Malcolm Jenkins turned 29 last Tuesday. Because the Eagles had a Thursday game in a truncated week and Jenkins is a devoted film studier, Jenkins treated his birthday like a school night. The test came two days later, and he played his finest game of the season in last week's 24-19 win over the New York Giants.
Jenkins finished with six tackles, three pass break-ups, two interceptions, and one touchdown. He helped devise the coverage used for the Eagles' game-clinching interception. He played multiple positions and was on the field more than any other player on the team, totaling 89 defensive snaps and nine special-teams snaps.
"He sacrifices not only himself but his position sometimes, that safety position, to do whatever it takes for the football team," coach Doug Pederson said. "Just time after time he keeps making play after play and gets those guys lined up and has really put together a good season."
The best seasons of Jenkins' career have come since joining the Eagles in 2014. He has played more than any other player on the roster, earned his first Pro Bowl appearance last season, and is again an alternate this year. But it will also be another season without making the playoffs. After being in the postseason in four of his first five NFL seasons, Jenkins said the outcome of the last three seasons is "something I'm not trying to get used to." Each year without the postseason is wasting a productive season from the Eagles' best safety since Brian Dawkins.
This is not to say that Jenkins hasn't had his share of forgettable plays this season. By his own admission last week, he was better in 2015 than in 2016. But he also said that before Thursday's win, when Jenkins helped lead the Eagles.
First was the interception in the first quarter that he returned for a touchdown. Jenkins now has six interception return touchdowns in his career – the most of any active safety in the NFL.
"Every time I get the ball, I'm thinking I'm going to score," Jenkins said. "The tough part is getting the ball."
That was a reference to dropped interceptions that plagued him in his career. An instinctive player who is often around the ball, Jenkins tied his career high this season with three interceptions. The total could have been greater in previous years if he caught more of the passes that came in his direction. Jenkins said in the preseason that catching interceptions was a goal this season to take his game to "the next level." His hands were not a problem on Thursday.
"I think this year, I hadn't had as many opportunities as I did last year," Jenkins said. "I think I've done a better job of kind of capitalizing on those. But that was one of the emphasis coming into the year is just making sure I take advantage of any opportunities that I have. I think maybe a couple games early, really the Steelers game was probably the only game that I feel like I left some on the table. Just been patient all year, just trying to wait for those opportunities and I was able to capitalize on a couple [on Thursday]."
Jenkins' two interceptions came while playing different roles. On the first one, he was in coverage in the slot against the tight end. On the second one, he was playing a deep zone in split-safety coverage. Jenkins actually prefers playing in the slot, but he didn't take on that role this season until Ron Brooks suffered an injury in October. Jenkins has been used against the slot receiver one week, the tight end the next week, and in Cover 2 looks another week.
"I want to be wherever the ball is," Jenkins said. "It just depends on the matchup. But I like being down closer to the ball, wherever that is. If I play deep too long a lot of times I get bored. It gets me in the action, keeps me active. So I think it's a comfortable position for me."
Jenkins can make sure the secondary is aligned correctly, and for Terrence Brooks' game-clinching interception, Jenkins helped get Brooks onto the field. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz devised a "box-and-one" defense that included the defensive backs in zone coverage, and Jalen Mills in man-to-man coverage on Odell Beckham Jr. But with Jaylen Watkins out of the lineup, the Eagles needed to determine whom the sixth defensive back would be. Jenkins recommended Brooks, who had not played on defense for the Eagles before.
"Nobody second guessed it, and it worked out," Jenkins said.
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said Tuesday that Jenkins' "feedback was important," and Schwartz values Jenkins because of all the different roles he plays. He does it every week – Jenkins has played 3,351 out of 3,359 defensive snaps during the last three seasons.
The problem for Jenkins is there's only one week left to do it this season before another empty January.
The Eagles placed Ryan Mathews on injured reserve after the running back suffered a herniated disk in his neck. They have an open roster spot. . . .The Eagles' opponents for 2017 are set. They host the three NFC East teams, Arizona, San Francisco, Denver, Oakland, and Chicago. They visit the three NFC East teams, Los Angeles, Seattle, Kansas City, San Diego, and Carolina.