DEPTH IN the secondary has become a big focus for the Eagles. Sunday's preseason-opening victory over Indianapolis provided the first big test for the young guys who will be expected to provide it.
Results were encouraging. Jaylen Watkins and Eric Rowe, leading contenders for the nickel cornerback position since the team traded away Brandon Boykin, didn't give up any big plays. Rowe, the second-round rookie from Utah, closed fast and forced a fumble after initially being fooled by the Colts' shifty rookie, Phillip Dorsett.
Rowe was in one-on-one coverage.
"He just kind of shot out and did a deep over [a long route across the formation]," Rowe said. "It kind of caught me off guard, especially when you haven't watched film of these guys. When he shot over I was, like, 'Crap.'
"In my head, I was just, like, 'I've got to run and catch up; I know he's going to throw to him, because he's wide open.' Once he caught it, I saw the ball kind of loose. In practice, all we do is preach stripping the ball and getting turnovers. I just went for the punch, but, at the same time, have my other arm ready to tackle, in case I missed. When it came out, I was pretty pumped up."
Chris Prosinski recovered at the sideline.
Rowe estimated he spent half of his time playing nickel and half outside.
Second-year safety Ed Reynolds, who'd pretty much dropped off the radar while spending his rookie season on the practice squad, played an excellent game, intercepting two passes and providing strong special- teams support for a team that isn't sure it has a safety it really wants to put on the field a lot behind scheduled starters Malcolm Jenkins and Walter Thurmond.
Veteran safeties Prosinski and Chris Maragos were strong special-teams contributors last season, but didn't seem to offer much defensively. Even if Reynolds is better at safety, he must excel on special teams to unseat one of them. Then there's veteran E.J. Biggers, a free agent who can play corner or safety.
It probably is worth noting that nobody in the Eagles' secondary gave up any big plays Sunday, because the Colts didn't make any, in losing 36-10. Quarterback Andrew Luck played a series and a half. The drop-off from Luck to Matt Hasselbeck, who turns 40 next month, and undrafted rookie QB Bryan Bennett was extreme. Hasselbeck, especially, seemed to have receivers open he just couldn't hit.
After Luck completed five of six for 43 yards, Hasselbeck was 8-for-17 for 72 yards, and Bennett was - gulp - 4-for-16 for 35 yards and the two Reynolds picks; Bennett compiled a 0.0 passer rating.
Watkins did take really bad angles in missing two tackles. The first came with about 12 minutes left in the second quarter, when Hasselbeck flicked a quick pass to Vincent Brown, and Watkins lined him up, then whiffed.
It happened again on Josh Robinson's 9-yard touchdown run, the Colts' only TD of the day. This time, Watkins was the last of three Eagles who could have made tackles, but didn't, after undrafted rookie defensive lineman Travis Raciti and third-round rookie linebacker Jordan Hicks.
Watkins, like Rowe, spent a good bit of time playing outside. He had strong coverage down the sideline on a bomb to Colts rookie Duron Carter that fell incomplete.
Rowe finished with 48 snaps, 59 percent of the Eagles' total, and Watkins got 47. Both played extensively on special teams - Rowe 17 snaps, Watkins 19. Reynolds played 54 defensive snaps, tops on the unit, and 13 more on special teams.
Last week, it seemed Watkins, drafted in the fourth round in 2014, might be ahead of Rowe, who acknowledged he was getting his first-ever nickel practice reps. Watkins backed up Boykin last season, though Watkins seldom played.
"No idea right now," defensive backfield coach Cory Undlin said the day before the opener, when asked about the nickel spot. Sixth-round rookie JaCorey Shepherd, who might have been the leader in the competition, is out for the season with an ACL injury. "We'll play four preseason games and then we'll make a decision . . . We've got everybody in there . . . By the time we get to the end of it, everybody in the back end will have probably played some nickel, and then we'll make the best decision . . . It's wide open."
Is Rowe at a disadvantage, being so new to the position?
"The only thing he's behind in is just the reps of being in there," Undlin said. "He's in every meeting. We don't ever split up my meetings," so Rowe was hearing the nickel film breakdowns and coaching points even before he practiced there. "We're in the same room, and I demand those guys learn every position. So he's heard all the terminology. So I basically sent him a text - 'Eric, we want you to [practice at] nickel tomorrow, so just review your notes.' Put him out there, and the growing process just happens so much faster . . . He's progressed nicely. We'll see how it plays out. We're still in the evaluation process."
Reynolds looked especially good on his second interception, on which he sensed where the ball was going and broke on it. (His first was kind of a balloon that hung up in the air for him, though he did a good job tipping it to himself.)
On the second pick, "[Bennett] stared a little too long, and I took advantage of it," said Reynolds, a fifth-round draftee in 2014 from Stanford. "When the lights come on, you've got to show you can play."