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Eagles need Avonte Maddox to keep making ‘Rodney McLeodesque’ plays | Paul Domowitch

Rookie Avonte Maddox has improved each week since being moved from cornerback to safety after Rodney McLeod's knee injury. He's one of the keys to the 4-4 Eagles' success in the second half of the season.

Eagles free safety Avonte Maddox stops Jacksonville Jaguars tight end David Grinnage at Wembley Stadium in London on Sunday, October 28, 2018. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Eagles free safety Avonte Maddox stops Jacksonville Jaguars tight end David Grinnage at Wembley Stadium in London on Sunday, October 28, 2018. YONG KIM / Staff PhotographerRead moreYong Kim

When the Eagles selected Avonte Maddox in the fourth round of the draft in April, they envisioned the 5-9, 184-pound cornerback out of Pitt possibly competing for the vacant slot corner job created by the departure of Patrick Robinson.

They didn't envision his becoming one of the team's starting safeties five games into his rookie season. Or any other time, for that matter.

"I don't know if safety ever jumped into our head as a place he would fit,'' said Tim Hauck, who coaches the Eagles' safeties.

"But when you put on his college tape, you thought, 'Oh my God. This is a really good football player.' He's fast. He's physical. He plays with emotion. He's just a good, flat-out football player who was fun to watch.''

"Yeah, I don't ever remember us ever having a conversation about him playing safety,'' defensive backs coach Cory Undlin said.

"But what ends up happening is, once you get him in your building and get a chance to watch him learn and grow in OTAs and training camp and the beginning of the season, then you say, 'Hold on. Maybe he could do this.'''

It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. Well, after Rodney McLeod went down with a season-ending knee injury in Week 3 and backup Corey Graham's 33-year-old hamstring cried uncle a week later after he played 71 snaps, the Eagles found themselves needing to invent a starting safety to help save their season.

That's when they turned to Maddox, who has made impressive improvement in each of his four starts. That  includes the Eagles' crucial 24-18 pre-bye-week win over Jacksonville in which the rookie forced a key fumble that set up an Eagles touchdown and made a big stop on the Jags' 235-pound running back, Carlos Hyde, on an early third-and-one play that halted a Jags drive and forced them to settle for a field goal.

"The forced fumble, that was just a good sound tackle there, which goes back to [the reason] why we decided on him back there,'' said Undlin.

"That play, that was Rodney McLeodesque, coming out of the post [the deep safety spot] and making a good low tackle. He didn't come up short. He didn't leave his feet too early. He went right through the guy's waist and knocked the ball out.''

Said Hauck: "He's got the whole skill set where he can be a playmaker. He's not just filling a spot. He's a guy who has the ability to go out there and flash and make plays. It's fun to watch. And then he plays with energy and emotion, which also helps us be successful.''

Maddox has been helped by the fact that he is lining up alongside Malcolm Jenkins, who essentially is a coach on the field.

In practice before the Jacksonville game, Jenkins had Maddox switch spots with him one day, moving the kid down into the box. That's where he happened to be on that third-and-1 play against the Jags, when he dodged blocks by a fullback and tight end and dropped Hyde for a 1-yard loss.

"That third-down stop, it came from Malcolm and me at practice,'' Maddox said. "He put me down there, so I knew what to do in the game.

"He's been a huge help. If I didn't have him, this would be much harder. At practice, he puts me in all of the worst situations so that if they happen in a game, I won't hesitate and will know what to do.''

It's too soon to say whether Maddox is at safety to stay. But if he continues to improve, it's going to be difficult for the Eagles to move him back to corner.

McLeod, who is 28, has a $9.9 million cap number next year and $10.9 million in 2020. Jenkins, who will turn 31 in December, has an $11.4 million cap number in 2019.

"That's a great question,'' Undlin said of the likelihood of keeping Maddox at safety. "His role right now is at safety. I'm not going to project where he's going to play [in the future]. But you know the old adage. The more you can do the more value you have for a team.''

"He's really made it easy on us,'' said Hauck, "He grinds. He wants to be good. He asks all of the right questions. And then he goes out on the field and executes.

>> READ MORE: Carson Wentz pledges to protect the football more during the second half of the season

"Now, he's missed 200-300 reps [at safety] in OTAs and training camp and so forth. But he understands football and he understands the scheme, which has helped him progress.

"It was really easy for us when it was just Malcolm and Rodney back there because it was throw the ball out there and let them go play. But it's been fun for me now to help this young man grow and become a complete football player.''

Third-down help

At first glance, the difference between the Eagles' third-down offense this year and last year appears to be fairly insignificant.

Their 41.3 third-down conversion rate in the first eight games is only slightly lower than last year's 41.7.

But the big difference has been on third-and-long. The Eagles have converted just 20.4 percent of their third downs of eight yards or more this season, compared with 32.3 percent last year.

Carson Wentz, who led the league in third-down passing overall last year with a 123.7 rating, was head-and-shoulders better than any other quarterback in the league on third-and-long.

He had a 133.0 passer rating and a 69.0 completion percentage. Twenty-four of his 58 attempts on third-and-eight-plus – an astounding 41.8 percent – resulted in first downs.

