After one of the most important offseason’s in recent memory, the Philadelphia Eagles headed into the 2017 season with a dangerous offense and ruthless defense. A strong draft class was supported by a veteran infusion of veteran free agents who have helped instill the mentality needed to unify the team under one banner, propelling them to a 7-1 record. After the Eagles came out of week one however, there was one Achilles Heel that was still present; cornerback.
The Eagles traded away Jordan Matthews and a draft selection in exchange for a young playmaker in Ronald Darby, but in his first game for the Eagles, Darby suffered an Ankle injury that would keep him sidelined for half of the NFL season. All of a sudden, the Eagles cornerback concerns were back.
Without Darby, the Eagles would be forced to rely on second-year cornerback Jalen Mills, and third-round draftee Rasul Douglas. Veteran Patrick Robinson would take over slot duties, but one year removed from giving up a total of 1,024 yards on routes of 20-yards or more, the most in the NFL, concerns over the Eagles cornerback picture were large.
But then things began to change. Jalen Mills has weathered just about everything thrown his way, Rasul Douglas has shown signs of developing into a notorious ballhawk, and Patrick Robinson has been one of the team’s most pleasant surprises. The Eagles secondary has batted down 46 passes and intercepted 9. When you take into account the depleted Safety position earlier in the year, it makes the breakout even more impressive. So what’s behind the suddenly formidable secondary?
It all starts up front for the Eagles. The pass rush and the cornerbacks are balanced on a set of scales. If the corners are unable to press, the pass rush can’t do their thing and hound the quarterback due to receivers separating so early. If the pass-rush can’t put the opposing quarterback under duress, the corners are under even more pressure to make a play.
Surprisingly, the Eagles didn’t actually blitz that much at all last year. In fact, the team only blitzed 142 times during their 7-9 campaign, amassing just 11 sacks of their season total 34. There were several contributing factors to the team’s inconsistency when rushing the quarterback, but this year things are different.
The Eagles have a total of 22 sacks through their opening eight games and have been injected with a new sense of aggression. Jim Schwartz is throwing the kitchen sink at opposing offenses as his front four reaps the rewards. But with a wobbly cornerback corps, Schwartz had to have an insurance policy. The cheat code? Off-coverage.
By lining his corners up 10-yards back from their receivers, it gives them time to dissect and adjust to the route. Both Mills and Douglas have shown an impressive tackling ability this season, giving the pass rush the time needed to feast as intended. To play successfully in off-coverage however, discipline is of real value…and for one of the youngest cornerback groups in the league, it’s a quality they have displayed on a weekly basis…and one that has began to exude confidence.
“You just see him making a lot of plays and he has that confidence in himself.” Starting Safety Rodney McLeod said of Jalen Mills after the week 8 win. “It’s something that you need at that defensive back position. It’s just going and he’s game. I think he’s just getting more and more confident and he’s starting to mature a lot. You saw that on the field today as he was able to get a pick-six for us.”
The more passes that are getting batted down, the more balls that are being picked off, and the more assertive tackles being engaged by the young corners, the more we will see this cornerback group play with confidence. They’re no longer on an island all the time, waiting for a veteran wideout to take them to School. The cornerbacks are in control. By keeping plays ahead of them, it’s all about bending and not breaking. A sentiment that has been instilled since the arrival of Jim Schwartz…but one that’s elevating this position like never before.
This was amplified when Jalen Mills picked off a stray Beathard pass on Sunday and instead of turning to the sideline, flipped his hips and weaved his way through traffic to cement his first career pick six.
“He is one of our young players who had the benefit of playing last year as a rookie and just really is playing with a lot of confidence right now, and that’s what you’re seeing out of our young players.” Doug Pederson said about Jalen Mills. “Another great play today [was] [CB] Rasul [Douglas] almost had one down the left sideline there late in the game. So these guys are really getting valuable reps. [Jalen] is a player that we lean on to do a lot of things. He is also physical in the run game, coming up and making tackles, but playing with a lot of confidence.”
Mills simply squatted on the play, diving in and making a break on the ball that was thrown a little inside of Pierre Garcon. Taking it to the house, Mills sent the Line into a roar. All of a sudden, there is a sense of hope and excitement surrounding this cornerback corps.
Without Ronald Darby, without prized second-round pick Sidney Jones, the Eagles cornerbacks have been nothing short of outstanding this season. While Patrick Robinson’s form inside continues to improve, the continued coaching from Cory Undlin and Jim Schwartz has seen both Mills and Douglas shine week after week. It doesn’t matter what obstacle is thrown their way, this is a hungry group of defensive backs that aren’t afraid to mix it up in the run, and want to make a play.
By installing a sense of discipline right from the off in OTA’s, this cornerback group has been trained to have a one-play mindset. Letting go of the bad ones and not hanging their hat on the good ones. The Eagles however, can hang their hat on their trio of high-motor corners.
Gone are the days of consistent burns down the field. The Bradley Fletcher’s, Byron Maxwell’s, Leodis McKelvin’s. The Eagles now have one of the youngest groups in the league with potential simply buzzing around the unit. The scariest part? Ronald Darby and Sidney Jones are still waiting in the wings.
Mandatory Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports