When healthy, Ronald Darby may have the greatest skill set of the Eagles’ cornerbacks. He’s quick, agile and can jump out of the roof. But Darby, who tore his ACL last November, isn’t 100 percent healthy, or at least in peak condition.
“I’ve got to get in better shape,” Darby said Wednesday. "I’ve just got to finish through the game.”
Darby missed most of training camp and didn’t play in the preseason. Despite that, he has started both games this season and played more snaps than any other Eagles cornerback. He has also struggled the most among a group of three who have rotated on the outside.
Rasul Douglas and Sidney Jones have had their issues, as well, but while each showed improvement after the opener against the Redskins, Darby’s problems resurfaced in Sunday’s loss in Atlanta.
He “made a couple big plays for us,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said of Darby. “There’s probably a couple plays he’d like to get back.”
It wasn’t all bad. But with Jalen Ramsey seeking a trade, and uncertainty about Darby and the other corners unlikely to go away, the Eagles would seem likely candidates for the Jaguars Pro Bowler. (Ramsey, by the way, was Darby’s roommate at Florida State.)
But general manager Howie Roseman, coach Doug Pederson and Schwartz may look at their collection of cornerbacks differently than some outside the NovaCare Complex. They may feel that Darby will return to form once he gets his sea legs back. They may look at Douglas and Jones and see two ascending young talents.
They also have the versatile Avonte Maddox in the slot, and injured corners Jalen Mills and Cre’Von LeBlanc expected to return sometime this season.
But, for now, all they have is two games worth of film and the production has been inconsistent. Here’s a closer look at the Eagles corners in the Atlanta game, and of Schwartz’s blitzes in that game:
When Darby was drafted four years ago, his man-press coverage skills were considered among the best in college. He played his share of off coverage and in various zones, but his elite athleticism allowed him to play up at the line and run with receiver on various routes.
He’s played both styles in the NFL – every cornerback must – but has seemingly been more liable when playing off coverage. On this third-down play, Darby (No. 21) played about eight yards off receiver Calvin Ridley (No. 18), while Douglas (No. 32) played up on the line vs. Julio Jones (No. 11).
Darby played soft, but his technique wasn’t great and he got caught turning his hips inside. Ridley picked up 17 yards.
Darby: [Playing off or up] depends on when you feel like. There ain’t no philosophy. It depends on the play.
Schwartz does have instructions for how he wants his corners to play based on scheme, the offensive look and down and distance. But he does give them some leeway.
Jones: He might have been stricter. But since the beginning of the year he’s given us more freedom than before.
Darby was off again opposite the man-pressing Douglas on the first down play after Carson Wentz tossed an interception in the second quarter.
Not only was Darby’s positioning suspect, but he missed tackling Ridley, who gained 15 yards. Some corners will play off more than up because they either don’t trust their technique or lack top speed.
Schwartz: I think [Darby] has all of his speed back. I don’t see the ACL as being an issue at all for him. He’s done a great job of rehab. He didn’t practice a ton in training camp … so I think that sometimes you can see some of that -- I don’t want to call it rust at this point -- but there is a reason that we still do training camp and we still practice.
Darby: It ain’t no excuse. I’m out there for a reason.
The Falcons went after Darby, targeting him 12 times -- five more than the next Eagles defender. He allowed seven catches for 115 yards and two touchdowns, per Pro Football Focus, and the damage could have been worse had quarterback Matt Ryan been more accurate when Ridley got behind Darby on two other deep routes.
But Darby did break up a pass and had his first interception of the season (see below) when a blitz forced an errant Ryan pass. There were also moments when there was little he could do, like on this 27-yard Jones catch near the sideline.
Schwartz: I don’t know that you can attribute that to an ACL or even missing some snaps in training camp. It’s just life in the NFL.
While Darby may have been, in theory, responsible for Ridley’s 34-yard touchdown grab, it sure looked like he was expecting safety help from Andrew Sendejo (No. 42), who appeared to get caught flat-footed.
Schwartz declined to give details on the coverage.
