DB Review: Issues For DRC, Asomugha, Jarrett

Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Nnamdi AsomughaHere is my player-by-player review of the Eagles defensive backs after having re-watched Thursday night’s preseason game against the Steelers. I will provide breakdowns on the other positions on Friday and Saturday. Click here for the linebackers.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie – On one play in the first, he followed wide receiver Antonio Brown, who was in motion. Brown started out to the right of the formation, went in motion, but then came back. Last year, Eagles cornerbacks generally played one side or the other. But I think you’re going to seem Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha match up with specific receivers at times this year when it makes sense. Rodgers-Cromartie was good in coverage. He gave up a 7-yard completion on the play I just described, but later stayed with Emmanuel Sanders one-on-one as Ben Roethlisberger took a shot at him deep. However, Rodgers-Cromartie had a couple of issues we saw with him last year. He missed a tackle on running back Jonathan Dwyer, allowing him to pick up a few extra yards. And on the very next play, Rodgers-Cromartie launched himself at Byron Leftwich and picked up a 15-yard penalty. It was pretty much a textbook play of what you’re not supposed to do. He’s paid to cover, but Rodgers-Cromartie needs to be more reliable in the other aspects of his game.

Nnamdi Asomugha – As expected, he was used in different ways – both on the left and right sides. Asomugha assisted in run support on a 2-yard carry by Isaac Redman and again on a 4-yard run. It looked like the Eagles were in zone on a 3rd-and-11 play where Asomugha was initially on Sanders, but then passed him off. Roethlisberger found Sanders for a 17-yard completion before Jaiquawn Jarrett could get to him. On another play, Asomugha was used exactly how people want him to be used, playing man coverage on Antonio Brown and pressing at the line of scrimmage. The only problem? Asomugha got beat inside on a 14-yard completion. And you’ll be hard-pressed to find a bigger hole in a zone than the one he, Jarrett and Brian Rolle left on the Steelers’ first touchdown. Later, Asomugha didn’t exactly give great effort on Dwyer’s 33-yard run down the left sideline.

Joselio Hanson – He’s holding on to the first-team nickel corner job for now and made a couple very nice plays in this one. Hanson tackled Chris Rainey after a third-down completion and stopped him short of a first. He also made a good tackle on Redman in the flat on third down, forcing the Steelers to settle for a field goal. I’m getting close to re-considering my decision to leave him off the 53-man roster.

Curtis Marsh – I may have missed it, but don’t think we saw the Nickel Nnam with Marsh joining Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie. He mostly played left cornerback with the twos. Marsh had good coverage on wide receiver Toney Clemons, forcing quarterback Jerrod Johnson to throw the ball out of bounds on a designed rollout.

Brandon Hughes – He played right cornerback with the twos, but can’t say I noticed him one way or another. Don’t believe Hughes was targeted. He’s squarely on the roster bubble.

Brandon Boykin – I’ll get to his kickoff return when I do a special-teams review, but Boykin was the nickel corner on the second team. He had a chance to make a tackle on Rainey near the 10 on the 57-yard touchdowns, but couldn’t bring him down. It’s going to be interesting to see if he gets a chance to run with the ones in Hanson’s place at some point in the next few weeks.

Kurt Coleman – He started alongside Jarrett. Safety is an especially difficult position to evaluate off TV, but I thought he played fine. Coleman had three tackles, including one on Redman after a 5-yard gain.

Jaiquawn Jarrett – Not a good performance for the second-year safety. Jarrett bounced off Sanders after a 17-yard completion on 3rd-and-11. He missed a tackle on Brown, allowing him to pick up 6 extra yards in the second. Rainey ran right around him on the 3rd-and-13 draw that picked up a first. Jarrett came flying in and ran into Vinny Curry on Dwyer’s 33-yard run (must-see GIF right here). And he got blocked in the open field by backup lineman John Malecki on Rainey’s 57-yard touchdown. At this point, it’s tough to tell if Jarrett takes poor angles, is just slow, or both. I don’t mean to pile on the guy, but other than the one day at training camp where he looked good, he has not shown signs of contributing since being drafted in the second round.

Oshiomogho Atogwe – Not much action came his way. Atogwe finished with a pair of tackles (one solo). He lined up at safety alongside Jarrett with the second team. If Jarrett continues to struggle and Atogwe can show something, he’ll have a chance to make the team. Of course, there’s also the possibility that both guys make it.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.

