MINNEAPOLIS — Cornerback might be the most thankless position to play in the NFL. With the game increasingly called to favor quarterbacks and passing offense, the relentless assault on cornerbacks is collateral damage for high-scoring, fan(tasy) friendly football.
Failure is more likely than success when the ball is thrown your way. Cornerbacks must have short memories. They must be confident enough in their abilities to accept a short completion because a long one is always lurking.
The Eagles allowed a couple of long passes Sunday. Stefon Diggs’ 62- and 51-yard touchdown catches were just two of Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins’ 22 completed throws. Cornerbacks Rasul Douglas and Sidney Jones had already given up their share as Minnesota jumped to an early lead.
But Diggs’ scores — which gave the Vikings a 24-3 cushion — were backbreakers the Eagles could never overcome in an eventual 38-20 loss at U.S. Bank Stadium. And while Malcolm Jenkins took sole responsibility for the second touchdown when he vacated the deep middle, the veteran safety appeared to be delivering a message when he was asked about the confidence of the Eagles’ young cornerbacks.
“This game’s not for suckers. If you aren’t confident on the outside, then we can’t use you,” Jenkins said. “So we don’t mind that they’re challenging the outside of it. We can do what we can to protect them from calls, but at the end of the day, our defense is going to call for guys to be able to go outside and cover.”
There’s only so much help that defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz can provide, especially when offenses are keeping more bodies in to help protect against the strength of the Eagles’ defense, their pass rush.
Schwartz has found ways before to cover for the lack of talent at cornerback. He got to the Super Bowl two years ago with Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills on the outside, and even though his unit allowed 505 passing yards on this same turf to the Patriots, the Eagles had a strong enough offense to offset from what they lack on defense.
But Doug Pederson’s offense hasn’t been the same since, and Schwartz’s defense is just a middling product. If Eagles general manager Howie Roseman has made any monetary investment on defense, it’s been on the line.
He’s expended high draft picks on cornerback, but either the evaluation or the development of Jones (second round) and Douglas (third round) has been faulty. The latter is a competent third option, but his subpar long speed often requires safety help.
On Diggs’ first touchdown, Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski called a pass with a perfect route combination vs. Schwartz’s quarters zone. While Diggs was to run a deep post, receiver Adam Theilen had an intermediate cross route.
“You’re kind of excited before the ball is snapped,” Cousins said, “because you know that this is the kind of coverage you want for this route.”
Safety Rodney McLeod would have had to leave Thielen open to drop into the deep middle. Douglas, thus, would have to be solely responsible for Diggs’ “9” route. But he couldn’t close and Cousins dropped a tear in his receiver’s bucket.
“Just got to guard him,” Douglas said.
But he should have received help from center field when Diggs ran a fly route past him. Jenkins bit so badly on an underneath route that Cousins had two receivers — receiver Olabisi Johnson was the other on a deep post — with no one more than 10 yards within them.
“The second one was a blown coverage,” Jenkins said. “I should have been back there.”
Diggs almost had another long touchdown catch when he got inside Douglas on a post route, but Cousins’ overthrew his receiver. The Eagles have already allowed seven pass plays over 40 yards this season, which is tied for last in the NFL with the Giants. Last season, they only allowed six.
But, overall, during Schwartz’s four-year tenure, only the Raiders (41) have surrendered more 40-plus yard pass plays than the Eagles (36).
“I don’t think Jim needs to call anything different,” Jenkins said. “I think we need to execute better.”
Schwartz’s defense had a stellar performance last week against the Jets, but the Eagles’ 10-sack effort had as much to do with quarterback Luke Falk, who is now out of the league, and the competition as anything.
“You can go three seasons without seeing a kind of game like that, so I don’t think we look to last week as a benchmark of who we are,” Jenkins said. “But I do think we got to play more consistently, and I think we’re trying to figure what our identity is.
“Obviously, with the rotation and the personnel changing every week, it’s hard to find what you are defensively.”
The Eagles have suffered their share of injuries at cornerback, just as they did last season. Mills and Cre’Von LeBlanc have yet to play this season because of foot injuries. Darby has missed three games because of a hamstring strain. Avonte Maddox has missed two because of concussion and neck injuries. And Jones missed one because of a hamstring strain, his fourth such injury since last season.
“There’s some injury, but again, I’m not going to use that as an excuse,” Pederson said. “The guys have to play.”
The Vikings tested Jones early. They threw two screens to his side on their opening drive and he kept damage to a minimum. But Jones, several plays later, bit on a Thielen double move that resulted in a 6-yard touchdown catch.
A series later, Cousins saw Jones playing soft, and threw another quick-hitter to Diggs, who picked up 18 yards after Jones came up and missed the tackle.
“I was thinking shot plays and they were going to push the ball downfield,” Jones said. "I just need to change my looks.”
The Vikings didn’t have as much success on the ground as usual, but they were able to gouge the Eagles off play-action. The cornerbacks weren’t the only ones to be victimized through the air. Linebacker Zach Brown had a particularly poor outing. And the defensive line managed only one Brandon Graham sack.
But Douglas and Jones, who would each have two penalties in coverage, were as leaky as sieves. Craig James replaced Jones during a stretch in the second half, but Cousins went at him, too, and hit Diggs for an 11-yard touchdown after the Eagles had trimmed the lead to 24-20.
“I just had to take a couple plays,” Jones said, “get back right.”
Pederson had spoken in detail about Jones needing to push through his hamstring injury. Jones said the injury wasn’t an issue in the game and that his confidence remained high. But it’s fair to wonder if Jenkins’ missive was directed at the 23-year old cornerback.
“I feel like I’m very close,” Jones said. "I just got to put the pieces together.”