A receiver's eye view of the Eagles CBs, courtesy of Roddy White
ATLANTA -- After practice concluded last Friday with a short talk from coach Mike Smith, Falcons players quickly made their way into the locker room so they could change and take advantage of the rest of the afternoon. Roddy White was an exception. The standout wide receiver walked off the field, through a back door and made a hard right into a dark meeting room. There, he took a seat near the back wall, grabbed a laser pointer and began drawing tight red circles on the large projection screen in the front of the room.
The Falcons would play the Eagles in a nationally televised primetime game two days later, and White wanted to get one final look at a Philadelphia secondary whose top three cornerbacks are former Pro Bowlers following the offseason additions of Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to go with Asante Samuel.
"The group is good because they have so many good athletes," White says while watching cut-ups from Eagles' season-opening win over the Rams. "Everybody in the league is going to three- and four-wideout sets, and they believe these three can guard you all over the field when they're out there together. That allows them to blitz and bring more people after the quarterback and get sacks or tipped balls or force bad throws that lead to interceptions. You have to be on your game against them."
After a week of studying the Eagles' defense in general, and their cornerbacks in particular, White provided a visitor with his thoughts on the players' strengths and weaknesses and how a receiver has to attack them to be successful. One by one he circled Asomugha, Samuel and Rodgers-Cromartie in the game against the Rams and discussed why a receiver won or lost an individual battle in third-and-long situations.
"Going in we know that Asante is always the right corner," White says. "That's where he's most comfortable. He doesn't really like traveling and [matching up] with guys. He likes to stay on that side and play the wide side of the field, where he can see everything. He likes to play off [the ball by 7 or 8 yards] and read the quarterback's eyes so he can jump routes. He's a good route recognition guy. Obviously he studies film and does a good job with that.
"Nnamdi is on the other side. He's the boundary corner, which means he's on the short side of the field. He usually guards the X position, away from the strong side of the formation, and likes to get up and play 'press' coverage. He likes to be in your face and disrupt the timing of your routes. Cromartie is very athletic. He kind of does what Asante does, plays off, drives on balls, plays soft. If he does bump you, he usually shadows you because he feels he can run with you because he's got great speed."
White formed his evaluations by not only recalling previous games against the players -- he faced Asomugha (2008) and Rodgers-Cromartie (2010) once each when they were with the Raiders and Cardinals, respectively, and he lined up against Samuel a handful of times since Samuel signed with Philadelphia in 2008 -- but also by studying the Eagles' four preseason games and regular season opener this year.
As he sat in the back of the room, eyes glued on the images in front of him, he used a clicker to fast forward and rewind certain plays and players to emphasize his scouting report on the cornerbacks.
"When dealing with a guy like Asante, it's more likely that you run hitches and posts, things that require you to run right at him so you can block his vision," White says. "He wants to sit back there and look in the backfield. He'll line up on a receiver's outside shoulder so he can see the quarterback, then he just reads the route while looking into the backfield. It's hard to beat Asante deep because he's not going to let you get behind him. You have to beat him with a lot of underneath routes and routes that go right at him and disrupt him. He likes to jump routes, so you want to avoid things like 'out' routes and corner routes against him, because those allow him to look in and see the quarterback's eyes. He does a really good job of breaking on the ball, and nine times out of 10 he intercepts them and takes them back to the house. You want to stay away from that.
"Cromartie is the same type of player, but he's a lot faster. He'll bump you sometimes, but it's not a hard jam because he feels he has the speed to run with you. Nnamdi is completely different."
White extends the laser and begins circling No. 24 at the top of the screen.
"Look at Nnamdi," he says. "He likes to get in your face, jam you, disrupt routes that way. He likes to be down at the line of scrimmage and get his hands on you and disrupt the timing. With a guy like this you really have to use your feet. You have to give yourself some room against him. Even if you're on the open side of the formation, you can back off the line by a half yard because all the officials require is that you cover up the tackle on that side. This guy right here ..."
White circles the receiver Asomugha is preparing to press.
