Like most football coaches, Jim Schwartz prefers to keep his cards close to his vest. Typically, you have a better chance of winning the lottery than getting the Eagles defensive coordinator to reveal even a morsel of strategy to you.
But when he talked with reporters two weeks ago, he was only too happy to discuss a fairly significant change he’s making to his defense this season.
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He confirmed that, for the first time since he became Doug Pederson’s defensive lieutenant in 2016, he was going to have a cornerback “travel’' with the opposing team’s best wide receiver.
The last four years, Schwartz has had his corners play sides because he didn’t really have one who was both good enough and/or experienced enough to spend the entire game shadowing the opponent’s top pass-catcher.
But with the addition of Darius Slay, who was acquired in a March trade with the Detroit Lions, that has changed.
Slay, a 29-year-old eight-year veteran, regularly matched up against the opponent’s top wideout when he was with the Lions. And now, unless Schwartz is lying, he’ll often be used the same way with the Eagles.
“He already put it out that I’m going to be following and matching up [against the top wide receiver], which I’ve been doing for a while now,” Slay said Monday. “I’m very comfortable with it. But I’m just here to work. So whatever [Schwartz] needs me to do to help make the defense better, I’m going to do.
“They brought me here to help the defense get better. And that’s what my goal is to do. Help the team get better.”
Slay will start at one corner. Sidney Jones, Rasul Douglas, and Avonte Maddox will compete for the other outside corner spot when the team’s abbreviated training camp starts next week.
Another newcomer, Nickell Robey-Coleman, appears to be the front-runner for the nickel job, though he will face competition from Maddox and Cre’Von LeBlanc.
While Slay traveled with the opponent’s top wideout when he played for the Lions, he seldom followed him into the slot. He will with the Eagles, Schwartz said.
If, say, the Cowboys’ Amari Cooper or CeeDee Lamb lines up in the slot, Slay is expected to follow him there. The slot corner would then slide outside.
Robey-Coleman has been one of the league’s better slot corners in his seven seasons in the league. But he has quite a bit of experience outside. So does Maddox. The beauty of the Eagles secondary this season, both at corner and safety, is its versatility. They’ll be able to change coverages and packages without replacing players.
“From the standpoint of covering inside and outside, I feel very comfortable,” Robey-Coleman said. “Slay is going to be a very important aspect of the defense. When you’ve got [safeties like] Rodney [McLeod] and [Jalen] Mills, I feel very comfortable playing on the outside. To know I have great safeties there allows me to play aggressive and know I can trust them on the back end.”
“Our secondary is pretty versatile,” Slay said. “So I think we can pull that off pretty well.”
Slay said he played nickel only “a couple of times” with Detroit. “But I learned a little bit over there about playing it. I got to open my brain up a little more and play some nickel too this year.”
The key to the back end this season is going to be Slay. The Eagles finished 19th in opponent passer rating (90.8), 15th in opponent yards per attempt (7.2), and 22nd in touchdown passes allowed (27) last season. That last number was their most under Schwartz.
They too often got sliced and diced by the opponent’s top wideout. D.K. Metcalf had seven catches for 160 yards and a touchdown in the Eagles’ 17-9 playoff loss to Seattle.
The Dolphins’ DeVante Parker had seven catches for 159 yards and two touchdowns in the Eagles’ stunning 37-31 loss in Miami in December. The Cowboys’ Amari Cooper might one day make the Hall of Fame on his pass-catching numbers against the Eagles alone.
Slay also gives the Eagles a needed ball hawk in the secondary. They finished 23rd and 25th in interceptions the last two seasons after finishing fifth during their Super Bowl run in 2017. Slay tied for the league-high in interceptions three seasons ago with eight, but he had just two last season and three the year before.
“If they’re not throwing at him, he’s probably not going to have many interceptions,” Schwartz said. “There’s a lot of different ways to judge the effectiveness of a corner. Interceptions aren’t always the No. 1 thing. He can do his job by preventing a quarterback from throwing the ball, or making the quarterback throw bad passes that are incomplete, or allowing you to shore up other parts of your defense because he can make tackles.”
Slay didn’t take kindly Monday to a question from a reporter suggesting that he didn’t tackle very well last season.
“Huh? You say what? Tackling? I can tackle,” he said. “You saying I can’t tackle. That’s a next question.”
The truth is, Slay didn’t play nearly as well last season as he did in 2017 and 2018. Pro Football Focus gave him a 56.9 coverage grade last year. That was 62nd among the league’s cornerbacks. He was 14th (78.2) the year before and 18th (80.0) in 2017 when he had eight interceptions.
Slay was happy to get out of Detroit. He didn’t much care for Lions coach Matt Patricia and his methods. He accused Patricia of disrespecting him on multiple occasions.
He said things are much better at the NovaCare Complex. Much more player-friendly.
“What I love about this team is everybody is themselves,” he said. “They’re not in no shell. They’re not [you] can’t do this or [you] can’t do that. They’re being treated like grown men. And I like that aspect of that. The grown-men treatment and the ability to be yourself and not have to be something that you’re not. They let you do that here.”
Slay has a new defense to learn this summer and not much time to learn it. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of all spring field work and all four preseason games.
Slay played for Schwartz in 2013, when he was a rookie and Schwartz was in his final year as the Lions’ head coach.
“He’s still the same as seven years ago,” Slay said. “Still about energy. He’s still a guy who goes after the quarterback and loves to be aggressive.”
Slay said he brings “a new type of energy” to the Eagles. “Something they might’ve missed.”
“I’m new here and my goal is whatever you want me to do, whatever you’re comfortable with, I’m willing to do,” the cornerback said. “I’m willing to adapt how I am just to be a part of this team. I know I don’t have to be the big guy.