The Eagles are in the best position possible heading into the playoffs. With a first-round bye secured and home field advantage clinched, all of the boxes needed to ignite a Super Bowl run have been ticked. A sold-out Lincoln Financial will give the Birds a significant boost when the time comes, but Jim Schwartz will be reliant on his cornerbacks to hold the fort while his pass rush does what it does best; wreak havoc. As the corners go, the pass rush goes…something that has been abundantly clear in the last few games.
With just 9 sacks in their last 6 outings, the Eagles pass-rush has lost some of its fire…but it may not be through a fault of their own. For a pass-rush to be successful, they need time to get to the quarterback. The Eagles corners have been unable to provide that over the last quarter of the season, succumbing to sluggo routes and becoming victims of their own ability. Off-coverage has ruled the day, but it’s allowed teams to throw everything underneath and look to exploit the likes of Jalen Mills.
If there’s one cornerback who understands off-coverage better than anyone, it’s 2-time Super Bowl winner, Asante Samuel. The four-time Pro Bowler who garnered the nickname ‘Mr Pick Six’ is arguably one of the greatest ‘off’ corners to ever play the game.
Its a whole process.” The former Eagles corner said of the off-technique in an exclusive interview. “You have to be 90-game, which is eyes on the quarterback. Read the three step drop. If he takes it to a five step drop, you get your eyes back to the receiver and when it gets to 10-12 yards, then comes the move area when you go to routes.
That in itself has been a problem for the Eagles. In his rookie season, Jalen Mills had his back to the ball a little too often and while that trait may have disappeared into the wind somewhat, the Eagles are lacking consistency when lining up 8-10 yards away from the ball, relying on their tackling skills to pull them out of troubled waters. The most prominent issue recently however has been double-moves. Slant’n’go (sluggo) routes have proven to be problematic for just about every corner in recent weeks.
With nine interceptions in 2009, Samuel tied for second in Eagles history, tying with Don Burroughs. A true ballhawk who led the NFL in picks twice during his career, Samuel expressed a calm and composed mindset when discussing off-coverage and why the Birds may be struggling.
If you see it’s hurting you as a team, you need to work on it and make sure your cornerbacks understand that.” Samuel said, alluding to something that needs to be worked on behind the scenes and in the film room. “But I think thats the problem with cornerbacks paramount. When coaches coach teams, they dont really talk about double moves. They say this is whats gonna happen, make the play. And if something else happens, its your fault.
Of course theres time to be aggressive.” Samuel balanced before going on to explain a clear fundamental that may be lacking. “But you have to understand theres always a double move behind every route. You cant be aggressive all the time, you have to make sure the ball is coming out of the quarterbacks hands. Thats the thing I did great as a cornerback that people dont realize. I could see the ball coming out of the quarterbacks hands. If the ball didnt come out, I didnt jump the route. Thats why I rarely got beaten on double moves.
It all comes back to technique. Something that Samuel was happy to talk about at length. Drafted in 2003 by the New England Patriots, Samuel enjoyed a phenomenal career decorated in accolades. From the highs of a Super Bowl win, to the lows of the controversy with the Eagles, which he opened up on last year, The 36-year old has experienced it all.
“Every move, you cant just think the ball is coming.” Samuel said, telling me some of the things he learned during his time in the NFL. “The Eagles are playing aggressive on those slants but they have to know the difference of when the ball is coming out and not to just jump it. Maybe they should go and watch some film on me and watch my eyes when everyone tried to run slants and gos on me because thats all anyone tried to do, was run double moves.
There has been a clear push from the outside to see more aggressive coverage from the Eagles. Seeing corners get up in the grill of some of the best wideouts in the game (as coveted rookie Sidney Jones did in is debut) in order to disrupt those short-route timing patterns is something that has been craved by fans for a number of years, but Samuel also shed some light on why we’re seeing that less and less in the NFL.
When I came into the league, everybody was like you have to press, you have to be up in his face. Samuel said, his voice becoming increasingly passionate. “Im the one that had to be bold and tell my coaches Im getting a lot of interceptions like this, so let me play like this. I did it and it worked out great. Now, the NFL is changing and a lot of teams are playing off coverage because they realize what I realized a long time ago. They changed the rules. A receiver can push up on you and theyre not gonna call it. Its easier to get a deep ball on you in press coverage. Even the best corners are beaten back-to-back-to-back in press. I just played my percentages.
Back to Sidney Jones however, Samuel was quick to recognize the progress of the Washington product who made his NFL debut just one week ago. In his sophomore season, Jones led the pac-12 in pass breakups with 12, intercepting 4 and showing his strength as a tackler, forcing three fumbles. One year later, he would pick off another three passes as well as breaking up a further six..being named first-team All-Pac 12 in the process. Jones has a firm punch at the line of scrimmage when initiating bump-and-run coverage and has incredible spatial awareness.
I watched Sidney Jones, he looked great.” Samuel said, with excitement filling his response. “He had great footwork. I think he could be a little better of his back foot and that stops you from being so fast to jump things and youll be able to see things better. I think he could change his leverage, sometimes inside, sometimes outside, it depends on the coverage.
Jones and the Eagles are now in a very tough predicament. Does Jim Schwartz ramp up the tempo on defense, or perhaps tone it back and look to ‘bend and not break’? For Samuel, the answer was spine-chilling.
No you get more aggressive.” Authoritative and bold in his statement. The tone of Samuel’s voice changed from excited, to passionate. You could hear that competitive fire raging inside him as it did when he took to the field. “The game is on the line. I want the ball. I want you to throw it at me. I DARE you to throw it at me cause Ill pick it off, make you regret it and break all the records if you keep throwing it at me. Thats how you feel. Come throw the ball at me if you want some. Thats how youve gotta see it. You need to dream about it in your sleep.
I concluded the interview with one simple question. If he were inside the Eagles locker room, talking to a group of young corners, many of whom are experiencing playoff football for the first time, what would his advice be?
Everything that happened in the past doesnt matter. This is a new season. We come out as confident as ever. Were gonna make plays, fly around and have a good time. Learn the tendencies, learn what teams like to do. Believe in yourself and have a good time.