10 Things To Watch: Eagles vs. Steelers

Philadelphia Eagles undrafted free agent Damaris Johnson.Football in Philadelphia makes its long-awaited return tonight as the Eagles host the Steelers at Lincoln Financial Field.

Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m., and the game will be broadcast locally on 6-ABC.

Tim and I will be there, and we’ll be hosting a live chat right here, so be sure to join us.

Meanwhile, here’s a cheat-sheet for you: 10 things to keep an eye on this evening.

1. Andy Reid – It’s been the toughest week of the coach’s career. As recently as last week, talk in this town centered around whether Reid would be coaching for his job in 2012. Since his son, Garrett, died Sunday morning, Reid and his family have been overwhelmed by support from the fans, the league and others.

I’ve noticed it too – talk-show callers, online commenters and so on. Those who are usually Reid’s harshest critics are now squarely in his corner. Eagles fans have had ups and downs with the coach over the last 13 years, but it’s clear that those in attendance at the Linc are going to do whatever they can tonight to support him. It should be a special moment when Reid first walks onto the field, or when his face is first shown on the big screen.

2. The return game – The Eagles got nothing from their punt and kickoff return units last year, as DeSean Jackson and Dion Lewis struggled to make things happen. To start the preseason, Damaris Johnson and Brandon Boykin will get a chance to lock down the punt and kickoff return jobs, respectively. Johnson, an undrafted free agent out of Tulsa, has a real shot to make the team with a strong preseason. Boykin will make the team regardless, but the Eagles want to see him stand out on kickoff returns. Remember, returns are difficult to simulate in practice without live hitting on special teams, so the preseason really is important here.

3. Bryce Brown/Chris Polk – I’d be surprised if Dion Lewis didn’t start the season as LeSean McCoy’s backup, but there’s still room for competition. After a stellar high school career, Brown ran into issues at both Tennessee and Kansas State. Consider this: Brown has carried the ball just three times in game action since November 28, 2009. That’s a span of nearly three years. There’s no doubt that the seventh-round pick is anxious to show what he can do, and he told me last week he’s on every special-teams unit right now, trying to find some way to make the team.

Polk, meanwhile, has started to come on. He had a 50-yard run last week and looks comfortable as a blocker and a receiver. There’s a small chance that both Brown and Polk make the team, but more likely, they are fighting for one roster spot.

4. Brandon Graham – The former first-round pick said he’s tired of talking and ready to show what he can do. He’s had a solid training camp, and with Trent Cole and Jason Babin sidelined, Graham will get plenty of reps early on vs. the Steelers. He had three sacks and 13 hurries as a rookie, but battled injuries (and his weight) last season. Graham won’t really prove anything until the real games begin, but tonight is another step in the process.

5. Boykin vs. Hanson – The Eagles know what they have in Joselio Hanson , a player who’s been with the team since 2006. They need to find out if Boykin can wrestle the nickel corner spot away from the veteran. If he can, Hanson will likely be cut. If he can’t, the Eagles will have to keep both corners and make a cut somewhere else. Boykin has looked good at Lehigh, but will need to prove himself in game action in the coming weeks.

6. McBriar vs. Henry – I realize a punter battle isn’t going to get anyone out of their seat, but the Eagles have plenty of room for improvement on special teams. Chas Henry was unimpressive as a rookie, and if Mat McBriar is healthy, he’s the favorite to win this job. On the Eagles’ official depth chart, McBriar iss listed as the No. 1 punter.

7. Demetress Bell – Filling in for Jason Peters will be no easy task. He’s certainly shown athleticism at training camp, but Howard Mudd needs to be comfortable with him by the time Week 1 rolls around. This will be Bell’s first game action. Pay special attention to running plays designed to go to the left side. The Eagles might even try a screen or two to that side to test his athleticism.

8. DeMeco Ryans - For the first part of training camp, he pretty much blended in with the group. But in recent practices, he’s started to show glimpses of the player the Eagles described when they acquired him from the Texans in the offseason. At Lehigh, Ryans has stayed on the field in nickel situations. Keep an eye on how he looks in coverage.

9. Jaiquawn Jarrett – Nate Allen won’t play, meaning Jarrett will get plenty of chances to show that he’s improved this offseason. The 2011 second-round pick  has had a few stand-out moments at training camp, but still needs to show that he’s not a liability in coverage. Oshiomogho Atogwe, who is more of a free safety, could mix in alongside Kurt Coleman as well.

