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Eagles' rebuilt secondary nears first test in season opener at Washington

Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz says he has a smarter, healthier, faster group this season, and a shutdown corner.

Darius Slay, making his Eagles debut this weekend, is expected to cover Washington's Terry McLaurin.
Darius Slay, making his Eagles debut this weekend, is expected to cover Washington's Terry McLaurin.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Sunday’s season opener at Washington represents the start of a new era for the Eagles' secondary — something fans have long awaited.

“I think we have some good matchups in this game,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said Tuesday during a discussion of coverage. Schwartz normally reserves such words for his beloved pass rushers.

No more Ronald Darby injury drama. No more Rasul Douglas penalties or deep coverage trauma. No more waiting for Sidney Jones to either get healthy or to win Schwartz’s trust. Jalen Mills is a strong safety now; he’ll presumably encounter fewer double moves than he did as an outside corner.

Of course, Mills is a safety because there is no more Malcolm Jenkins, which is troubling; but on the other side of the ledger, Darius Slay and Nickell Robey-Coleman project as definite cornerback upgrades. Slay’s 2019 Detroit Lions coverage grade from Football Outsiders, his four-year low, was still better than those of Darby and Mills, the Eagles' starters.

Whether this era is going to be better, we don’t know. But we do know fans wanted a different bunch back there than the one they’ve watched get toasted, burned, charred, incinerated, blistered, scorched, and occasionally immolated throughout the Schwartz era.

This is the defense that gave up 505 passing yards in winning Super Bowl LII, the defense that last season allowed 15 pass plays of 40-plus yards, tying it for next-to-worst in the NFL.

Sunday against second-year Washington quarterback Dwayne Haskins — who was 19-for-28 for 261 yards with two touchdowns and a 121.3 passer rating in his lone rookie-year start against the Eagles, a 37-27 Washington loss — the outside corners are scheduled to be Slay and plucky Avonte Maddox, with Robey-Coleman in the slot and Mills and Rodney McLeod as the safeties.

Cre’Von LeBlanc and Craig James add to the corner mix. Rather than scrutinize how the Eagles came to waive second- and third-round 2017 draft picks in Jones and Douglas, Schwartz said that the improvement of LeBlanc and James, taking jobs that would have gone to Jones and Douglas, was his focus.

“They forced those hard decisions on us because of their play in training camp,” said Schwartz, who included the waiving of 2019 fourth-round defensive end Shareef Miller in favor of 2020 seventh-rounder Casey Toohill in that assessment.

“I think Craig was one of our most improved players,” said Schwartz. He classified James as a “sort of special-teams-only guy last year” who “came in from the first day of training camp and really looked like a different guy. Cover skills were outstanding; knowledge of our scheme was outstanding; gave us some versatility. … He’s tough. He’s fast. Now he has a little bit of experience in our scheme, and we are excited about what he can do.”

LeBlanc has been an asset, mostly in nickel, since he arrived on waivers from Detroit in November 2018. He’s behind Robey-Coleman as the slot cover guy right now, but Schwartz said LeBlanc will have a role.

“We sort of always viewed ‘Cre’ as just a nickel, even though against the Giants a couple years ago he had to go and play outside corner for almost a whole half, and really did well for us,” Schwartz said. “But in his career, NFL career, he’s really been more of a nickel slot. We moved him around a lot [in camp this year] and we like his versatility. We think he can handle a lot of different roles, and we’re comfortable with him outside.”

Schwartz said he also thinks Robey-Coleman can play outside if injury push comes to shove, as it has so often for the Eagles of late.

Will Parks came home to Philly from Denver to strengthen the third safety spot before suffering a hamstring injury that placed him on short-term injured reserve, but Schwartz touted Marcus Epps as a vastly improved player who could fill in there.

Schwartz said that after the Eagles got Epps from Minnesota via waivers on Nov. 7, his defensive role was limited because he was new to the defense. That no longer is the case.

“From the very first day of training camp, not only has he improved mentally — and he’s been always good that way — but just understanding, and the little intricacies,” Schwartz said. “He was improved physically, too. Was faster, more explosive.”

Slay probably will be tasked with following Washington’s top wideout, 2019 rookie surprise Terry McLaurin, who in two games against the Eagles last season caught 10 passes on 12 targets for 255 yards and two touchdowns, of 69 and 75 yards.

McLaurin’s lone outing against Slay and the Detroit Lions was less prolific, five catches for 72 yards and no touchdowns, but in a March Instagram post, Slay said of McLaurin, “besides [the Chargers'] Keenan Allen, he was my hardest one that I covered that whole year. He probably would have scored on me two times” had Haskins not overthrown his former Ohio State teammate.

Schwartz said he didn’t make much of the Detroit-Washington game because Slay wasn’t playing in the Eagles' scheme.

The biggest unknown this week is how teams will look, having not gotten on the field in the spring, and having played no preseason games. A team such as Washington, with a new coaching staff, would seem to be at a disadvantage in getting players familiar with the schemes — but then, opponents have pretty much nothing to go on when preparing for a team with new schemes.

“Usually you have some ideas based on last year, and then you can confirm or disprove these things through the preseason,” Schwartz said. “There is always a little bit of uncertainty in the opener because teams don’t show certain things in the preseason. But just having zero preseason games, it’s unusual, and it hearkens back to college, when you’re playing an unfamiliar opponent in the opener.”