Rich Hofmann: Asomugha questions Eagles' late-game defensive strategy

Calvin Johnson pulls in a pass behind Nnamdi Asomugha in the fourth quarter.
Calvin Johnson pulls in a pass behind Nnamdi Asomugha in the fourth quarter. (DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: October 16, 2012

AND SO, the Eagles enter the bye week with a stumble - and, maybe, some rumblings.

The stumble, you saw - in fantastic technicolor, when the Eagles blew a 10-point lead in the last 5 minutes of the fourth quarter and lost to the Detroit Lions in overtime, 26-23. The rumblings were more subtle, and much more interesting.

Because it was after the game that cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha made the following point, with neither rancor nor accusation: that the Lions' Calvin Johnson, perhaps the NFL's best receiver, went crazy in the fourth quarter and overtime because the Eagles changed some of their defensive scheme, adding blitzes and altering the coverage that had Asomugha chasing Johnson around the formation most of the time in the first three quarters.

Johnson had one catch for 28 yards in the first three quarters, without much blitzing and with Asomugha mostly assigned to run around with him. Johnson had five catches for 107 yards in the fourth quarter and overtime, when Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was more involved in the coverage and the blitz was more of a tactic.

On the blitzing:

"The fourth quarter was a lot of blitzing," Asomugha said. "So, the fourth quarter, they were able to find the matchups they wanted amidst the blitzing. You could say, 'You should blitz more,' but we did that and it didn't help us in the end."

On the coverage:

"We kind of just mixed it up," he said. "I was on him most of the game. I think when we got to the fourth quarter, there was a lot more trying to give him a different look. We talked about, 'Let's give him something else,' so that he doesn't get comfortable with the one guy or however it is. So we just wanted to give him a different look. So there were some times that Dominique, especially in the fourth quarter, would go to him. But it wasn't something in particular."

Asomugha is a veteran player. That is what he said. The words mean something, especially in a town where Juan Castillo is still a controversial figure as the defensive coordinator. To openly question a coach's tactical decisions like that will not go unnoticed by the organizational hierarchy.

With that, enjoy the bye week.

Another thing: Asomugha, who also had an interception against the Lions, made it pretty plain that he did not agree with the change in tactics at the end. He knew exactly what the questions were about, and he knew where reporters were headed with their follow-ups, and while he did not pile on, he did not flinch, either.

Question: "As a player, when things go so well for three quarters, is there a sense of wanting to make the other team prove that they can beat what you're doing before you start trying to change things up?"

Asomugha: "Um . . . yeah."

Question: "As a veteran guy on this team whose opinion is respected, is that a spot where you go to your coaches and say, 'Hey, this is working, let's try to use more of what's working.'"

Asomugha: "Um . . . yes."

Question: "Nnamdi, you did change what was working."

Asomugha: "Well, I don't know if we changed what was working. I would just say that I know that we blitzed a lot more toward the end of the game and we didn't do as much blitzing the first 3 1/2 quarters . . . "

Interpret it as you will. The game was an abomination, and there is no denying it. In the NFL, in the last 10 years, a team that held a 10-point lead with 5:18 left in the fourth quarter won the game 205 out of 215 times, which is 95.3 percent of the time, which is a boatload. (All hail the database at pro-football-reference.com.) We all just watched the Eagles get flattened by Halley's comet, or the football equivalent.

But now all of the defensive issues from 2011 are also back on the table. They have now blown leads at the end of the last two games. They are beginning to mimic the historic beneficence with which they started last season. They thought they were past it, but they clearly are not.

"It's very difficult," Asomugha said. "It's very difficult, especially with a bye week. You're not treating the bye week the same as you would have treated it had we come away with the victory. That's why you just see a lot of heads hanging in here, because we know it's a different bye week now. Three-and-three is behind the eight-ball. We've got to now pick it up."

But now there is this business about blitzing and coverage schemes to chew on. Is it real or just a guy groping for something in a losing locker room? No one knows, not yet. But after an ending as bad as this one, this bears watching - because this game should have been unlosable.

"One hundred percent, you have to win that," Asomugha said. "If you can't win those games, then you've got to go back to the drawing board and see what's going on. You've got to be able to close out a game like that. I think we all feel like that on defense."

One hundred percent. Or, at the very minimum, 95.3.


Contact Rich Hofmann at hofmanr@phillynew.com. Follow him on Twitter @theidlerich. Read his blog at philly.com/TheIdleRich, or for recent columns go to philly.com/RichHofmann.

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