EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Malcolm Jenkins inched over to the “A” gap. He had blitzed up the middle before, and whether his looming presence had anything to do with the low snap or not, Jon Halapio’s pitch back to Giants quarterback Daniel Jones was errant.
When Jones scooped up the football, Jenkins was on the New York Giants quarterback like the drops of rain that consistently fell from the sky on Sunday. The Eagles safety swatted the ball to the turf, it ricocheted off Jones, bounced five times the opposite direction until teammate Fletcher Cox snagged it out of the air and landed at the 2-yard line.
“It was a huge momentum shift,” Jenkins said. “You feel that as a team.”
The Eagles had just retaken the lead, 20-17, early in the fourth quarter. But only after Saquon Barkley had knotted the score with an electrifying 68-yard touchdown run. The Eagles had stifled the running back until that carry, but the one-play, 16-second drive was a reminder of the Giants’ quick-score capabilities.
But after a Derek Barnett sack, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz dialed up a double-“A” gap blitz — linebacker Nigel Bradham was the other inside rusher — that seemingly led to the Giants’ botched exchange.
A play later, running back Boston Scott coasted into the end zone for his second of three rushing touchdowns on the day, and the Eagles were on their way to a 34-17 win that secured the NFC East title.
And it was no coincidence that Jenkins — and other leaders like Cox, quarterback Carson Wentz, and defensive end Brandon Graham — led the way. It’s virtually been that way over the last month as the Eagles rebounded from a devastating loss in Miami and countless injuries to win their final four games.
“When you need it, especially with the injuries we’ve had, you expect your leaders and your best players to show up,” Jenkins said. “No different than the last month, we’ve had guys contribute all over, but I think the guys that we needed to be big playmakers made big plays.”
Jenkins said that he hasn’t allowed himself to step back and view the individual effort in his 11th season. But considering how it all started, back in the spring when he stayed away from offseason workouts mostly because he was unhappy with his contract, it is worth putting into context.
The 32-year-old safety never held out from mandatory practices, and when he reported for minicamp in June, he said that he wouldn’t miss training camp, wouldn’t approach the season any different than he previously had, and true to his word he didn’t disappoint.
“I’m completely confident in my own abilities,” Jenkins said. “I continue to prepare the same way I have my entire career. And I know who I have to be as a player for the guys in this locker room.”
As a player, Jenkins doesn’t have the athleticism he once possessed. He hardly plays in the post anymore. But he’s adapted to a box safety-quasi linebacker role that has allowed him to play closer to the line and make plays on the ball, whether against the run or pass.
On Sunday, that meant he would shadow Barkley more and that he would blitz more. Jenkins was in on eight tackles as the Eagles held the Penn State product to just 11 yards on his first 10 totes. And as a rusher, he pressured and hit Jones on an incomplete third-down pass in the second quarter that forced the Giants to kick a red-zone field goal.
But Jenkins saved his best for when it would matter most.
“I just saw him bobble it and before he could get possession, I just tried to punch it out,” Jenkins said of Jones’ dropped snap and recovery. “Fletch did a good job of scooping it up.”
The Eagles could have panicked after the Barkley burst. But Jenkins and the other defensive leaders kept the unit together. It’s been that way all season, despite the roller coaster ride. There were poor outings against the Lions, Cowboys, and Dolphins. But also stout days against the Bills, Patriots, and finally in the rematch against Dallas.
“It’s definitely took a lot, not only for me, but for the rest of the leaders on the team,” Jenkins said. “There were a lot of distractions and adversity. But I think we built a culture here over the last few years.”
Jenkins even had his leadership publicly questioned by Orlando Scandrick after he was released in October. But the former Cowboys cornerback was an interloper. Jenkins can grind on his teammates, but there is always a message behind the tough love.
“He’s going to call you out, no matter what, especially if he knows you can do it,” Eagles cornerback Rasul Douglas said. “With Jenkins, you can’t show him you can do something because he’s going to expect that every time.”
He’s been particularly rough on cornerback Sidney Jones. But could the third-year cornerback’s late-season surge have anything to do with Jenkins’ approach?
“Trust is never given,” Jones said. “Obviously, it’s been a tough road. But I’ve battled adversity and come back from that. And he trusts me now. And I don’t panic when I come in the game.”
Jenkins didn’t struggle as much early in his career. He never lost his spot or was a healthy scratch on game days. But he said he understood Jones’ plight, and more important, what it took to recover and compete at this level.
“This team, when you get in there, is going to need to call on you and be able to have confidence in you,” Jenkins said. “And that starts not just on game days, but in your preparation, in practice, your demeanor, your body language, and how you want to be respected by your peers.
“And I think he’s grabbed that by the horns and made big plays for us the last month.”
Jones, once again, was called upon after injuries and held his own on the outside and recorded a late interception.
Jenkins nearly had his first pick of the season, but he couldn’t hold onto an earlier pass. He’s not in position as much to make interceptions, but few would say that his play has dropped significantly. But with one year left on his contract, and an extension that never came during the season, it’s fair to speculate if he’ll be back in 2020. Even if he isn’t, Jenkins’ place in Eagles lore is secure.
But that’s a question for the offseason, or at least another week.