There was a point late in the Eagles’ victory over the New Orleans Saints Sunday when defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz thought he might have to prepare a “Hail Mary” defense.
Schwartz looked around, started counting his healthy defensive backs. Hmmm. Any wide receivers looking to earn a bit of overtime? Won’t need ya for long, really.
“I sort of do a thing the night before the game where I’ll quiz the coaches, ‘All right, we lose this guy, who is the next guy in the game? All right we lost that guy, how are we going to work around these issues?’ I don’t think you ever plan for 75% [of the defensive backfield starters] going down,” Schwartz said Tuesday.
“You just have to do the best you can. We were scrambling. … We were going to have to go get one of the offensive players to go play a backline guy.
“You can’t really prepare for all those situations. You just have to put the fires out as they come and figure out some way that you can piece it together to be successful.”
The fallout: Rodney McLeod, bulwark of the Eagles’ 2020 secondary, will miss the rest of the season with a torn left ACL. And starting corner Avonte Maddox (knee) will miss this week’s visit to DeAndre Hopkins and the Arizona Cardinals, at least; Maddox probably will miss more than that. Darius Slay, Schwartz’s No. 1 corner, injured Sunday on the same third-quarter play as McLeod, is in the concussion protocol, making his availability for Arizona uncertain.
So the only starter Schwartz knows he can send out against the Cardinals is Jalen Mills, who will play either safety or corner, depending on which position’s need seems more dire.
“It’s certainly not an ideal situation,” Schwartz said Tuesday. “But injuries happen in the NFL. Particularly at defensive back. Not only are there muscle pulls, but they are generally smaller guys that take a lot of contact and things like that. So we’ve seen that firsthand.
“Whether you’re up from the practice squad or you’re a six-time Pro Bowl player, every player has strengths and weaknesses, and you have to balance what you need to do in the game plan versus what your matchups are and what the skill sets of the players are.”
Two years ago, by the end of a blowout loss at New Orleans, the Eagles’ secondary featured Chandon Sullivan, Cre’Von LeBlanc, and De’Vante Bausby, none of whom had opened the season on the Eagles’ roster.
Last year, maybe you recall cornerback Craig James getting his first Eagles snaps in the final minute of play, at the goal line, against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. James deflected a pass to Nigel Bradham for a game-sealing interception.
It’s become something of a tradition around here. Who can forget the Eagles contributions of Josh Hawkins, Deiondre Hall, Trae Elston, Orlando Scandrick, Corey Graham, or Dexter McDougle? All have served as emergency secondary fill-ins in the recent past.
Last Sunday, Eagles fans began acquainting themselves with Kevon Seymour, whose 35 emergency snaps at cornerback were his first in the NFL since 2017, and Jameson Houston, a rookie from Baylor. Houston joined the Eagles’ practice squad on Nov. 25, making him basically an old hand at Schwartz’s defensive scheme compared to Seymour, who joined the practice squad on Dec. 2.
Corner Nickell Robey-Coleman and safeties Marcus Epps and K’Von Wallace got more work than usual. There’s a chance corner Michael Jacquet and safety Grayland Arnold will return this week from hamstring injuries.
The Saints scored all of their 21 points after Maddox, McLeod, and Slay left the game. New Orleans quarterback Taysom Hill went from averaging roughly 7 yards per completion to getting double that.
Schwartz said the Eagles survived partly because the game plan was to play a lot of zone, to keep defensive backs’ eyes on Hill, in case he took off on a run.
“I think those guys really did a good job of stepping in and helping us win that game. It wasn’t always easy for them,” Schwartz said of the injury replacements. “Gave up a couple plays, but when it was all said and done, they made enough plays to win the game.”
Last week, there was a lot of talk about how much the Eagles miss safety Malcolm Jenkins, who returned to the Saints in free agency this year after six seasons and a Super Bowl ring in Philadelphia. Mills plays Jenkins’ position (when he isn’t at corner), but it was McLeod who stepped up as the veteran leader of the defensive backfield, on and off the field.
McLeod also greatly intensified his efforts in the community; last week he became the Eagles’ nominee for the league’s Walter Payton Award. Monday, right after tests confirmed that his season was over, McLeod and his wife, Erika, appeared at a scheduled event for their charity, the Change Our Future Foundation.
McLeod has traveled this road before. He tore his other ACL in Week 3 in 2018; replacing him became part of that season’s defensive backfield scramble.
“It’s such a gut punch when a respected player like Rodney … a very productive leader for us, has had a really outstanding year -- when you lose him for the game. But [when] you also find out that you lose him for the season, everybody feels that,” Schwartz said.
“If I know Rodney, and he’s done this before when he was injured, he stays really involved with the team. He keeps his leadership up. … He was always active on the sidelines. He was active during practice. He was active during meetings. He found a way to contribute. … That’s the kind of guy he is. That’s the kind of leader he is. That’s why he’s been such an important part of our defense over the last five years here.”
Schwartz hinted Tuesday that he might want to keep Mills at safety this week, with McLeod missing. That might imply he thinks Slay will be cleared to play, opposite someone – Seymour? Jacquet?
“All those young guys, we’re going to need all of those guys to come back and play significant snaps for us,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz said that after Seymour gave up a touchdown pass Sunday, “he didn’t let that affect him at all. Came back and continued to battle and played physical football. I was proud of him for that. It was a great step for his career.”
Seymour had surgery on both shoulders in 2019, when he was with Carolina in the offseason.
“He’d sort of been sidetracked a little bit,” Schwartz said. “But to get back on the field and play winning football, that’s a real tip of the cap to him, staying ready, keeping his faith through some tough times, and he was rewarded for that and we were rewarded for that.