Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Will Malcolm Jenkins stay in slot vs. Cowboys? Maybe not

Malcolm Jenkins has pined to play in the slot since the preseason, and with good reason - he made his first Pro Bowl last season while taking the majority of the snaps in the slot.

Malcolm Jenkins has pined to play in the slot since the preseason, and with good reason - he made his first Pro Bowl last season while taking the majority of the snaps in the slot.

After Ron Brooks ruptured his left quadriceps tendon last week, the Eagles were left looking for a replacement in their nickel and dime defenses. Jenkins filled in after Brooks exited the game against the Vikings, and coach Doug Pederson indicated Jenkins would fill that role going forward, with Jaylen Watkins moving to safety in the nickel formation.

However, the Eagles' plans might be more complicated this week than simply moving Jenkins to the slot because of the personnel challenges the Dallas Cowboys present with tight end Jason Witten and slot receiver Cole Beasley.

"Similar to last year, it basically comes down to whatever the matchups are that week," Jenkins said. "This week presents a little bit of a unique challenge. You've got a really good tight end, but also a slot player in Cole Beasley they like to target. But then you also have to have someone in there who can stop the run. So right now, we're trying to figure out what that best five-DB package will be. Most of it is dependent on matchups."

This does not take away from Cowboys star receiver Dez Bryant, but he will be matched up on the outside. Whether the Eagles play Jenkins in the slot Sunday will depend on whether they want him matched up on Beasley, how they plan to cover Witten, and how Jenkins can also help the Eagles' run defense.

The 5-foot-8 Beasley leads the Cowboys with 33 catches for 390 yards and three touchdowns. The best game of his five-year career came against the Eagles last November, when he finished with nine catches for 112 yards and two touchdowns. Jenkins covered him that game, albeit with a concussion for more than two quarters.

The smaller, shiftier receivers are a tougher matchup for Jenkins than bigger slot receivers. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz noted Thursday that Beasley is not much bigger than Eagles play-by-play announcer Merrill Reese, but a lot quicker. Schwartz said Jenkins has "multidimensional skills," although he also added that "not every matchup is going to be ideal."

"There are a lot of different ways to handle the slot," Schwartz said. "We'll probably have maybe three or four different ways to be able to do it, depending on the package. It's probably a work in progress right now. . . . We have a lot of different personnel packages that we use that are all contingent on matchups, down and distance, and offensive personnel. So I think that will continue."

The matchup against Witten is just as important. Schwartz called Witten a "Hall-of-Famer" and added that there "might not be a better option runner in the history of tight ends" than the 10-time Pro Bowler. Beasley also excels at option routes, in which the receiver adjusts the route based on the coverage and the defender's leverage.

What helps the Eagles' secondary in weeks like this is its versatility. The Eagles have safeties with backgrounds at slot cornerback, including Jenkins, Watkins, and Rodney McLeod. They have cornerbacks who can play inside and outside, including Nolan Carroll, Leodis McKelvin, and Jalen Mills. That allows for different packages, and although the Eagles have used Brooks in the slot this year, the versatility in the secondary can allow them to withstand the loss.

If Jenkins does not cover Beasley, the Eagles could use either McKelvin or Mills in that role, or even move Watkins down from safety. Watkins has been a cornerback as recently as last season and has slot cornerback skills. Watkins said the Eagles can also adjust throughout the game.

Schwartz believes the secondary will benefit from McKelvin's return to full health. McKelvin missed three games this season with a hamstring injury, and even when he returned last week, he split snaps with Mills. Schwartz said Mills had "earned playing time," but the Eagles wanted to manage McKelvin. Both players will be important for the secondary with Brooks sidelined.

Whether it comes this week or beyond, expect Jenkins to take on much of the responsibilities in the slot going forward. He said the best seasons in his career have come when he could play that role, and even though he's flourishing at safety this year, Jenkins most enjoys playing close to the ball.

"Honestly, I just get bored playing deep sometimes," Jenkins said. "It keeps you engaged. Every snap, you're covering somebody or blitzing, you're close to the ball, fit in the run."

Considering the Cowboys' top-ranked rushing offense, Jenkins' alignment will also be a consideration. But when the Cowboys go to three-receiver sets, the Eagles must decide who will cover Beasley and who will cover Witten. The way they play on Sunday might be different than the way they play next week against the New York Giants, and the answer might not be as simple as having a fixed quintet in the nickel formation.

"We all complement each other," Watkins said. "The best five go out, and that might be the best five that week to get the job done, and the next week it could be different."

zberman@phillynews.com

@ZBerm