"... He's doing a bad job, to me, because I would never have been this close to the line of scrimmage," Roddy continues. "Nnamdi's arms are so long that it makes it very easy for him to get his hands on you. That's his comfort zone. So you back this out a half-yard, get some distance and prevent him from getting his hands on you. And with a guy like him you've got to use your feet -- hands and feet. You've got to get ready and put your hands up quickly because he's going to launch at you and try to put his hands on you to disrupt routes. So you always have to be going forward and your hands in a position to be above his, because if you can get his hands away from you, then you can pretty much dominate."
White demonstrates from his chair what he is talking about. Normally receivers will use what's known as a "swim move" to get past cornerbacks in press coverage. The wideout will push or pull a defender to one side, then raise his arm on that side in a swimming motion so he can step past the off-balance defensive back.
With Asomugha, White says receivers are better off "ripping" than "swimming." It's essentially the same move, only the receiver does not raise his arm as high and he uses more force by essentially pulling the cornerback forward.
"Nnamdi's a launcher, so he steps forward and shoots his hands at your chest," White says. "Knowing that, and being back a half-yard, you kind of hesitate off the ball because you know he wants to lunge at you and get his hands on you. So you slow-play it. As soon as he takes his foot forward, you know his hands are coming, so you want to rip over them when you're playing him. You don't want to do a swim move because he can still get his hands on you. You want to rip because you can pull him and get by him.
"Once you get around him, he's so long and tall (6-foot-2) it's hard for him to get out of breaks. That's the thing that people don't understand when you watch this guy because he's so good at getting his hands on people. But when he doesn't, it's hard for him to get in and out of breaks and get to people. That's our game plan, come up here and get our hands and feet ready to go.
"But it's got to be rapid fire, you've always got to be going forward, because if he shoots his hands and misses he'll just bounce back and try to get back in front of you. So if you're just pitter-patting at the line and not gaining ground, he's still in front of you, and he does a good job staying in front of people. He's a technician at what he does. He studies hard, so he believes in everything he sees.
"You've got to disrupt his comfort zone, because if he can hop back and stay in front of you, he can pretty much dominate you the entire game. But if you can get his hands down, then he's all out of his comfort zone and that's when you start running routes and you can beat the guy. But the minute you commit, you have to go.
"He likes to see you dance, because once he shoots his hands and is able to back up and see what you're doing, and you're still at the line of scrimmage, he feels like he's winning because while you're dancing the rush is already on the quarterback. If you're only two yards off the line of scrimmage after a second or two, the route is disrupted and he's pretty much won."
Interestingly, the Falcons did not consistently test the Eagles' corners in the 35-31 Atlanta win two days after this tutorial. Instead, they relied on tight end Tony Gonzalez, whose seven catches matched the total output for the team's receivers and whose two scores were one more than the wideouts had. White finished with three catches for 23 yards and a touchdown.
Philadelphia also did a good job of masking its tendencies. For instance, it likely reasoned that the Falcons would anticipate off coverage from Samuel and attempt to run an inside route, so on one play it had a safety trail wideout Julio Jones off the line of scrimmage to take away the underneath route, and Samuel then jumped a post pattern for an interception.
Another time, Asomugha feigned as if he were playing "off" man coverage, but released the receiver downfield and sat in zone coverage. The move appeared to catch quarterback Matt Ryan off guard. Ryan likely thought Asomugha would continue downfield and aimed a pass in the area where Asomugha normally would have turned his back to run with the receiver. Advantage, Eagles. Asomugha sat in his "zone" for his first interception of the season.
"When you got a guy like that and you give him $60 million, you expect him to cover one-on-one all the way down the field," White said of Asomugha beforehand. "But they'll move him around."
The Giants are next up for the Eagles. Quarterback Eli Manning finally broke out of a passing funk late in Monday's win over the Rams and likely will have to be on his game Sunday because the Giants lack a pass-catching tight end who can exploit the Eagles' deficiencies at safety. If New York's wideouts needed a breakdown on how to beat the Philly corners, they could do a lot worse than listening to White.