Schwartz: How many times are you guys going to try me on those questions? Defense didn't execute well on those plays, and it's always an example of combination of rush and coverage and technique, and you probably put that one in those three areas.
It looked like the Eagles were in some kind of Cover 4 scheme on the Darby/Sendejo half of the field, and if so, Sendejo would have also been responsible for that area.
Sendejo: We’re not really supposed to talk about scheme, but we’ve got plays we can be better at, so we’ll get better at those this week.
Darby: That was on me. I’ve just got to close more. It ain’t nobody’s fault by myself.
Sendejo has gotten off to a rough start with the Eagles. Some of his struggles could be attributed to fit. The Eagles’ third safety has traditionally played more in coverage than up near the line, and that isn’t necessarily Sendejo’s strong suit.
Jones earned the start against the Falcons, but he still played fewer snaps (32) than Darby (59 of 66) or Douglas (39). He had some breakdowns against the Redskins. But he didn’t allow a single catch behind him Sunday, recorded a tipped interception -- his first in the NFL -- and perhaps more impressively, made six tackles.
Schwartz: I thought it was a nice bounce back for him. The thing I was probably most happy with was he really played physical in the run game. Tackled well.
On this first-quarter run, Jones fended off a receiver’s block and stuck his nose in to tackle Devonta Freeman (No. 24).
Jones: I’ve been doing it since college. You look at my tape and I’m a willing tackler. I can shed blocks and make tackles on the perimeter.
On this screen to tight end Austin Hooper (No. 81), Jones lowered his shoulder on the former Stanford product, whom he saw when he was in college at Washington.
Jones: I put a good little hit on my tight end buddy out there. People are probably surprised that I can do that, but I know that’s in my arsenal.
But the Eagles drafted Jones in the second round because of his coverage skills. He allowed a few short passes, but he never got burned. His coverage vs. Ridley on this first-down pass was not ideal, though.
Jones: I should have probably played up and that’s on me. But I feel pretty good. There’s still some stuff I can clean up. But I feel like it’s happening more naturally the more I’m out there.
Douglas had a bounce back game, too. He has been susceptible to the deep pass, but whatever it was he did Sunday, Ryan never tested him. Douglas allowed just one catch and broke up two to Julio Jones.
Ideally, neither Douglas nor Jones wants to share snaps. But it’s better than not playing at all.
Jones: Me and Rasul, we have a good little system to our rotation right now. If one of us is out and Darby needs a break, we’ll just step in.
Schwartz had a solid game plan, and it wasn’t just the uncharacteristic zero blitzes he dialed up. But the pressure the Eagles generated by sending extra rushers was noteworthy.
Schwartz: I don’t know that we really blitzed a whole lot more than we did in the first week. It was maybe a little bit more all-out blitz. Just a couple snaps here and there.
The Eagles blitzed on 8 of 45 snaps against the Redskins and 12 of 45 against the Falcons. Ryan (No. 2) completed 6 of 11 passes for 81 yards and was sacked once. On this third down, Schwartz sent the house, with safeties Malcolm Jenkins (No. 27) and Rodney McLeod (No. 23) and linebacker Nigel Bradham (No. 53) blitzing up the “A” gaps.
McLeod came in free and forced Ryan to throw. The pass was under-thrown and Darby picked it off.
Schwartz: They were protecting their edges. They were chipping our defensive ends quite a bit. They were a little bit more vulnerable to the inside at times where you saw us get free, we were on the inside.
Not all of Schwartz’s blitzes left the coverage with zero safety help. But he called another with the game on the line.
Schwartz: We took an aggressive approach. Tried to win the game right there. It was fourth-and-3. We could have sat back and said, ‘OK, let’s be safe here. Let’s hold them to a field goal.’ I think part of it was knowing that even if we gave up a play right there, we could win the game right there, or go a long way to winning the game.
The end result was a 54-yard Jones touchdown. Ryan changed the play when he saw the Eagles in a pre-snap zero look and the Falcons executed the play flawlessly.
Jenkins: They did a good job of getting out on the perimeter. That was just a good counter for them.