10. Danny Watkins – He’s been a bit of a forgotten man this summer. Optimists point out that the Eagles’ offensive line could be better in 2012, even without Peters. The thinking is that second-year players Jason Kelce and Watkins will improve, and Todd Herremans, who was plugged in at right tackle just before the 2011 season started, will benefit from having played there for a full year. The spotlight for me is on Watkins. He played hesitant for much of his rookie year, and while Watkins had good moments as a run blocker, he struggled in pass protection. The Eagles need the former first-round pick to live up to expectations.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.

Boykin, Johnson Start Off As Returners

Eagles cornerback Brandon BoykinThe Eagles’ selection of Brandon Boykin in the fourth round of April’s draft made sense on a couple different levels.

For starters, he is expected to compete for the nickel corner job, currently occupied by Joselio Hanson. But also, Boykin can give the Eagles a much-needed boost in their return game, which was horrible in 2011.

According to Football Outsiders’ rankings, the Eagles ranked 24th on kickoff returns and 27th on punt returns. They don’t plan on using DeSean Jackson as the primary punt returner this season, although he isn’t being phased out completely.

“I want him to concentrate on the receiving end of it,” Reid said. “And most of all, we think we have guys that can contribute there and be effective, and that are explosive players. Now we have to see.”

Boykin’s one of those guys. Reid said he’s the primary kickoff returner for now. Boykin has also returned punts in the past (check out video below), but undrafted free agent Damaris Johnson will handle those to start off. It’s impossible to tell much of anything about how the returners look at practice, but that’s certainly something to keep an eye on when the preseason kicks off.

Meanwhile, Reid said Hanson is ahead of Boykin right now at the nickel corner spot, but he expects the rookie to compete for that job.

“I expect him to try to do that, but I’ll tell you, Joselio, one of his strengths is he knows what he’s doing,” Reid said. “And so Boykin’s got to put his nose to the grinder and make sure he learns and competes and challenges him, and I think he’ll do that.”

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.

Eagles Practice Observations

Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo talks to cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.One of the biggest criticisms Juan Castillo faced last year was that he completely misused Nnamdi Asomugha.

Asomugha earned the reputation of being one of the best man corners in the league while in Oakland. But when he arrived last summer, Castillo talked about using him in more of a Charles Woodson-type role. Covering tight ends, playing inside and outside, maybe even back as a safety on a given play or two.

While Castillo tweaked the defense as last season went on, one thing stayed the same: He used Asomugha in a variety of ways.

And based on the first full-squad practice at Lehigh, that’s going to happen in 2012 also.

On one of the first plays today, Asomugha lined up inside against backup tight end Chase Ford. Last year, playing Asmougha inside was simple because the Eagles had Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on the outside. But Samuel’s gone, and the new wrinkle today was that Curtis Marsh lined up outside at right cornerback.

Marsh, a third-round pick in 2011, played only 13 defensive snaps as a rookie. But with Samuel gone, he’s looking to fill a bigger role in his second season.

“We rotate. We have different guys that do different things well. It’s by gameplan,” Marsh said.

Last year, Asomugha was effective against opposing tight ends. He was matched up against Jason Witten quite a bit, and the Cowboys tight end totaled just 52 yards receiving in two games against the Eagles.

“If you play a team with a really good tight end, we can virtually take that tight end out of the game, so that’s another advantage,” Marsh said.

Of course, this was only the first glimpse of the Eagles’ defense this summer, so there could be plenty of changes ahead.

Some other practice observations…

* Samuel, generally the most vocal player at training camp, is in Atlanta. And it looks like Darryl Tapp will assume the role of Eagle most likely to be heard during practice. “If you want to know who the energy source of our group is at practice, it’s Darryl,” Jim Washburn said earlier this week. Tapp is entering his seventh season, and Cullen Jenkins is entering his ninth, yet they were as enthusiastic as anyone in the 96-degree heat.

* You should take all depth chart notes with a grain of salt, but Derek Landri saw a lot of time with the first-team, alongside Jenkins, in Mike Patterson’s place. Landri played nearly 71 percent of the defensive snaps with the Panthers back in 2010, but many believed he would benefit from fewer snaps with the Eagles. And that turned out to be the case. Landri was an effective rotational player, and his playing time increased towards the end of the season (more than 50 percent of the team’s snaps in each of the last five games).

But if Patterson’s not ready to go when the Eagles play the Browns in Week 1, my money’s still on rookie Fletcher Cox to start alongside Jenkins.

