How Not To Cover Larry Fitzgerald

There's a logical way to cover Larry Fitzgerald: in man coverage, with safety help. That's not what the Eagles did. Time to break down this down using the All-22 coaches film.

Let's start with the first three Cardinals pass plays, each of which went for a first down. In the first one, Fitzgerald lines up to the bottom. To call him a decoy would probably be generous. What we're really looking at is another classic example of "Putting Nnamdi Asomugha in a zone."

Pre-snap alignment. Asomugha (in red) to drop into zone.

With the Eagles in Cover 3, Nnamdi drops way back, leaving space open.

Next play. This time we're going to Fitzgerald. He's in the slot, opposite Boykin. The post route by the tight end inside of him is going to draw Mychal Kendricks and Nate Allen away, leaving a one-on-one matchup against the rookie corner.

Pre-snap alignment.

Easy pitch-and-catch. Then Fitz breaks Boykin's tackle attempt.

Two plays later: Fitzgerald is a decoy again. He comes across the formation pre-snap, pulling the linebackers to his side.

The tight end to the left runs a pick on Kendricks, leaving the RB open in the flat.

Later in the game, here's another time the Cardinals isolate Fitzgerald on Boykin:

Easy throw to the outside.

The Cardinals kept picking on Boykin, even when he didn't line up across from Fitzgerald:

Eagles are in Cover 2. Fitz runs a slant away from Nnamdi.

Nnamdi stays outside, Boykin drawn to slot receiver. Easy catch and run for Fitz.

To be fair to Boykin, I doubt Asomugha was supposed to let Fitzgerald run clean to the inside on that route. One of the things you notice with Asomugha is that he's rarely the cause of major coverage breakdowns. However, he doesn't seem particularly interested in working extra hard to cover up other defenders' mistakes either — whether it's on this play, where he doesn't even try to run inside to tackle Fitz, or on the touchdown catch (See Chris Brown's thorough examination of that one). Asomugha is a limited player these days, and sometimes it looks like he would rather make sure everyone knows it's not his fault than actually go 110% to make up for his own deficiencies.

In other, non-Fitzgerald news, it would be nice if the defense didn't miss tackles like it's 2011. Yes, I know this play was called back, but still:

1. DeMeco Ryans

2 & 3. Asomugha and Kurt Coleman

4. Allen

5. Kendricks

Go DRC! It's only a 79 yard gain.

More to come from the All-22 tomorrow.

Bowles Was Supposed To Be The Smart One

The offense deserves the brunt of criticism after this loss (and there will be more to come on that front), but I wanted to take a moment to recognize the greatest error in over-thinking and outsmarting yourself we have seen since Juan Castillo was named defensive coordinator. Take it away, Tim McManus:

“We came into the week, I was going to shadow [Larry Fitzgerald],” said Asomugha. “We kind of had an idea, I think Coach [Todd] Bowles had an idea that that’s what they were figuring, so they were going to move him and put him in all sorts of different places. So we said let’s just let’s just stay on our sides and make sure that Boykin is at the nickel, keep Dominique on the outside. That was our plan, and they were able to do some things to take advantage of it."

So, the only logical thing was to play Fitzgerald man-to-man with one or both of your top-flight corners. Instead, because that's what the Cardinals would expect, you do the exact opposite? This is the point where we note that Fitzgerald had 7 receptions for 105 yards and a TD in the first half, before the Eagles switched back to man coverage and he caught only 2 passes for 9 yards the rest of the way.

Please file this report under: "Why you lose football games."

How the Cardinals Exploited the Eagles Defense

Larry Fitzgerald Eagles

I didn’t set out to determine what happened in last Sunday’s fourth quarter collapse. Instead, I only wanted to know how the Eagles attempted to cover Larry Fitzgerald during the entire game. The subsequent conclusion only came by accident.

I re-watched every Cardinals offensive play and recorded where Fitzgerald lined up, the Eagles player who matched up across from him, the result of the play, and my best assessment of the coverage scheme. My full notes can be found in this Google spreadsheet.

Let’s start by looking at Fitzgerald and the Eagles through the first three quarters. Here’s what I complied starting with where the receiver lined up, who covered him and how, and the results of passes targeted at him.

1st-3rd Quarters (52 plays)
Slot (6)
(3) DRC press, 1-1, 42 yards
(2) Hanson off, 0-0
(1) Coleman off, 0-0

Flanker/Split End - Right (24)
(19) Samuel off, 1-3, 12 yards, 1 TD, 1 int — Mostly zone, zone blitz
(4) Samuel press, 0-0

Flanker/Split End - Left (24)
(16) Asomugha press, 0-1 — Mostly man to man
(6) Asomugha off, 1-1, 15 yards (called back, off. holding)
(1) DRC press, 0-0

For starters, we see that Fitzgerald lined up wide on both sides of the formation equally, 24 plays each, with 6 slot appearances thrown into the mix. When Fitzgerald was in the slot, he received a mixed bag of coverage and caught one big pass against Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (didn’t help that Kurt Coleman missed a tackle). Against Asante Samuel on the right side, Fitzgerald mostly encountered zone coverage between Samuel and Jaiquawn Jarrett. Finally, on the left, Nnamdi Asomugha largely played man-to-man press coverage.

