The Eagles’ beleaguered pass defense will face a New England offense that averages 30 points per game, helmed by Tom Brady, the most accomplished quarterback of the 21st century, and maybe of all time.
Should fans avert their eyes?
Well, maybe not. Jim Schwartz’s group has been steadily working its way up from the bottom of the league in many passing categories toward the middle, as starters have returned. The days of grabbing guys off the street and playing them at corner are over. (Now it’s the offense’s turn to do that sort of thing, it would seem.)
On Sunday, the Eagles will have Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby on the corners, Avonte Maddox playing the nickel, and presumably Rasul Douglas available in dime, where he got snaps against Chicago in place of soon-to-be-released Andrew Sendejo. (Coaches and players were cagey about that during the week; maybe there is another dime plan, or they just don’t plan to play much dime against New England.)
This secondary group, with safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod, isn’t the Seattle Legion of Boom from several years back, but it does give the coaching staff options, and the players and coaches seem comfortable with what many fans assumed would be the Eagles’ defensive backfield when the season began.
Safeties coach Tim Hauck talked about this during the week.
“Just attitude-wise, just having the guys back on the field, out there competing and getting back into their rhythm [is uplifting], because they know each other inside and out,” Hauck said.
“You can go all the way back to the middle of last year, where we’re just kind of fitting pieces in where we can and just trying to get by. To get these guys back that are veterans and have played a whole bunch of football, have played a bunch of football together, it’s kind of fun to watch. I think they feed off each other. … Energy and attitude is a big part of football."
The guy who brings the attitude is Mills, whose foot injury kept him sidelined from Oct. 28, 2018 until this Oct. 20. This will be Mills’ fourth game back. Cory Undlin, who coaches corners, and the defensive backs as a whole, acknowledged that without Mills, the group was missing something.
“The first thing he’s brought is just his personality, and his passion that he plays the game with,” Undlin said. “You miss that from him. I think that has a lot to do with his success in his young career. He’d be the first to tell you, he hasn’t played without any flaws, but he’s out there fighting. I like the way he’s trending. It’ll take him a couple games here to get back in the groove, and this’ll be a good one for it.”
Mills said having the secondary at full strength will have a trickle-down effect.
“We’ve got all our starters back. At the end of the day, that’s the only thing that counts. Not only is our group at its best, the defense is at its best and the team is at its best, when we have our starters in the secondary back,” Mills said.
Maddox, who this week will play for the second time since missing four games with a concussion and a neck injury, said: “Now that you have finally, like, a four healthy defensive back room – something we haven’t had, probably, since I’ve been here -- you can go out and play, you can match up with guys, you can play a lot more man, you can lock areas up, so you won’t have so many open holes in the field.”
It will be interesting to see how Maddox’s role develops. The Eagles have six healthy corners, and Cre’Von ‘Strap’ LeBlanc is still on IR, looking to return fairly soon. In fact, Douglas said he doesn’t consider the secondary truly healthy without LeBlanc, who suffered a Lisfranc foot injury the first day of full-squad workouts in training camp.
“Everybody’s not back yet. We’re still waiting for ‘Strap.’ Once Strap gets back, then we’ll be good,” Douglas said.
The team cut Sendejo during the bye, leaving special-teams gunner Rudy Ford and just-acquired rookie Marcus Epps as the only backups behind Jenkins and McLeod. It seems likely that if a safety went down, Maddox would move over there, as he had to as a rookie in 2018.
Hauck was asked if he wouldn’t like to just claim Maddox for himself. Hauck said he indeed would, but that is not how it works.
“I’d claim him every day of the week, every year. … He does a lot of good things other places, too,” Hauck said. “The fact that he can move around and play nickel, play corner, play safety, makes things easier for us.”
In fact, if Hauck had his choice, Sendejo would still be here, but management looked at the six defensive snaps he got against the Bears and the opportunity to set the Eagles up for an extra fourth-round compensatory draft pick next spring, and decided the team could do without him. Minnesota brought Sendejo back to his home from 2011 to 2018 and waived Epps, who quickly was claimed here.
“I don’t make the roster moves. … It’s my job to coach the guys that are here,” Hauck said. “You guys know how I feel about Andrew. He’s a good football player, and I wish him the best of luck with Minnesota. He gets to go back to his virtual ‘home.’ He’ll do good things for them.”
In the Chicago game, the “four-corner” dime was effective, but Mills said not to expect it to become a staple.
“That was just the game plan we had for the Bears. It worked pretty good. With the Patriots, it’s a totally different scheme, totally different offense,” Mills said. “We’ve got to attack them differently.”
Brady doesn’t have the weapons he had when he threw for 505 yards in Super Bowl LII. Specifically, he doesn’t have Rob Gronkowski. Mills, who was 6 years old in 2000 (when Brady was drafted), said Brady still finds ways to get it done.
“It all starts and ends with 12. At the end of the day, he’s the engine. ... He’s still attacking guys the way he wants to attack them. … As far as the weapons that they have, everybody is interchangeable in their offense. They use the running backs the same way they use their inside receivers, outside receivers.”
Undlin cautioned that the Eagles are “going to get tested in every possible way – run game, pass game, alignment, motion, shift, tempo, all that stuff.
“They make you – you have to be on everything. No matter what the situation is, no matter what personnel group’s on the field, base, whatever, whether it’s a run or a pass, you got to show up. They’re going to make you tackle.”
Schwartz spoke this week about finding a defensive personality, something he said he thinks having a healthier secondary will promote.
“Obviously, the way we started last year was different than the way we finished, not just in personnel but the schemes that we played,” Schwartz said. “But you know, at the end of the year, we were able to find our personality and made a nice little run having that.”
Schwarz acknowledged he tried a lot of different looks earlier this season when Mills, Darby, and Maddox were all missing. Now, he said, "I think we’ve settled that down a little bit. Part of the silver lining to having some of those struggles early in the season is you start to get guys back later in the season, and also, you sort of find out what your formula can be.
“I think we’re trending in the right way.”