* It looks like Dion Lewis will open camp as the No. 2 running back behind LeSean McCoy.

* The linebackers were lined up as you’d expect: DeMeco Ryans in the middle, Brian Rolle at the WILL and Mychal Kendricks at the SAM. There were quite a few different combinations in nickel: Ryans and Kendricks, Ryans and Rolle, Kendricks and Jamar Chaney. As linebackers coach Mike Caldwell pointed out earlier this week, there will likely be different nickel packages, based on down and distance. So seeing those different combinations is not surprising.

* Casey Matthews was in the middle with the second team. Chaney and Jordan were on the outside.

* Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman were the first-team safeties with Oshiomogho Atogwe and Jaiquawn Jarrett running with the second team.

* The second defensive line foursome featured Brandon Graham, Cox, Antonio Dixon and Tapp.

* I didn’t see rookie Brandon Boykin get any reps with the first-team nickel. Aside from the Asomugha/Marsh/Rodgers-Cromartie combination, Joselio Hanson mixed in to his usual spot. The second-team corners were Marsh and Brandon Hughes on the outside, with Boykin in the slot.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.

Eagles Training Camp Preview: Cornerbacks

Leading up to the first full-squad practice, our position-by-position preview continues with a look at the Eagles’ cornerbacks.

Save ‘em a spot: Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Brandon Boykin, Curtis Marsh.

Somewhere along the line, I started to hear the argument that the Eagles’ defense finally started playing well last year when they used Asomugha in man coverage on one side of the field. But that wasn’t really the case. Very late into last season, Asomugha was still being used in a variety of ways, including inside against tight ends.

Yesterday, when veterans arrived, T-Mac asked Asomugha if he still expected to be used in different ways this season, and he said he did. The idea is that Juan Castillo now knows what worked and what didn’t work with him in 2011. But don’t expect Asomugha to just line up on the right side and play man coverage the whole game.

One other nugget to share about Asomugha. While he did not have a good season, opposing quarterbacks still stayed away from him quite a bit. According to Pro Football Focus, Asomugha was targeted about 6.3 percent of the time when he was in coverage. As a point of reference, Asante Samuel was targeted about 12.6 percent of the time. The problem with Asomugha, of course, was that when he was targeted, he gave up too many big plays.

As for Rodgers-Cromartie, he clearly looked more comfortable once the Eagles moved him to the outside, and that’s where he’ll line up in 2012. My guess is you’re going to read a lot of glowing reviews about Rodgers-Cromartie at training camp. But remember, this is the kind of environment in which he gets to show off his top-end speed and athleticism. The problem last year was that he was careless once opposing wide receivers made catches against him, and his tackling was poor.

Considering he’s scheduled to be a free agent at the end of the season, perhaps this is the year Rodgers-Cromartie will put it all together. But I’m in wait-and-see mode. Remember, the Cardinals were willing to include him in the Kevin Kolb deal even though Rodgers-Cromartie was only 25 and had already made a Pro Bowl.

Boykin, meanwhile, is a lock to make the roster, but will he start out the season as the nickel corner? According to Football Outsiders, the Eagles played nickel about 47 percent of the time last year. It’s up to Boykin to unseat Joselio Hanson and take over that role.

And finally, there’s Marsh. A third-round pick in 2011, he’ll have the inside track on one of the backup jobs, which is important because it means he could be called on should Asomugha or Rodgers-Cromartie suffer an injury. Marsh only played 13 snaps as a rookie, though, so he’s largely an unknown at this point.

Fighting for a job: Joselio Hanson, Brandon Hughes, Cliff Harris, Trevard Lindley, Wade Bonner.

Hughes saw some action last year, most notably in the Patriots game, but did not play particularly well. He has a good chance to make the roster, but will have to hold off the other names on this list.

As for Hanson, don’t forget that the Eagles cut him last year before eventually bringing him back. He was better than Rodgers-Cromartie in the slot, but did not play particularly well and turns 31 in August. The Eagles know what they have in Hanson. If he happens to make the team and win the nickel corner spot, it will be more of a reflection on what they’re not seeing out of Boykin.

Harris has been a play-maker through the first three days of camp. Assuming the Eagles keep five or six cornerbacks, competition is open, and he could push for a backup spot, especially if Harris is able to contribute on special teams.

Lindley, a fourth-round pick in 2010, and Bonner, an undrafted free agent, are longshots.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.

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