Through the Denver Broncos' first eight games, cornerback Michael Ojemudia played, on average, 92.6% of snaps on defense. The rookie third-rounder started six of those games, holding down the boundary as the team's No. 2 cornerback in the wake of serious injuries at the position.
Then, suddenly, Ojemudia was a no-show. In the Broncos' 37-12 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 10, Ojemudia did not make an appearance on the field — outside of 13 special teams snaps.
With A.J. Bouye back from concussion protocol, the Broncos had their top corner in the lineup but that shouldn't have precluded Ojemudia from getting his snaps per se. In base defense, sure, the Broncos would want Bouye and Bryce Callahan on the boundary but in nickel, it was a surprise to see head coach Vic Fangio opt to keep Callahan mostly on the boundary and play Essang Bassey in the nickel.
“We just thought our best corner combination in that game would be to have Callahan and Bouye to play the corner spots full time based upon their receiver situation," Fangio said on Monday. "Bassey has continued to progress as the nickel and we felt comfortable with him in there.”
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Suffice to say, it was an odd decision. Ojemudia, after a very strong start to the season, posted a couple of tough rookie performances in back-to-back weeks, but to lose his job like that was a surprise. Meanwhile, Bassey has been a good tackler in the nickel but nothing to write home about in coverage.
On the surface, you could argue that Fangio's personnel juggling worked. The Broncos held Derek Carr to just 154 yards passing but with how the Raiders were running the ball at will, finishing with north of 200 rushing yards, it came as no surprise.
Carr's below-average day at the office was due more to the success of the Raiders' two-headed rushing attack with Josh Jacobs and Devontae Booker than it was Fangio's passing defense smothering Las Vegas' aerial attack. That's a fact.
Bassey finished with a couple of tackles as the nickel, while Bouye struggled in his first game back. Callahan was the only thing that allowed the Broncos' passing defense to limit Carr's air yards. Once again, Callahan was excellent.
On paper, the trio of Bouye, Callahan, and Ojemudia seems like the no-brainer combination at corner when the Broncos go into a sub-package. But reading between the lines of Fangio's remarks, it's likely to be based on matchups and the opposing personnel week to week.
To not see even one snap on defense, though, after playing more than 90% of his team's snaps can't have a great effect on Ojemudia's confidence as a rookie. There's nothing to indicate that Ojemudia did anything to get into Fangio's doghouse.
Based on Pro Football Focus' grades, Ojemudia and Bassey are ranked one after the other among rookie corners. Ojemudia ranks No. 10 among rookies, with Bassey at No. 11.
Ojemudia's PFF coverage grade, for whatever it's worth, is better than Bassey's, while Bassey's grade in run defense is the third-best among rookie corners. Perhaps that best explains Fangio's curious decision in Week 10.
You know that cliche Fangio is so fond of when it comes to cornerbacks: 'Tackling is non-negotiable'.
Perhaps the thought was to have the more sure tackling Bassey on the field in nickel to better guard against the Raiders' physical rushing attack. I can't say for sure. If Ojemudia returns to the lineup this week, that probably explains it.
But if it's Bassey again, there's more to the story than meets the eye with Ojemudia.