Overall, Juan Castillo’s secondary did well against Fitzgerald through three quarters. They limited his targets to only 6 in 52 plays and only 2 official receptions. The touchdown came when Fitzgerald cut inside against the zone and split two linebackers.

So what happened in the fourth quarter?

4th Quarter (21 plays)
Slot (5)
(2) Asomugha off, 0-0
(1) DRC press, 0-0
(1) Hanson off, 1-1, 11 yards
(1) Coleman off, 0-0

Flanker/Split End - Right (8)
(7) Samuel off, 4-6, 83 yards, 1 TD
(1) Hanson press, 0-0

Flanker/Split End - Left (8)
(7) Asomugha press, 0-1
(1) Asomugha off, 0-0

Fitzgerald took a few extra snaps in the slot, which Castillo partially countered by assigning Asomguha to a couple of those plays. Yet again Fitzgerald split his time equally on both sides. The big difference came in the number of targets and completions against Samuel in zone coverage on the right side.

John Skelton only targeted Fitzgerald 6 times total through the first three quarters. That pattern continued in the fourth quarter in all but one formation. Skelton threw to his big target 6 times just in the final quarter against Samuel.

That wouldn’t be a big deal except that he also completed 4 of those passes for 83 yards and one touchdown, including the biggest play of the game, when Samuel let his man go and Jarrett got beat deep, leading to the game-winning touchdown.

There’s blame enough for all. Samuel certainly didn’t play at a Pro Bowl level and Jarrett looked like a rookie making his first start. But the most damning thing is how predictable the defense looked in each formation. By the time the fourth quarter arrived, the Cardinals knew exactly the type of match up they’d have on Fitzgerald in each position, and they exploited that by attacking the Eagles tandem on the right side for the final 15 minutes.

On that game-changing pass, for example, the Cardinals knew that if they stuck Fitzgerald on the right side, chances were he’d be in zone coverage with Samuel on the outside and Jarrett deep. A crossing route underneath to woo Asante, a double move to fool the rookie, and the Cardinals won the game.

That’s how you lose five fourth quarter leads.

Photo from Getty.

By the Numbers: What an Embarrassment

Eagles Fan

There were a number of awful parts to the latest Eagles debacle. But by far the worst, to my mind, was the utterly embarrassing play of Michael Vick.

Eagles fans are used to Andy Reid refusing to run the ball. They are used to seeing a wide receiver corps that consists of a bunch of 3rd stringers. At this point, the inability of the back seven to provide any deterrence in coverage or protect yet another fourth quarter lead is commonplace and expected.

Vick had his legs yesterday, and made some typically great scrambles. But his passing was atrocious on a number of levels. Certainly the defense deserves a lot of blame today, but a $100 million quarterback cannot be outplayed by John Skelton. That’s inexcusable.

47.1% = Michael Vick’s completion percentage. That was the second-most inaccurate performance Vick has had since he returned to the NFL, and it contributed to his worst quarterback rating since 2006. I know he was missing his two favorite targets, but I’m not sure they would have helped much. Vick kept making terrible decisions, throwing into double coverage more than once. Truthfully, he’s lucky to only have two interceptions.

6 = LeSean McCoy carries in the second half. The second half playcalling was perhaps the worst by Marty Mornhinweg since he assumed those duties in 2006. Vick was having a poor day and was missing both Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson. McCoy was his typical self, running at a 5.8 yard per carry average — much higher than Vick’s 3.8 passing yards per attempt. And yet, with a touchdown lead, the solution was to pass?

8 = Punts by Chas Henry. He only had 20 total through the first 8 games.

3/4 = Cardinals red zone touchdown efficiency. Same as last week.

146 = Receiving yards for Larry Fitzgerald. When Fitzgerald lined up against Nnamdi Asomugha last year against Oakland, the cornerback held him to only 2 receptions for 26 yards. This year, whatever Juan Castillo’s plan was, it didn’t involve copying that successful formula. Both Asomugha and Asante Samuel had key interceptions, but Skelton continued to find Fitzgerald in mismatches against linebackers and even rookie safety Jaiquawn Jarrett.

30th = Cardinals’ Football Outsiders DVOA rank prior to this week. They are a bad team. And they didn’t even have their starting quarterback. So what does that tell us about the Eagles? They are truly disgraceful.

Photo from Getty.