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Why the Eagles ‘cross-train’ their defensive backs | Early Birds

Plus, more on Wendell Smallwood's role in the offense and Nelson Agholor's production since Alshon Jeffery's return

Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz against the New York Giants on Thursday, October 11, 2018 in East Rutherford, NJ. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz against the New York Giants on Thursday, October 11, 2018 in East Rutherford, NJ. YONG KIM / Staff PhotographerRead moreYONG KIM

Good morning. Week 6 is finished, and the Eagles are now preparing for this weekend's game against the Carolina Panthers. They're back on the practice field on Wednesday. There are no scheduled news conferences today.

This is the Early Birds newsletter, which will arrive in your inbox Monday through Friday for the rest of the season. If your friends haven't subscribed to Early Birds, it's free to sign up here. I want to know what you think, what we should add and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @ZBerm. Thank you for reading.

— Zach Berman

Backfield versatility

Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz talks often about how the Eagles "cross-train" players, which is his term for preparing a player for a different position in case he's needed in an emergency. An example was Rasul Douglas stepping in at safety in last week's win — and Avonte Maddox becoming the starting safety even though he spent the summer as a slot cornerback. (Read here for more on the secondary's adjustments.) It happens at linebacker, too, with players learning multiple linebacker spots. The Eagles have 46 players active on game days and need to prepare contingencies in case there's an injury to any player.

Injuries are a reality in the NFL, but the Eagles have felt the injury bug more at specific positions this season. The defensive backfield has been one of those spots, and the Eagles will be without two of their top five defensive backs on Sunday (Rodney McLeod and Sidney Jones). If Corey Graham doesn't play, that's three of their top six.

"That's one of the reasons we cross-train so many guys and put such an emphasis on versatility is because of this," Schwartz said. "We had some pretty well-recognized injuries last year that we were able to overcome. … Injuries are nothing new. When you start getting multiple at a position, it can become challenging. That's what we do."

Schwartz said he saw the value of cross-training defensive backs in the early-to-mid-2000s when teams started using three wide receivers more often than two players in the backfield. That changed the nature of the safety position. There are fewer safeties in the NFL that play in the box, which is why Schwartz likes safeties with cornerback backgrounds. Malcolm Jenkins, Graham, Maddox, and Deiondre' Hall all came into the NFL as cornerbacks and converted to safety.

"Everybody had to play in space and pretty much everybody had to be able to cover a wide receiver that was in the back end," Schwartz said. "If you just blitz one guy, somebody's got to cover a wide receiver, so you need corner skills in the back end. I think probably somewhere mid-2000s, early 2000s that model started to change, and I think you're seeing it not just with us but pretty much across the league now."

Trust in Wendell Smallwood

It's clear that the Eagles trust Wendell Smallwood more this season than they did last year. When the Eagles acquired Jay Ajayi, Smallwood was the odd man out on game days after an injury muddled his standing on the depth chart. The Eagles played Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount, Corey Clement, and Kenjon Barner over Smallwood.

Smallwood needed to play his way onto the roster during the summer. Doug Pederson acknowledged Smallwood might have "felt like there was a little heat on him," which Pederson said can be "a great motivator for any athlete and player." Smallwood responded with a strong start to the season. He's averaging 4.7 yards per carry and figures to remain a part of the Eagles' running back committee.

"I think it's that he's been able to stay on the field," offensive coordinator Mike Groh said. "He started off last season, had a role, and then he got banged up and he wasn't ever really able to fit back into that role. Whether he ever felt 100 percent after that [injury], I don't know. But he's been very consistent in his performance and very diligent with his preparation in all areas, whether it be running the ball, catching the ball out of the backfield, and protecting the quarterback. Wendell has done a good job."

A weekend watching football

The Eagles had a rare weekend off. Malcolm Jenkins spent it watching football, but he didn't have his notebook in front of him. Jenkins consumed the games like a fan.

"It's not often we get a chance to sit back and watch the games," Jenkins said. "So you sit back and see what's going on around the league. Take a little bit of time off, watch some college ball."

Jenkins started his game-planning for the Panthers on Monday, when the team came in for meetings.

What you need to know about the Eagles

  1. The injuries in the secondary have forced the Eagles to use a lineup that's "not ideal."

  2. Will Jason Peters miss time? Offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland doesn't think soLes Bowen writes.

  3. The Eagles need to trade for LeSean McCoy, Marcus Hayes writes.

  4. Michael Irvin is part of the broadcast team calling the Eagles-Jaguars gameRob Tornoe writes.

From the mailbag

“I realize that part of the problem may be due to the injury situation at wide receiver but it seemed that Nelson Agholor was most productive out of the slot last season. This possibility the reason why there have been no slant passes to him out of the slot?”
— Forrest W., via email

Nelson Agholor has continued to play the slot this season, and you’re going to see production comparable to last season now that Alshon Jeffery is back in the lineup and playing well. During the first few weeks, opposing defenses could devote more attention to Agholor. With Jeffery in the lineup, defenses must play Agholor differently. That will open more space for him to operate. You’re already seeing it reflected in his yards per catch. Agholor had 7.25 yards per catch in three games without Jeffery and 13.2 yards per catch in the three games since Jeffery returned. Two big catches last week inflated that average, but just watching the games, it’s evident how Agholor can benefit from Jeffery’s presence.