The age gap between Malcolm Jenkins and some of his younger teammates has led to him getting the nickname “unc", short for uncle.
The 31-year-old is the veteran leader of the Eagles defense, he in his 11th season, and has made it to three Pro Bowls. Still young at heart, and in play, he doesn’t appreciate the nickname.
But when Tom Brady threw his first NFL touchdown pass in 2001, Jenkins was a freshman at Piscataway High School.
“On our scouting report, it always has players’ names and the years they’ve been in the league next to it,” Jenkins said after Thursday’s practice. “His said 20. It blew my mind to see that. You know about it, but to really think about how long he’s been in the league and playing at the level he’s been playing, it’s very impressive.”
How do you remain unpredictable to a quarterback who has been studying and carving apart NFL defenses since you were sitting in algebra class?
“You have to show your hand late,” Eagles linebacker Nigel Bradham said. “It’s kind of like playing poker with him. I think that’s one of the things we did well in the Super Bowl when we played them. We showed a lot late, and that was the trick. I think it helped us."
Bradham, currently recovering from an ankle injury, likely won’t be back in time for the Eagles’ game against the New England Patriots on Sunday. But he has valuable experience playing the pre-snap chess match that happens when Brady is lined up on the other side. Bradham made the defensive calls in the Eagles’ Super Bowl win over the Patriots in 2017, and has seen Brady eight times in his career. The first seven matchups came while Bradham was with the Buffalo Bills between 2012 and 2015.
There is only so much you can do against Brady, Bradham says. He’s adept at identifying coverages based on alignment before the snap, and taking what the defense gives him whenever possible.
“He’s been in the league forever, and he’s probably one of the smartest quarterbacks you’ll ever face in your career,” Bradham said. “He’s seen everything. He knows where to go with the ball. He sees blitzes, he knows to get it out of his hand really quick. If you give him Cover 2, he’ll just take the 5 yards sometimes. He checks into certain things if you see him trying to do certain things or blitz in certain formations.”
Eagles safety Rodney McLeod has only faced Brady twice, in the Super Bowl and once before in 2012 while he played for the Los Angeles Rams. In 2012, McLeod didn’t play, but he had a front-row seat to one of the 29 regular-season games in which Brady’s thrown at least four touchdowns.
“You have to try and give him different looks,” McLeod said. “He’s going to use the play clock to his advantage. He’s going to take it all the way down to the wire to make the best call to put his team in the best position. That’s one thing that he’s great at. Being able to get the ball out of his hands very fast against pressure and dissecting the defense, so we’re going to do our best to disguise.”
But the Patriots have a history of cracking those disguises. They often use their formations and pre-snap motion to figure out what coverage a defense is in. Jenkins said they’ll sometimes line a running back out as a wide receiver and motion him into the backfield to identify man-on-man coverage.
“They do a good job of putting in formations that really don’t allow you to disguise,” Jenkins said. “All those things give [Brady] the information that he needs.”
But once all the deception is done and the ball is snapped, McLeod and Jenkins are in agreement.
“At the end of the day, sometimes it’s not about disguising, it’s about winning your matchup,” Jenkins said. “We’re definitely going to have to do that a few times.”
McLeod added: “It’s all going to come down to, at the end of the day, us competing, fighting, and finishing.”