Darius Slay has performed as billed. Seven games into his Eagles career, the veteran has been the true No. 1 outside cornerback Jim Schwartz’s defense was lacking in the previous four seasons.
Slay’s man coverage has often shut down an opposing offense’s top wide receiver and given the coordinator and Eagles defensive backs one less thing to have to worry about on most plays.
“He’s traveling with the No. 1 [receiver], and me being at safety, I’m already thinking in my mind, at the end of the day, I’m not worried about [No.] 24,” Jalen Mills said of Slay. “He’s going to go out there and do his job. I think that’s a big boost in definitely confidence and also just playing fast.”
The Eagles' pass defense, which ranked 13th, 17th, 30th, and 19th in the NFL from 2016 to 2019, is currently seventh in yards allowed. Much of the improvement stems from the reduction in the number of big passing plays surrendered.
In 2019, the Eagles allowed 16 receptions of more than 40 yards, worst in the NFL. A year later, they have given up only one 40-plus-yard catch, which is tied for best. And Slay, who has yet to surrender a pass play over 21 yards, has played a significant role in the Eagles' hardly getting beaten deep.
But that doesn’t mean offenses haven’t found other ways to attack. They have targeted the middle of the field and other defenders and have sometimes used misdirection and play-action to take advantage of the Eagles' aggressiveness and occasional lack of discipline.
And they have scripted pass plays to beat the man coverage Schwartz has called more of this season, partly because of Slay. But when the back end has done its job and taken away initial reads, the Eagles' strength, their pass rush, has pressured quarterbacks.
Under normal circumstances, Sunday night’s matchup against the Cowboys would be one of toughest challenges the Eagles defense would face this season. But Dallas is likely down to its third-string quarterback, rookie Ben DiNucci, with starter Dak Prescott out for the season with a leg injury and backup Andy Dalton questionable with a concussion.
The Cowboys, line is also beat up. But where they are healthy, and potentially dangerous, is at receiver. Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup form what might be the best trio in the league.
“Three guys that could be No. 1s anywhere, I feel like,” Slay said Wednesday. “Fast, quick, they got all the types. One guy can go deep, one guy could be the slot guy. They’re all versatile, all can play every position, and they’re a good group.”
But whom will Slay follow, if anyone at all? A year ago, he mirrored Cooper for most of the Lions' meeting with Dallas and the results were good. Slay allowed only three catches for 38 yards on six targets.
“Cooper is one of the best ... off the line of scrimmage,” Slay said. “It’s hard. You got to be patient enough. You got to understand that a guy like that, they’re going to win a couple.”
Cooper has won more than his share against the Eagles. He caught only 4 of 12 targets for 24 yards in a pivotal NFC East meeting last December in Philly. But in his three other games against the Eagles over the last two seasons, he caught 21 of 28 passes for 398 yards and three scores.
That production alone, coupled with Slay’s performance last season, would suggest that Schwartz will have his No. 1 corner shadow Cooper, who has 53 catches for 583 yards and two touchdowns this season. But Lamb (36 catches for 497 yards and two touchdowns) and Gallup (19 catches for 371 yards and a touchdown) are threats in their own right.
“I think they just brought me here just to make their defense a lot better,” Slay said when asked if potentially covering Cooper twice a season factored into the Eagles' trading for him in March. “Be a help to their defense. I don’t think it was for a specific guy.”
Coming up short
If Schwartz does keep Slay to one side, or play more zone, it will likely be for other reasons, namely the other cornerbacks. Having Avonte Maddox (5-foot-9), who returns after missing four games with an ankle injury, and slot Nickell Robey-Coleman (5-8) follow Gallup (6-1) and Lamb (6-2) might not favor the Eagles.
The 6-foot Slay is the team’s tallest corner, but the Eagles became shorter at the position when they released Rasul Douglas (6-2) and Sidney Jones (6-0) before the season. Cre’Von LeBlanc (5-10) and Craig James (5-10) complete the unit.
The Eagles' shift toward more man defense likely played some role in the personnel decisions. Slay hasn’t always followed one receiver, but when he has, he has won far more than he has lost.
In 262 cover snaps this season, he has allowed 27 catches for 277 yards and a touchdown on 37 targets. His 1.06 yards allowed per snap is tied for 25th in the NFL among 69 qualifying cornerbacks, according to Pro Football Focus.
Numbers don’t tell the full story, of course. In individual matchups, Slay kept Washington’s Terry McLaurin (2 catches on 3 targets for 28 yards), the Rams' Robert Woods (1 of 2 for 13 yards), the Bengals' A.J. Green (3 of 4 for 31 yards), the Ravens' Marquise Brown (3 of 3 for 47 yards), and the Giants' Darius Slayton (2 of 2 for 23 yards) in check.
The first score he allowed came late against the Giants when Sterling Shepherd caught a 2-yard touchdown on a switch route. Slay understands as well as anyone that there is no such thing as a shutdown corner in the literal sense.
“Perfect ball beats perfect coverage every time!!” he recently tweeted. “It’s hard out there as a CB!!”
Slay has given up a few long third-down conversions when playing soft, and is still without an interception, but he has easily been the Eagles' most consistent cornerback since the days of Asante Samuel. His tackling, not particularly a forte, has also been strong.
But future tests await in the second half of the season against the Seahawks (Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf), the Packers (Devante Adams), the Saints (Michael Thomas), the Cardinals (DeAndre Hopkins), and the Cowboys twice, starting Sunday.
“I look forward to it,” Slay said of matching up against Dallas' receivers. “I mean, it’s not my first rodeo being against elite guys, but I can say this is a very elite group.”