he also takes what he does seriously off the field. And he's very intelligent.

"He does more before the snaps than any corner I've seen in terms of what he identifies. Then, after the ball is snapped, he processes a lot of information on the run very quickly. That's what leads, I think, to a lot of those great anticipation plays." *

Send e-mail to pdomo@aol.com

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