Good morning, Eagles fans! I’ll give you the good news first: Your team is still in first place in the NFC East after losing to the New York Giants on Sunday. The Eagles have a 1¼-game lead with seven games to go and a 63% chance to win the division, per ESPN. But now the bad news: Your team is playing more like a cellar dweller, and the next five games are against squads with winning records.
Up Sunday will be a game at the 6-3 Browns, followed by a Monday night tilt vs. the 6-3 Seahawks, a trip to the 7-2 Packers on a short week, hosting the 7-2 Saints, and finally traveling to face the 6-3 Cardinals. It’s a daunting stretch, but there isn’t an opponent in that group that has looked especially dominating. Anything is possible in the NFL, and as poorly as the Eagles have played, a win or two over that span might be enough for them to win the division.
I’m sure many fans would rather the Eagles lose out to improve their draft position, but there are a lot of bad teams with bad records this season, and even a 3-12-1 record wouldn’t guarantee a top-5 pick. Most, I would imagine, just want to see improvement, especially from quarterback Carson Wentz, and development from young, core players. It’s possible to win the NFC East and build toward the future, but the Eagles haven’t gone all-in with their youngsters.
With a playoff spot likely up for grabs until the final few weeks, it’s possible they never cut the cord on certain veterans. I’m getting ahead of myself here. Cleveland has improved in recent seasons, and has a strong defense with a potent running game, but the Browns are beatable. How the Eagles respond after a deflating loss at the Giants could say a lot about how they’ll navigate this final stretch.
Are you still aboard for the ride?
— Jeff McLane (firstname.lastname@example.org)
A few years back, the Eagles decided they needed taller, rangier cornerbacks. They saw wide receivers growing in stature and figured more length on the outside would help in covering monsters such as Calvin Johnson. So they signed free agent Nnamdi Asomugha and traded for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and well, that didn’t turn out so well.
The size factor didn’t really matter much when it came to how they played. Asomugha was in decline and collecting a last big paycheck, and Rodgers-Cromartie wasn’t a scheme or culture fit. But the Eagles continued with this belief during the Chip Kelly years and acquired long cornerbacks such as Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher, Nolan Carroll, Byron Maxwell and Eric Rowe over a three-year period.
The results weren’t better. It wasn’t so much that the Eagles were narrowing their preferences; more so that they made poor evaluations.
Still, the Eagles, upon Howie Roseman’s return to personnel, placed an emphasis on outside length. They drafted Jalen Mills (6-foot), Sidney Jones (6-0) and Rasul Douglas (6-2), and traded for Ronald Darby (5-11). Most didn’t complain when Mills was moved to safety, or Jones and Douglas were released, or Darby wasn’t re-signed, but the Eagles replaced them with mostly a shorter group of cornerbacks.
The 6-0 Darius Slay doesn’t fall under that category, but the 5-9 Avonte Maddox does. The Eagles drafted the latter to play in the slot, where a lack of length isn’t as important, but moved him permanently to the outside this offseason. They signed the 5-8 Nickell Robey-Coleman to take his spot inside.
The rest of the unit is made up of the 5-10 Cre’Von LeBlanc and the 5-10 Craig James. Undrafted rookie Michael Jacquet, who has spent most of the season on the practice squad, is 6-1.
Slay has been a successful addition for the most part. He had perhaps his worst game Sunday against the Giants, but the veteran corner has overall been reliable. Maddox has not played well. Robey-Coleman has been inconsistent. And LeBlanc has been targeted at a higher percentage than any other Eagles cornerback and not fared well.
Their struggles aren’t all related to their size, or lack thereof, but the Giants, for instance, took advantage of them on jump and fade passes. There have been other games when Maddox, Robey-Coleman and LeBlanc have seemingly had decent coverage only to give up a pass to a receiver who was able to high-point the ball.
“All our shorter guys have outstanding leaping ability and they have all made plays on contested throws down the field, and it really hasn’t been a 6-5 guy that outjumps a 5-9 guy or something like that," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said Tuesday. “We just put it down to technique and finish, and we’ve had shorter receivers make plays on us.”
In some respects, getting outjumped by a shorter receiver might be more damning. Cornerback might be the most difficult position outside of quarterback to play consistently in the NFL. It’s a thankless job, and with quarterbacks completing throws at a rate higher than ever, you’re more often going to give up passes than break them up.
The Eagles have played more man coverage this season partly to account for Slay. It was one reason they went with Maddox and Robey-Coleman, cornerbacks with speed and “sticky” coverage. But with more man defense comes more jump balls, more back shoulders, and more fades.
“There’s an old saying in the NFL that if it’s man-to-man, the receiver’s open. ... Close isn’t good enough in this game, and we have to win our share,” Schwartz said. “We didn’t win enough of our share of those plays, and I think on a lot of them it was either one bad step early, or it was the finish at the ball.”
Finishing has a lot to do with having length.
Jones, Douglas and Darby, meanwhile, have found new homes, and all three are starting. Jones was originally signed to the Jaguars practice squad but was promoted, and has secured an outside starting spot. He has two interceptions, a forced fumble and nine pass breakups in just six games.
Eagles cornerbacks, it should be noted, have yet to record an interception this season.
Jalen Hurts has only thrown twice on 30-something plays he’s been in. Do you sense that defenses are obviously keying on the run there? Would it make sense to take Carson off the field like the Saints do with Drew Brees? Would have one more receiving option for the D to cover? — The Wooderboys Podcast via Twitter (@wooderboys)
Yes. Yes. And yes. I was all for the use of Hurts early in the season for the simple fact that the plays worked. The Eagles were often able to pick up chunk yards whether the rookie quarterback was directly involved in the play or was a decoy. But the plays have become predictable for several reasons, most prominently because Hurts has thrown the ball only twice out of 30 plays.
Both passes were completed, so it’s not like he can’t throw. But the one constant has been that Wentz has been on the field for every play, in most circumstances, lined up wide in the flank. Wentz, of course, isn’t going to run a real route or have the ball thrown to him, so it’s one less receiver defenses have to worry about. It’s also one additional reason that Hurts probably hasn’t thrown as much.
In recent games, the Hurts plays haven’t been as productive. No. 1, the plays haven’t been as imaginative. It’s basically a zone read on most plays. And No. 2, defenses haven’t had to worry as much about the pass because the odds are he isn’t likely to drop and throw.