Tim Jernigan has spent a lot more time hurt than healthy the last two years.
After helping the Eagles win the Super Bowl in 2017 following his trade from Baltimore, he missed 13 games last season with a mysterious back injury, and has missed six games this season with a broken foot.
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Jernigan finally returned to the lineup before the bye, playing 16 snaps in the Eagles’ 22-14 win over the Bears.
Jernigan’s lack of availability was a big reason why defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz didn’t pop open a bottle of Dom Pérignon earlier this week when a reporter asked him about the significance of getting Jernigan back.
“We’ll see where it takes us," Schwartz said. “It was great to have him back on the field. We’ve been a little star-crossed at the defensive tackle position.
“Going into the season, we really felt good about (having) Malik (Jackson) and Timmy and Ridge (Hassan Ridgeway). Then, all of a sudden, we had none of those three.”
The shortest distance between two points is a straight line and the quickest — and most disruptive — route to a quarterback is straight up the middle.
That’s why the Eagles signed Jackson to a three-year, $30 million free-agent deal, and why they brought Jernigan back after not picking up his option, and why they traded for Ridgeway during the draft.
With those three joining All-Pro Fletcher Cox inside, who was coming off a major foot injury suffered in the Eagles’ playoff loss to the Saints, Schwartz was licking his chops thinking about the inside pressure his defense was going to be able to get on opposing quarterbacks.
But then Jackson suffered a Lisfranc fracture in his foot in Week 1, and Jernigan broke a bone in his foot in Week 2, and all of a sudden, that inside pressure melted like ice cream on a 95-degree day.
Cox took baby steps returning to the All-Pro level he was at before his injury. To make matters worse, Ridgeway injured his ankle in the Eagles’ Week 7 loss to Dallas and joined Jackson on injured reserve. Take out that 10-sack Week 5 aberration against the Jets, and the Eagles had just four sacks in their first five games.
The Eagles signed veteran defensive tackle Akeem Spence after Jackson went down, but released him after the Cowboys loss.
In their bounce-back 31-13 Week 8 win over Buffalo, the Eagles dressed four tackles — Cox, Bruce Hector, Anthony Rush and Albert Huggins. Hector was promoted from the Eagles’ practice squad. Rush and Huggins, who had never played in an NFL regular-season game before, were signed off other practice squads.
Hector was sent back to the Eagles’ practice squad after the Bills game. Rush and Huggins still are on the roster. They combined for 25 snaps against the Bears.
But the big story on Action News is the return of Jernigan. Well, OK, the second biggest story. The first is the fact that Cox is back playing at an All-Pro level.
“The last two weeks he’s been outstanding," defensive line coach Phillip Daniels said. “Fletch is one of those guys who makes everybody around him better. When he’s playing well, the whole group is playing well.
“When you come off major offseason surgery, it takes a while (to get back to 100 percent). But I knew at some point he would be back to the old Fletch. We just had to be patient with him. But he’s playing at a high level right now. Helping all our other guys to be better out there on the field.
“How he goes is how we go."
The Eagles had seven sacks in their back-to-back wins over Buffalo and Chicago. Cox had six tackles, two sacks and four total quarterback pressures against the Bills. He didn’t have a sack against the Bears, but had four tackles and five pressures. His disruptive presence impacted everything else that happened around him.
Cox played all but seven of 44 snaps in the win over the Bears. Jernigan, who played 16 snaps against the Bears, figures to get a heavier work load Sunday against the 8-1 Patriots.
“He didn’t play a ton, and it was probably unrealistic to think he was going to play more than that," Schwartz said. “But it was a good start for him, and we’ll just see where that goes week to week.’’
The 6-foot-2, 295-pound Jernigan isn’t as good a pass-rusher as the 6-5, 290-pound Jackson. But he’s good enough to make opposing offensive lines play Cox a little more honest, and good enough to win some one-on-ones when Cox gets double-teamed, which is pretty much 90 percent of the time.
Cox certainly is happy to get Jernigan back after playing much of the last two seasons next to a bunch of John Does.
“I felt his presence early in the (Bears) game," Cox said. “I felt his energy. It’s good to have him back out there. He was flying around.
“It helped me in so many ways. I’ve played a lot of ball with Timmy. I knew where he would be on certain plays. I knew the way he rushed. He knew where I would be. That correlation helps both of us."
Cox and Jernigan’s target Sunday, Tom Brady, has only been sacked 15 times this season, but that’s more a credit to Tom Terrific and his ability to get the ball out quickly than it is to his offensive line.
Center David Andrews is out for the season with blood clots in his lungs, and left tackle Marshall Newhouse already has given up six sacks and 25 total pressures. If the Eagles’ secondary can hold its coverage, Cox and Jernigan could be major players Sunday.
“Getting (Jernigan) back solidifies us," Daniels said. “We’ve had young guys playing next to Fletch. A veteran player like Timmy is bringing the energy and doing the things he can do and knocking the pocket back.