Three plays to file away for offseason consideration, all from the first half of the Eagles' 24-19 win over the Giants on Thursday night.
First, late first quarter, Giants with a second-and-9 from their 39. Odell Beckham Jr. gets a couple of steps on Leodis McKelvin and hauls in a pass from Eli Manning before safety Jaylen Watkins can arrive and make a play on the receiver or the ball.
Second, three-and-a-half minutes left in the first half, Giants with a third down on their 23-yard-line, Victor Cruz beats McKelvin on an outside move off the line of scrimmage and Manning drops a dollop over his receiver's outside shoulder before a scrambling Watkins arrives to help.
If this sounds familiar, it should, because the Eagles have spent the last couple of weeks getting burned by a position that they'd spent much of the previous decade trying to fix. Against the Ravens, it cost them a win. Against the Giants, it came close.
Which brings us to the third play in our sequence, when both of the guys the Eagles hired to fix their safety position actually played that position. Rewind the tape all the way to the Giants' first possession of the game. Second play from scrimmage. It began like the others, with an Eagles cornerback getting beat off the line of scrimmage (in this instance, the receiver was Beckham). This time, though, Malcolm Jenkins had the over-the-top responsibility. As a reminder, Jenkins has spent much of the second half of the season playing in the slot, where the Eagles have been left thin ever since cornerback Ron Brooks went down with a quadriceps injury in October, leaving Watkins to fill in for Jenkins at safety. For whatever reason, he made a cameo at his natural position on the first drive.
Interestingly enough, on the play in question, the Pro Bowl veteran succeeded where a twice-cut 25-year-old failed. Jenkins arrived just as Beckham was about to secure the over-the-shoulder pass, delivering a shoulder-padded blow to the upper body that knocked the ball loose. One play later, the Giants punted, and the Eagles took over and marched down the field on a 78-yard touchdown drive.
There are two conclusions one might draw here, both of which received further validation in the second half. The first is that the Eagles should have played Jenkins exclusively at safety all along, instead of rotating Carroll, McKelvin and Jalen Mills at the two outside cornerback spots and keeping one on the sideline in favor of Jenkins in the slot and Watkins deep. In fact, that's what the Eagles were forced to do for much of the second half after Watkins left the game with a head injury. Lo and behold, there Jenkins went, reading Manning's eyes and swooping over-the-top for a fourth-quarter interception that helped overcome the Eagles' valiant effort to scuttle their sixth win of the season.
Now, there's another side to the story, obviously. While neither defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz nor head coach Doug Pederson has ever explicitly laid out the concrete rationale for their unconventional rotation at defensive back, they clearly have their reasons. Among those that have received at least an implicit nod from the coaches are the hamstring injury McKelvin has battled since training camp, the desire to play to each of their cornerbacks' strengths while putting Jenkins closer to the line of scrimmage, and the fair contention that Watkins has, until the last couple of weeks, played relatively well when called upon. And, in further fairness, it should be noted that Jenkins also picked off a pass while playing the slot in the first quarter, returning it for the Eagles' second touchdown. And also that he has no qualms with what he's been asked to do.
"If I play deep too long, I kind of get bored," he said after the game.
No doubt, the secondary as a unit, and Jenkins, as usual, deserve plenty of credit for the way they battled. But it was a battle, to the point that Schwartz and Jenkins spent part of the fourth quarter brainstorming a new coverage and personnel combination in an attempt to limit the shredding Beckham was delivering.
"We got tired of Odell catching the ball and sprinting through the defense," Jenkins said, "so we put Jalen Mills on him and took one of our d-linemen out and put Terrance Brooks in and basically played a form of Cover-2, but we made sure we had someone on Odell at all times, because anytime we played zone, he just kind of ran through the entire defense."
Whichever personnel group you favor - the one with the third safety or the one with the third cornerback or the box-and-one - this next conclusions stands: The Eagles can revive two birds with one stone this offseason by bolstering their supply of cornerbacks to a point at which Schwartz and Pederson do not have to think about using Jenkins as their third-best cover man. Instead, they can use him as he was intended to be used when they signed Rodney McLeod - as a smart, athletic strong safety with the ability to make plays in the run game at the line of scrimmage and in a variety of pass coverage roles in the second and third levels.
Schwartz has done an admirable job of making the best of a bunch that was perilously thin even before Brooks went down. Adding a legit No. 1 cornerback to the mix will make everybody better by allowing Jenkins to move back to his natural position, where his presence makes the guys in front of him better.