When the Eagles decided to let Malcolm Jenkins go, Howie Roseman said he wouldn’t have done so had he not had suitable replacements at safety.
“We ... wanted to make sure that if for some reason it wasn’t going to work out with Malcolm,” the general manager said in March, “we had someone back there who could continue to get us lined up and provide leadership, and we feel we did that.”
The Eagles re-signed Rodney McLeod, Jenkins' positional partner for the previous four seasons, and retained cornerback Jalen Mills with the intention of moving him to safety. Each had leadership qualities and advanced understanding of Jim Schwartz’s defense, and combined would assume most of Jenkins' responsibilities.
Jenkins wanted a bump in salary, but the Eagles couldn’t justify paying a 32-year-old safety more when they had other salary-cap considerations and an aging roster that needed turnover.
The former Pro Bowl safety’s play had slipped marginally, but his value to the defense wasn’t always quantified by numbers or even by what could be evaluated on film. And that might be where the Eagles made their miscalculation this offseason.
Six months later, coach Doug Pederson was singing a different tune than Roseman when asked if the Eagles missed Jenkins, who would sign with the New Orleans Saints just hours after he was waived.
“It’s hard to replace a Malcolm, you know?” Pederson said Monday on WIP-FM 94.1 following the Eagles' bitter, 37-19 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. “I think it’s hard. His leadership the last couple of seasons is something that’s hard for someone to just step in and take that role.”
Pederson didn’t go into detail about the kinds of leadership the Eagles were missing without Jenkins, but the most prominent isn’t in the locker room. Defensive end Brandon Graham, McLeod, Mills, and others have that part covered, even if they aren’t willing to crack some eggs the way Jenkins could.
The most glaring missing ingredient has been on the field -- at least thus far -- with pre-snap communication. Jenkins didn’t just make the calls in the secondary, or get the linebackers lined up in their proper gaps; he often recognized what an offense was going to do and would relay his knowledge to the rest of the defense. And in some cases, he would simply cover for a blown assignment.
Jenkins wasn’t perfect. The Eagles lost some ugly ones when he was in uniform. But it’s likely that Sunday’s defensive debacle wouldn’t have looked so bad had he still been on the team. The Eagles not only bit on the Rams' play fakes and misdirection countless times, but they were often completely fooled as to be out of frame.
Washington was unable to exploit this weakness a week ago in the opener, but it did take advantage early in the game with jet motion that resulted in a blown assignment and a Logan Thomas touchdown catch. There was a clear breakdown between Mills and cornerback Avonte Maddox, and Schwartz was asked two days later if that play had anything to do with adjusting to the absence of Jenkins.
“Malcolm doesn’t play here anymore,” Schwartz said. “We can’t judge anything on how he would have done in those situations. We have our guys this year. You don’t get graded on the curve because you got new guys out there or it’s the first game of the season or anything else.”
It was an appropriate answer from the defensive coordinator, but Rams coach Sean McVay must have watched that play and licked his chops. As far as misdirection goes, it was rather elemental. But McVay’s offense is centered around pre-snap motion, play-action, and disguise. And it’s more sophisticated.
The Rams didn’t reinvent their offense in one week, though.
“It was identical to what we practiced,” McLeod said Sunday. “This was one of those games where you had to play fundamentally sound, disciplined ball [and] trust in one another.”
But there was no one in the middle to keep the unit glued. Saints coach Sean Payton once said before a game vs. the Eagles that he wanted to keep the defense guessing so that all heads in the back seven would turn to Jenkins and be like, What do we do?
McVay preyed on the Eagles' defenders in the middle of the field, especially Nate Gerry. Schwartz’s No. 1 linebacker, Gerry had trouble seeing the ball. He was late to cover tight end Tyler Higbee on his first touchdown catch.
He later crashed hard on a run fake up the middle, and receiver Robert Woods took an end-around untouched into the end zone. And he again was duped by jet motion, boot-action when Higbee leaked into the secondary for a 28-yard touchdown reception.
But Gerry alone wasn’t solely responsible for those scores. Mills blitzed on the first Higbee touchdown, leaving the linebacker alone in coverage. On the second, defensive end Josh Sweat failed to set the edge, and Mills was caught flat-footed by the run action.
And on the 28-yard touchdown dagger, three defenders, including Mills, followed Woods on the jet motion, while McLeod vacated the post to defend the end-around, leaving Gerry without safety help over top.
A few plays earlier, the Eagles were gashed for 40 yards on the ground by Darrell Henderson. McLeod was in the box on this play -- filling Jenkins' former quasi-linebacker role -- while Mills was in the post. The former was tentative and was sealed by Higbee as Mills missed a tackle once the running back got into the secondary.
“A couple of plays, you’re playing the last play rather than playing the play at hand which you see right in front of you,” McLeod said. “We have to make sure moving forward, we just [have to] be present, focus on the play at hand, get the job done, and that will put us in a good position to win these games.”