Asomugha and Eagles defense figure it out

Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha dives low to intercept a tipped Tony Romo pass. The defense held the Cowboys to just one TD.
Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha dives low to intercept a tipped Tony Romo pass. The defense held the Cowboys to just one TD. (RON CORTES/ Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 31, 2011

Nnamdi Asomugha, using his length and athleticism, lunged to pluck the floating ball out of the air - interception. That's what the Eagles thought they were getting when they signed the prized free agent to a $60 million deal in the summer.

Asomugha stood and - in front of the Dallas bench - extended his arms to each side, holding the pose for more than a few moments. That's not what they expected. Asomugha is supposed to be the cool, cerebral complement to the loquacious Asante Samuel.

But for one play he seemed to revel in adulation, soaking in cheers after disappointing in the very early stages of his Eagles career. It looked like a defiant pose, though Asomugha said later that it wasn't that.

"I just didn't have another celebration. I didn't practice anything," he said about the play he made in zone coverage – the kind that had caused him problems earlier in the year. He said the slow start had made him impatient.

"I expect to be great from the start," he said. "Learning new things, it's been a big challenge this year for me, just learning new stuff. I've gone for eight years without having to learn that many new things."

Asomugha turned in his best game of the season Sunday as the Eagles defense delivered the kind of performance that the team envisioned when they revamped the unit in the offseason.

"It's a turning point. That's how we're going to look at it," said cornerback Asante Samuel.

The Eagles offense set the tone with a score on the opening drive, and the defense matched them on Dallas' first series. Jason Babin spun like a tornado to sack Tony Romo on the Cowboys' fourth play, and Trevor Laws brought the quarterback down two plays later. Trent Cole added a sack in his first game back after missing the last two games with a calf injury. Jamar Chaney, the second-year linebacker who struggled to begin the season, had one of his best showings of the year.

Time appears to have helped this defense come together. Maybe a slow start should have been expected with an inexperienced coordinator and five new starters. But after the ugly beginning, the question had to be asked: Could the defense turn it around? And could they do it soon enough to keep the season viable?

The answer has come the last two weeks. The Eagles held Washington to 13 points in their last game, tallied four interceptions, and stifled the run. Of course, it was against a one-dimensional team. Sunday, against a better opponent, the defense was even more impressive.

"We're not thinking as much, we've repped it so many times," Asomugha said. That makes a big difference, he said, after the shortened offseason. "We're making up for the time that we missed."

This wasn't a Rex Grossman special the Eagles were taking advantage of. The Cowboys entered the game averaging 24.8 points per game - 10th in the NFL - and putting up 415.5 yards per game, sixth best.

The Eagles shut them down at every turn. Asomugha was in the middle of it - often literally, taking on the multifaceted role that the coaches first envisioned.

He played press coverage on wide receiver Dez Bryant. He played in the slot in the nickel package, allowing Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to move to the right cornerback position, where he feels more comfortable. And he tracked dangerous tight end Jason Witten. He ended the night with two passed defended and his second interception of the season.

The seven points the Eagles allowed were the fewest since the Eagles limited Jacksonville to three in Week 3 last season.

"We would have loved to have shut 'em out," Asomugha said.

On the night the Eagles honored the late defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, their "D" put on the kind of performance any defensive guru could appreciate. They punctuated the night by stopping a late Dallas drive that moved to the Eagles 2-yard line. Asomugha blanketed Bryant on third down, and Babin sacked Romo on fourth, just like they pictured it.

Asomugha pumped his fist as he ran 30 yards downfield then delivered a chest bump that knocked Castillo to the ground.

As Asomugha sent a message to the home crowd, perhaps the Eagles defense sent a message to its remaining opponents: After a few weeks and a bye, it may have figured this thing out.


Contact staff writer Jonathan Tamari at 215-854-5214, jtamari@phillynews.com, or @JonathanTamari on Twitter.

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