It’s been a topsy-turvy season for the Eagles defense, especially the secondary. Even before the opening kickoff of the 2019 season took place, things were unstable. Both starting cornerbacks, Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills, missed the majority of offseason activities with the exception of mental reps and film study due to overhanging injuries from last year. Rasul Douglas and Sidney Jones would initially be the team’s starting tandem and after some impressive highs and deeply concerning lows, Darby and Mills were ready to return to action just before the mid-point of the season. Since then, the secondary has been playing at an exceptional level.
Many were concerned that Jalen Mills, who spent the entire offseason rehabbing a broken foot, would take a few weeks to settle in. After all, it had been close to a year since the Green Goblin had played in an NFL game and returning against Dallas isn’t exactly the easiest task. But just like he’s done throughout his career, the seventh-round pick proved everybody wrong.
With an interception and three passes defensed to his name already, Mills looks like a completely different cornerback in comparison to the one who was scolded for surrendering double-move after double-move last year. There was no greater sign of his growth than against the Patriots, however.
Targeted 9 times by Tom Brady, Mills allowed just 3 completions for 11 yards, helping to hold Brady to a passer rating of 67.3, his second-lowest of the year.
“Jalen is playing at a high level all across the field. He’s tackling well, he’s covering well.” Jim Schwartz told reporters on Tuesday. “He’s up to the challenge of covering guys, and he brings us a lot of spirit and a lot of competitiveness and toughness. I think you’ve seen the level of defensive play increase since he’s been back. He’s always been a respected member of our defense and a guy that the coaches and players both have a lot of confidence in. He was down for a while. He worked really hard to get back, and I think all that hard work is paying off for him. I’m really proud of him.”
The rise in form couldn’t come at a better time. Mills is in his contract year and the Eagles are in a spot where they could still realistically sneak into the playoffs, with all-roads looking to run through Lincoln Financial Field in a week 16 showdown with the Cowboys. The importance of solid cornerback play is maybe higher than ever, and Mills attributes a lot of that success to what he learned during his time rehabbing.
“I learned a lot, from a football standpoint, while I was sidelined. I got a coach’s perspective and learned more about how offenses gameplan to face a defense. I studied how different athletes move. When the players would come to the sideline, I could explain the releases and the routes that the opposing receivers would run.”
Mills has always been a fundamentally sound tackler, but a ballhawk is a word that has never commonly been associated with him. But whether it’s tipping a pass intended for Julian Edelman in an eye-popping leap, or storming down to take out Rex Burkhead for a run of no-gain, we’re really beginning to see what was previously a fragmented skill-set, start to come together.
He’s no longer biting on double moves, he’s patient in his backpedal and instinctive at the top of the route. Over the last three weeks, opponents are averaging just 5.1 yards per pass attempt, which is absurdly low considering how leaky this pass defense has been.
For the first time since 2016, the Eagles have held three consecutive teams to a point total of under 20.
A lot of the production mentioned above comes from the injection of consistency from Jalen Mills.
Mills returned to the field in a time where defensive intensity was lacking. Whether you love him or hate him, Mills brings heart. He breaks down the huddle, he fires up his teammates, and he never takes a play off.
Six months ago, the case for giving Jalen Mills a new contract was relatively tough to make. Although it’s a small sample size, the Eagles should have seen enough by now to at least consider keeping their former draft pick around.
At the very least, Mills would be an extremely capable backup who has close to four years of starting experience under his belt. At the very best, we may just be witnessing the next evolution of the Green Goblin.
The Sidney Jones experiment has failed, Rasul Douglas will never win the coaching staff over, and the team’s stacked at nickel corner. Keeping Jalen Mills makes sense if the deal is cheap and cheerful. But if he continues to play like he is, there’s every chance that new contract could end up costing the Eagles a little more than they’d expect.
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Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
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