Malcolm Jenkins never wanted to leave the slot. The Eagles safety thrived as the team's slot cornerback for much of the season, but the team deviated from that plan in mid-November. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis moved Jenkins back to deep safety and the Eagles allowed 90 points during a two-week span.
"So we put him back down in the nickel spot and kept him low and it's been good for the last two weeks," Davis said. "It's a week-to week-deal where we're just trying to find out: Who do we match up with best, and how do we put them in positions to make plays?"
The answer, based on the results, is simple. The defense is best with Jenkins in the slot. That requires a capable player to replace him at safety, and the Eagles have settled on Ed Reynolds in that role in recent weeks.
Entering the game Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, Davis must worry about one of the NFL's most potent offenses, which includes dangerous receivers all over the field. But the most productive has been future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald, a Valley Forge Military Academy alum with 96 catches for 1,088 yards and seven touchdowns this season, mostly playing as a slot receiver. It's likely he will be covered by Jenkins, who expects Fitzgerald to be his most challenging assignment yet.
"He's probably the most decorated slot receiver I'll probably see all season," Jenkins said. "I've faced Larry in the past on multiple occasions and I know him personally. So it will be a fun matchup."
Jenkins has known Fitzgerald since the summer of 2009. He had just been drafted by the New Orleans Saints and was looking for a place to train before training camp. Close friend James Laurinaitis, an Ohio State teammate and a Minnesota native, told Jenkins of a camp that Fitzgerald runs in Minnesota. He attended the camp and trained against Fitzgerald. Jenkins was so impressed with the Cardinals receiver that he said he modeled his work ethic after Fitzgerald. Jenkins went to the camp the next three summers.
"He doesn't feel like the game owes him anything," Jenkins said. "Very blue-collar attitude when he goes about his work, very humble. He's a good friend of mine."
Eagles fans don't need to be reminded of Fitzgerald's ability. In seven career games against the Eagles, Fitzgerald has 47 catches for 802 yards and 11 touchdowns. He helped eliminate the Eagles from the playoffs in 2009 with a three-touchdown performance. He has reached the end zone in every game against the Eagles.
Davis does not need to be reminded of Fitzgerald's ability, either. A former Cardinals assistant, Davis saw what Fitzgerald could do up close. At 32 and with a skill set that has evolved during his career, Fitzgerald is not surprising Davis this season in the slot.
"To watch him work in practice is really what all NFL players should do at practice," Davis said. "So when you ask him to go in [the slot] or block more, it doesn't surprise me that Larry has succeeded in there. He's a big, strong guy. The strength of Larry is he's got the strongest hands at the point of the catch that I've been around. He goes and gets it, and that's a big bonus when you're in the slot. When you have all the lower routes that you have to catch, you're usually in traffic."
Jenkins is the Eagles' best option against a big, physical slot receiver like Fitzgerald. A safety who is a converted cornerback, Jenkins thinks he helps the Eagles best when they use him in the slot.
"I'm a lot more of a productive player when I'm in the slot," Jenkins said. "I'm around the ball a lot more. It puts me closer to the run, we're able to play the run a little bit better when we're in our sub packages. I can still match up to whoever's in the slot. It just gives us a little more versatility. For whatever reason, we get a lot more production of it. We had a lot of success it early, we got away from it for a couple games, we got back to it, and it's working well."
Davis said the reason the Eagles deviated from the plan was because of the talent at outside receiver when they played Tampa Bay. He wanted to use Jenkins to help the outside cornerbacks, but it didn't work as planned.
The Cardinals' receiving corps also includes Michael Floyd and John Brown, both of whom could hurt defense. That could tempt Davis to consider using Jenkins to help in coverage. But if the season has proven anything, it's that Jenkins is the best option in the slot. And on Sunday, Jenkins will need to try to keep his friend out of the end zone for the first time against the Eagles.
"I definitely have a lot of respect for him," Jenkins said, "but I'm definitely going to be trying to knock his head off."