If Nnamdi Can't Go Today, How Much Will He Be Missed?

If Nnamdi Can't Go Today, How Much Will He Be Missed?

Short answer, yes, he'd be missed. While Nnamdi Asomugha has had what many consider to be a subpar season, it's probably still better than a good number of cornerbacks in the NFL. He's been beaten for some big plays, but when utilized properly, Asomugha is one of the few guys who can truly take an All-Pro receiver out of the game. That hasn't changed.

But how much use is that particular skill against the New England Patriots? Nnamdi hasn't shown much evidence of being particularly great when moved into new positions, for instance playing zone coverage, or defending anywhere other than near the sidelines -- where the Patriots' offense is much weaker. Last we heard, Asomugha is likely a game-time decision today, so assuming he can't go, how far-reaching would the impact of that loss be for the Eagles?

Broken down in its simplest form, Tom Brady has completed 253 passes for 3,266 yards this season. 67.6% of those completions have been to Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, or Aaron Hernandez -- two tight ends, and a slot receiver who traditionally earn their money over the middle or on otherwise intermediate routes -- for an astounding 76.9% of the yards. Another 12.0% of receptions are to backs or Julian Edelman, another slot-type receiver.

What that means is only 51 balls, or one in five, for 21.5% of the yards have gone to wide receivers who typically line up outside the numbers -- and Chad Johnson is out on Sunday. The only other wideout on the roster besides Deion Branch who has caught a pass all season is Matthew Slater, who has one ball for 46 yards.

So as outstanding as the Pats' passing game has been -- second in the league to be exact -- they haven't exactly been a threat in the most conventional of manners. Why that is, well, that's up for some debate. Johnson is clearly reaching the end of his career, and Branch is no spring chicken either. Obviously they are more talented in the slot and tight end to begin with, plus Tom Brady is aging. There are actually some whispers about his arm strength at this stage.

Will the Eagles miss an outside, man-to-man press corner with all of that in mind? Hopefully not. Of course, Juan Castillo hasn't used Asomugha in just one way the entire season, and while his new role hasn't always been met with great success, you can't tell me they have many better options to cover dynamic players like Welker, Gronkowski, and Hernandez.

The suggestion all week has been Castillo would have Asomugha spend some of his Sunday helping out with the Patriots' second-year tight ends, most notably Gronk, who is quickly becoming a Pro Bowler for years to come in the AFC. Without him, the Eagles could run into some serious match-up problems. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is out as well, which pretty much leaves whatever maligned linebackers and safeties are still lying around to draw such complicated assignments.

The defense has improved by leaps over the last five games compared to the first five, so I'm not prepared to say Castillo absolutely can't come up with a game plan to control the middle of the field. He is starting from a disadvantage though, and the lack of Asomugha, while not quite the ideal foil to Bill Belichick's ever-evolving scheme, certainly would have been a talented monkey wrench to throw in the middle of the field.

Because however down the Delaware Valley is on Nnamdi Asomugha, he isn't just a reputation. He's a damn good player, learning a new scheme, and on the receiving end of a few more targets than he was accustomed in Oakland. Take a 6'2" defensive back with three trips to the Pro Bowl off the field, and the defense will feel that one way or another.

Still not sure it's the end of the world either. Where he is most effective is not necessarily where the Patriots are able to beat the Eagles on Sunday.

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

BOX SCORE

The Sixers began the season looking lost without Joel Embiid. Now they are finding ways to win when he is not on the court. 

Embiid suffered a left knee contusion in the second half of Friday’s 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see story). He was sidelined for the decisive 8:50 of the game (see Instant Replay).

The Sixers trailed, 81-78, when he subbed out for the second time because of the injury, and outscored the Trail Blazers, 15-11, from that point on.

So how was this team that battled with inconsistency and reliance on Embiid able to pull out a comeback win punctuated in the final seconds? Ask the Sixers and they’ll give varying answers, a sign they are getting the job done in multiple ways and aren’t relying on just one key to success.

The most glaring difference was the hero of the game. Robert Covington drained two three-pointers in the final 40 seconds. His trey from Dario Saric with 38.2 remaining cut the Trail Blazers' lead to just one, 91-90. With 4.5 to go, he nailed the game-winning three from T.J. McConnell to give the Sixers their eighth victory in 10 games (see feature highlight).

“That’s resilient Cov,” Nerlens Noel said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a good shot or a bad shot; he’ll pull it in your face. That’s the confidence he has and that’s the confidence we need him to have. He steps up and makes two big shots like that, that’s enough said. He won us that game.”

Critics have called out Covington’s up-and-down performance from three all season. (They’ve made their feelings known with loud boos at home games.) Covington shot 5 for 12 behind the arc on the night but his 2 for 3 performance in the fourth was what mattered most. 