>> READ MORE: Five reasons the Eagles can make a deep postseason run | Marcus Hayes

This year, he's ninth in third-down passing overall and 16th on third-and-eight-plus, with an 89.0 rating, including just a 54.5 completion percentage. Just six of his 22 pass attempts on third-and-8-plus (27.3 percent) have produced first downs.

Coaches will tell you that teams just need to stay out of third-and-longs. But that's easier said than done. On the road to the Super Bowl last year, 43 percent of the Eagles' third downs were eight yards or more. This year, that number is slightly lower, at 40.4 percent. The difference is they're not converting them this year.

That's a long way of explaining a big reason the Eagles went out and traded for wide receiver Golden Tate, who is one of the league's better third-down receivers.

A look at Tate's overall receiving numbers since 2014, as well as his third-down numbers each year:

Figuring the Eagles

–The Eagles allowed 670 rushing yards in their first eight games. Two hundred twenty-one of those yards, or 33 percent, have come on the first four carries of the game. Opponents are averaging 6.9 yards per carry on their first four rushing attempts against the Eagles, and only 3.8 the rest of the game.

–The Eagles blitzed Blake Bortles on 12 of the Jaguars' first 29 pass plays in their Week 8 win but didn't blitz him at all on the final 16 pass plays of the game. Three of the Eagles' four sacks of Bortles came on blitzes. So did Bortles' only touchdown pass.

–In the Eagles' eight games, the defense  blitzed on just 62 of 342 pass plays (18.1 percent). They have seven sacks and one interception and have given up four touchdown passes when they have blitzed.

–The Eagles' average touchdown drive this season is 70.8 yards. Last year it was 61.9 yards. The Eagles have scored 20 offensive touchdowns this season. Eight of those 20 (40 percent) have been 10 plays or more. Last year, only 10 of their 47 touchdown drives (21.3 percent) were 10 plays or more.

–Carson Wentz is 36-for-36 on throws behind the line of scrimmage. Last year, he had a 75.0 completion percentage on throws behind the line of scrimmage (39-for-52). As a rookie in 2016, he completed 85.4 percent of his throws behind the line of scrimmage (82-for-96).

–Wentz was  sacked in the red zone three times in the last four games. Last season, the Eagles didn't give up any sacks in the red zone. That includes the postseason.

–The Eagles have used 12 (1RB, 2TE) and 13 (1RB, 3TE) personnel on 50.2 percent of their offensive plays this season. Last year, they used 12/13 just 31.3 percent of the time.

–Rookie Josh Adams has averaged 5.3 yards per carry on first down in the Eagles' last two games (9-48). Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement have averaged 2.0 (15-30).

–The Eagles have just seven takeaways in their first eight games. Only three teams have fewer: the 49ers (5), Raiders (6), and Bucs (6). The combined record of those three teams is 6-19.

–The Eagles scored on their first possession just twice in the first eight games (touchdowns against the Colts and Giants) and have yet to score on their second possession. They are averaging just 4.0 yards per play on their first two possessions. In 16 games last year, they scored seven times on their first possession and eight times on their second. They averaged 5.4 yards per play on their first two possessions.

 Costly loss

The Eagles were looking forward to getting Darren Sproles back for several reasons, not the least of which is his ability to prevent blitzing linebackers and safeties from putting Carson Wentz in concussion protocol, or worse.

Despite his size, the 5-6, 190-pound Sproles, who reinjured his hamstring in practice Wednesday and is out indefinitely, is one of the league's top pass-protecting running backs.

The Eagles are using a running-back-by-committee approach right now with Corey Clement, Wendell Smallwood, and rookie Josh Adams.

Clement is the closest thing to a reliable pass protector in that group, but he missed two games with a quad injury and had just 12 yards on 12 carries in the last two games. So his snaps have been limited.

Smallwood has been getting the lion's share of the playing time, but he continues to have difficulty with blitz pickup and has struggled with his blocking even when he's been in the right place.

As for Adams, the Eagles have limited his blocking opportunities. He has played just 36 snaps in six games so far and has had the ball in his hands on 21 of them.

"The tough part for a lot of these guys is they're just not asked to block very much in college,'' said former Eagles running back Brian Westbrook, who was an outstanding pass-blocker during his nine-year career. "So, when they get to the NFL, that's the first time they're learning protections, period.''

Westbrook will be at the Linc on Sunday night as part of Crown Royal's Purple Bag Project, which will be assembling care packages for active-duty service members and people affected by natural disasters.

>> READ MORE: Eagles-Cowboys predictions, scouting report

Smallwood has admitted that he can  remember being asked to block only one time at West Virginia. But this is his third season with the Eagles. He said Sproles has been a big help to him with his pass-blocking.

"He texts me at halftime and checks on me," Smallwood said. "He'll say, 'Hey, look for this or look for that. They're trying to do this.'

"In the meeting room, I have [running backs coach] Duce [Staley]. But to have him in there too, with all his experience and all he's done, it's huge having him as a person I can call and ask questions.

Said Westbrook: "I think all of these guys could work on understanding the protection a little bit better. By that, I mean understanding who is your main responsibility. And also understanding that if the offensive line takes that guy, who's the next guy that you take.

"Those are a lot of different moving pieces. It's something you have to study. And here's the other thing. You can know all of that. You can know everything. You can know the man you're supposed to block and all of those different things. But then you still have to go up there and block that man.

"That's where the heart and the want-to comes in. But if you want to play, you'd better learn how to do that.''