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The rookie was beat a few times on Sunday, but still deserves to be in the starting lineup.
It’s no secret, Michael Ojemudia had a rough game on Sunday. The rookie was targeted 12 times, giving up 8 catches for 159 yards and both of Pittsburgh’s passing touchdowns.
When asked about him after the game, Vic Fangio went the tough love route:
“If he’s going to play corner in this league for a long time, he’s got to be able to come back from plays like that. He can’t let them linger and he can’t let them affect the next plays that follow. He’s going to get beat. If you play enough snaps in the NFL at corner, you’re going to give up some stuff. The important thing is how you react to them and how you come back. I think Mike is the right kind of guy to do that.”
The next day, the coach followed it up with some encouraging words as well.
“He struggled. He had a tough day like a lot of young corners have, but I’m confident Michael will come back and learn from this, and it will be hopefully a game that he looks back on in his long successful career that he learned a lot from and grew from.”
Ojemudia also got support from Justin Simmons after the game as well.
“It’s the NFL. Week in and week out you’re going to have a tough assignment. Guys get paid across the league on offense—they get paid the same. You have to find ways to make the plays when they come to you. You have to find ways to impact the game. Like you said, you’re going to give up some plays. It’s the NFL. I was telling him on the sideline, ‘Man, you don’t have to be anybody by O.J. You don’t have to do anything special. You don’t have to go out here and make anything amazing. Just make the plays that are coming to you that need to be made.’ That’s just part of the game. Games like today happen. That’s our job in the back end—myself, [S] Kareem [Jackson]—to make sure that we’re doing everything we can throughout the week to make sure we’re preparing the right way. It’s never on just one guy. It’s whole defensive effort. We could have done a better job defensively of helping O.J. out in some situations. That’s pretty much the message for him.”
Simmons’ last comment about the defense potentially helping Ojemudia out more is where we’re going to focus for today’s breakdown.
Joe Rowles and I talked about this on this week’s episode of Cover 2 Broncos (you can listen at the player above) and I said that I actually didn’t think Ojemudia had that bad of a game.
Anytime you give up two touchdowns, something went wrong, but the rest of the time, I thought Ojemudia was solid and didn’t really see a breakdown in process that led to those two TDs. They were just tough plays that he needs to learn from and do better next time.
So let’s start there.
This is the play everyone remembers, and is the most egregious of the mistakes from Sunday by the young corner.
Ojemudia is singled up at the top of the screen and is just beat over the top. The first thing to note, though is how much trust the team already has in Ojemudia. They’re pressing him up in single coverage on the outside and blitzing. He has zero help, and his job is to hold up on the outside, while the blitz gets home.
He’s on the strongside of a 3×1 set, and the outside linebacker is going to blitz. Kareem Jackson then will drop down and replace the blitzing linebacker, essentially making it 1-on-1 on the outside.
Simmons will rotate up top, but he’s too far across the field to provide meaningful help to Ojemudia vertically, which Big Ben knows.
This is a bit of a gamble by Denver, and they’re almost asking the Steelers to test out the rookie corner. They clearly declare that he’ll be in single coverage on the outside, and he is in a press technique, leaving the shot play as an option.
Now, the thinking here is that the blitz will get there fast, and so the coverage doesn’t have to hold up as long, which is true. Ojemudia is actually in really nice coverage when the ball is thrown. He’s in phase down the field and is staying with Chase Claypool step for step.
Alexander Johnson is also hitting Ben Roethlisberger as he throws, so he barely got this throw off.
The issue comes at the top of the route, when Claypool pushes off to create the separation he needs to catch the ball, and it’s all over from there.
You could argue that it’s offensive pass interference, but you’re not going to get those calls with any type of regularity in the NFL. Ojemudia just has to play through it and be physical at the catch point. Nothing major went wrong here, it’s just a tough play to make for the rookie.
He was in good position for 80% of the route. Joe Rowles made a good point on the podcast that he’ll need to just adjust to the physicality at the NFL level and play accordingly. Nothing really troubling about this play, ultimately – just a tough break.
The coverage Denver played actually shows how much they trust Ojemudia, as he was essentially left alone.
You’re going to recognize this, because it’s the same alignment from the Steelers, and Denver plays it similarly.
Ojemudia is once again singled up on the strongside of a 3×1, with Jackson playing the TE, so he stays low. Justin Simmons will play over the top on his side, but is occupied with the vertical route on his side.
Denver, again, didn’t do the young corner any favors here. He has no safety help, and Ben has no pressure so he is able to hang on to the ball for this play to develop all the way across the field.
Ojemudia plays outside leverage, which is common in these situations, but it hurt him in this case as it gave too much space for the receiver to pull away from him inside, and the rookie was slow to close the gap.
Again, nothing crazy here, just a really tough route to cover from that alignment, with no safety help.
Ideally, if they’re going to leave someone 1-on-1 I would prefer it to be Callahan on the backside of these 3x1s, as opposed to leaving the rookie stranded in these situations.
However, it’s a trade off. If you keep Jackson up high, now you’re counting on your linebackers underneath to maintain coverage on a tight end, which isn’t ideal either. Coverage design is just a game of tradeoffs, and unless you have a defense full of All-Pros, every play has some inherent risk areas.
I would pin the play below more on Ojemudia than these coverage touchdowns, potentially. This play led to the Steelers first touchdown of the game, and was on a 3rd down. Fangio alluded to it in his post-game presser, that they absolutely should have had a stop here.
Ojemudia just gets a little too aggressive to the inside, giving up the outside edge, and then misses the tackle. You can’t give up that lane, and if you do, you have to make this tackle to stop them for a field goal.
So those were the big three mistakes I saw from the young corner on Sunday. Yes, he got beat a few times on some underneath routes, but that stuff happens, I’m not worried about that if he cleans up the above.
However, it wasn’t all bad from him.
He’ll be kicking himself for not catching this ball, but he’s in great position and this is two games in a row now where he should have had an interception. He’ll get one of these eventually.
Speaking of interceptions. Everyone sees the plays you give up and are targeted on, but no one sees the plays you do your job well and it leads to an interception by your teammate.
Check out the bottom of the screen here. Ben wants to go here and even pumps that direction, but goes away from it because Ojemudia has it really well covered. I was really impressed by his hip flip and stickiness with this out cut here.
Roethlisberger doesn’t like that look, so he holds and eventually forces it into Simmons’ waiting arms, but that play was facilitated by Ojemudia doing his job on the initial read.
I also really like his coverage on this play at the bottom of the screen. This is a 4th down in Denver territory, and the offense has two yards to go. Ojemudia gives a nice jam to his receiver at the line, and stays blanketed on top of him for the entire play, which eventually ends in an incompletion.
Lastly, he’s still an active and willing tackle, coming up and laying the big hit here.
So while it was a tough game for him, I still think Ojemudia absolutely belongs in the starting lineup, and I expect him to keep battling out there all year. This is a great trial by fire for the rookie and although he’ll take his lumps, I’m liking what I see from him so far.