“I am a fighter, that’s what I have been my whole life,” he said. “Just because fans are booing me at one point doesn't mean anything. I just keep working. I am not going to let that deteriorate my game. It goes in one ear and out the other.”

Without Embiid in the game, the Sixers had to rely on a total team effort. After he went to the bench, the final points were scored by a combination of Covington, Gerald Henderson, Noel, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and McConnell.

“Ball movement,” head coach Brett Brown said. “We had 25 assists out of 36 made baskets. It’s not like we’re going to give the ball to Damian Lillard (guard for the Blazers). That’s not who we are. Whatever we do, it has to be done by committee, by a group, by a team. It’s even more exposed when Joel isn’t in the game. They did that. Unlikely people ended up with the ball sometimes in unlikely spots. … You have to move the ball. That’s what the team has learned without Joel.” 

Several of the players on the court in critical moments were from the second unit. Since Brown locked in on his rotation, the reserves don’t have a drop-off in confidence from the starters. 

“It’s the mentality,” Covington said. “Everybody has that swagger about us right now because once Joel comes out, the next person steps in and fills that void. It’s a matter of that contagious feeling that trickles into the second unit that’s making us that much more valuable.”

Then there's always defense, the foundation of any solid NBA team and a focal point for the Sixers. Noel saw that as the difference-maker when subbing in and out. The Trail Blazers scored just two points in the final 1:56. 

"The second unit goes there and does a great job guarding the yard, not letting up easy baskets," Noel said. "The offensive side is fluid motion. Guys get shots, pick-and-roll, it opens up open threes for guys, driving lines, pump fakes, it’s a great unity."

Embiid liked what he saw from a distance. He will not travel with the team to their game on Saturday against the Hawks in Atlanta. 

"I’m just happy we’ve been closing out games, and the main thing I’m really happy [about] is they’ve been able to do it without me," he said. "That’s going to give us a lot of confidence when I’m missing back-to-backs. My teammates are going to have more confidence to come in and play the same way."

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Of the nearly 20,000 people in the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night, Joel Embiid was seemingly the least concerned when he came down and injured his left knee. 

Fans held their breath and the Sixers looked on anxiously as the standout big man got up in visible discomfort and limped off the court (see highlights). Embiid, however, wasn’t worried. 

“I knew it was OK. I just landed the wrong way,” he said after the Sixers' 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see Instant Replay). “I’m great. The knee’s fine. They did an MRI and stuff, everything looked good.”

Embiid ran off the court on his own, was diagnosed with a left knee contusion and was cleared to return to the game. He aggravated his knee again driving to the basket and this time, the team held him out to be careful.

“The review is that he hyperextended his left knee,” head coach Brett Brown said. “There was a minor tweak again, and for precautionary reasons only, the doctors did not allow him to return. There will be more information given as we know it. But quickly, that's what we know.”

Embiid understood the team’s decision to sideline him for the final 8:50 while the Sixers went on a comeback run (see feature highlight). He still finished the game with an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double, five assists and four blocks in only 22 minutes.

“Obviously those guys, the front office, they care about my future, so they just shut it down,” Embiid said. “But I was fine.”

Embiid will not travel to Atlanta for Saturday’s game against the Hawks (pre-scheduled rest). He expects to be available for Tuesday’s home matchup against the Clippers. 

"You know how tough he is," Nerlens Noel said. "If it isn’t anything serious, he’ll be right back. At the end of the game, he was telling me was he was feeling great and there was no pain. He wanted to come back in the game … he’s a trooper. He always gives it his all and always plays hard."

Injuries to any player are worrisome, especially a franchise centerpiece with two years of rehab (foot) behind him. The Sixers have been methodical and cautious with his playing time. Embiid is on a 28-minute restriction and can play in only one game of a back-to-back series. 

The same player who is so closely watched, though, also plays with sky-high energy that doesn’t have a brake pedal. 

“You're concerned,” Brown said of seeing Embiid get injured. “It's clear to all of us that he plays with such reckless abandon. I think that we're all going to be seeing this and feeling this regularly. From flying into stands to stalking somebody in the open court to block a shot to the collision he often is in trying to draw fouls. That's just who he is. 

“I think that as he just plays more basketball and continues to grow, to not necessarily avoid those situations, just to perhaps manage them a little bit more. Right now, he's just a young guy that's just playing that doesn't know what he doesn't know and has a fearless approach underneath all that attitude.”

Fearless is an accurate description considering Embiid's trouble-free reaction to the awkward way his leg bent (he hadn’t seen a replay). 

“I kind of had that in college, too,” he said. “I think I’m flexible, so it’s supposed to happen.”