Two years ago, Brandon Lloyd sat on-screen and introduced the NFL’s 18th best player: Nnamdi Asomugha, cornerback of the Oakland Raiders. He immediately spoke of Asomugha’s attention to detail, mainly how he knew when and what routes were coming before and after the snap. In short, he was praising the Raider’s intelligence and discipline, two things he’d long been known for.
Two years and two teams later, Asomugha, now with the San Francisco 49ers, lacks discipline and wouldn’t even make the list of the NFL’s Top 100 players. His “game” has fallen off dramatically since 2011, when he was arguably the best cornerback in the league, and he was shutting down diva receivers weekly. What’s fascinating about his decline, though, is that it’s come at the expense of his discipline and technique, both traits that were previously strong points.
His once upper-echelon press-man cover skills have eroded and he’s never been a quality zone defender. He lived off of beating receivers up at the line and throughout the first five yards (if not more) of a route, and great technique. Now his physicality comes only from his missteps in coverage, when he’s sloppily falling over receivers like a drunk woman head-over-heels for a man, and his technique is sorely lacking.
There were plenty of plays last season that one could choose from to illustrate Asomugha’s struggles. One play that stuck out in my mind while reviewing last season’s games came against the New York Giants, and a pass interference call against Asomugha while he attempted to cover wide receiver Domenik Hixon.
Hixon was the Z receiver lined up in the boundary (short) side of the field. He was the lone receiver to the left of the formation, and he was staring down Asomugha’s pre-snap press-man coverage.
At the snap, Hixon released off the line of scrimmage and Asomugha took a step back with his right foot prior to opening his hips and his back to the sideline. It was press-bail coverage.
This was the type of coverage that Asomugha excelled at in the past. Although it wasn’t true press-man coverage, when he’s arguably at his best at, it allowed him to play the receiver closely and aggressively, much like press-man.
As Hixon ran with his shoulders squared downfield, Asomugha shuffled his feet and watched Hixon’s upper body. It would eventually give away the route like a basketball player shooting a jump-shot, but that wasn’t the only key for Asomugha to note. He had to keep in mind where he was on the field.
Hixon was nine-to-10 yards from his original alignment before he sunk his hips and shoulders. For a cornerback, this should be a Code Red: it’s a depth when routes rarely break. Most receivers break their routes a few yards later, and if this was 2011, Asomugha would have kept that in mind.
Hixon’s indication to break his route off early was a false one. It was a double move, a stop-and-go, that got Asomugha to bite hard. Asomugha slowed his shuffle, bent his knees and changed direction. He was looking to jump the route, which didn’t bode well for him when Hixon started running downfield.
Unable to cover Hixon, Asomugha had no choice but to commit pass interference to prevent a deep touchdown.
In the 49ers’ scheme, Asomugha’s lack of discipline could prove to be an issue.
The 49ers are willing to play man coverage and leave their cornerbacks essentially on an island while their safeties aggressively attack downhill. If he’s going to be playing significant snaps, Asomugha will have to become more disciplined, or he’ll continue to struggle and be a shadow of his former self.