As the weeks have passed and the rigors of another NFL regular season present themselves, the Eagles secondary continues to absorb punches. From losing Rodney McLeod for an entire season, to bumps and bruises to Corey Graham and now the uncertainty now surrounding the return of Sidney Jones, what was once a unit boasting depth is now being tested in that area more than ever. The Birds’ were able to get by against the Giants, but the injury to Sidney Jones may spark a few more changes.
The Eagles reverted to playing more two-safety looks, which is something that had been lost in the storm in recent weeks. No longer were cornerbacks left on an Island 8-yards way from the ball and instead, with comfort and help over the top, they were able to play much closer to the line of scrimmage. The downside was that the Safeties in play were on a different kind of lifeline.
“Certainly wasn’t ideal because we were — I mean, that’s sort of what we had, and being on a short week, even though we had only done walk-through and stuff like that, he was the guy that we had gotten up to speed right there.” Jim Schwartz told reporters. :Then we lost Jalen Mills for a play and [S] Tre [Sullivan] went in at safety, so it’s literally a situation where it’s all hands on deck in a game like that. Whatever it takes to get through you have to do. That’s where we were with it. Not ideal going forward but, you know, we’ll make the best of what we have each week.”
Moving forward, the Eagles will have to make an interesting decision. Avonte Maddox has gone from an underdog rookie who didn’t play a single defensive snap for the opening games, to a starting safety and being named the team’s sixth-captain in what feels like the blink of an eye. The question is, would they move Maddox back down into the slot, or leave him over the top where he’s racked up 10 tackles in two games? We got a taste of what that may look like against the Giants and it’s safe to say that his defensive coordinator was beyond impressed.
“I really have to take my hat off to [CB] Avonte Maddox the most on that because he had the most on his plate not only as a safety but then having to go in and [play] nickel without taking any reps there, just all mental reps and had a big part of us winning that game, his ability to perform and execute the defense.”
The Eagles have to figure out which combination works best. If Maddox moves down to the slot, it would likely mean that even if Corey Graham returns, Rasul Douglas would be moving up to the Free Safety spot. Douglas finally got his taste of safety experience last game and it shouldn’t come as a surprise.
However if they opt to keep Maddox at Safety, then Douglas would be playing in a position of slight unfamiliarity. At 6’2, the young corner is a little tall to be stacked up in the slot and is much more of a natural threat on the outside or around the ball. It will be interesting to see how Schwartz broaches this situation.
The wildcards are of course names like Tre Sullivan (who also got his feet wet last week) and Deiondre Hall who was acquired by the team in week two, but is yet to experience a snap in midnight green on defense. The recently-signed Dexter McDougle was once a strong contender to win the nickel role and his return may just give Schwartz the confidence to move some pieces around, knowing there’s emergency cover. The only reason McDougle was cut by the Eagles was to make way for veteran linebacker Dannell Ellerbe who was needed to urgently replace the injured Jordan Hicks.
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Despite a wobbly start to the season and a whole new level of adversity, Schwartz remains confident in his group and that says all you need to know.
“We’re still a work in progress there. Let’s not give us any gold stars yet. We’ve got a long way to go.” The Super Bowl champion Defensive Coordinator explained. “But I think all those guys are serious about their craft. They all work really hard. [Eagles defensive backs coach] Cory [Undlin] and [Eagles safeties coach] Tim [Hauck] do a great job of getting those guys ready. There is a lot of pride in their group. I’ve said a bunch of times, it’s not about the individual performance when it comes to our defensive line. I say the same thing with all of our position groups, but our secondary is an especially tight group. They do things together, they really take an all for one, one for all mentality and that serves them well.”
Schwartz faces a tricky decision that carries a heavy domino effect over the coming days and how he approaches it may well dictate the success of the defense on Sunday when the team meet Carolina in week 7.
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