Against Giants, Eagles’ cornerbacks might be an undrafted rookie and two little-used journeymen
Decimated secondary means rookie Chandon Sullivan is likely to be front and center, along with DeVante' Bausby and Cre'Von LeBlanc.
Sunday afternoon's Eagles-Giants game won't be the first time Chandon Sullivan has been in a tough spot, with Saquon Barkley bearing down on him.
On Sept. 16, 2017, Sullivan was a senior cornerback for Georgia State, as the Panthers visited State College, Pa., to take on Barkley and the Penn State Nittany Lions.
"We knew what type of back he was going into the game," Sullivan said this week, recalling Penn State's 56-0 victory, in which Barkley scored on an 85-yard catch-and-run. "I think he got the best of me one play — he just took off. I caught him one good time, right on the sidelines.
"It was fun playing in the stadium, 100,000-plus. They went all-white. It was a great experience. He's a great back."
How do you approach such a game, knowing you're about to get clobbered?
"You just gotta be confident. They put the pads on the same way you do. It's all about execution," Sullivan said. "They came out, they were clicking on all cylinders. I told Saquon after the game, I said, 'You're an amazing back. Just do me a favor: Win the Heisman. It would make me feel better. So I'm excited to get the rematch."
On Sunday, Sullivan seems likely to start in an Eagles defensive backfield that is missing five corners – an entire pentagon – if practice status this week is any indication. DeVante' Bausby figures to be the other outside corner, with Cre'Von LeBlanc in the slot.
None of these guys was on the 53-man roster the last time the teams met, back on Oct. 11. LeBlanc (32 NFL games, 10 starts) and Bausby (five games, no starts) have at least been around the league a few years. Sullivan is a 5-11, 194-pound, undrafted rookie who came up from the practice squad Oct. 25 and got his first 19 defensive snaps two games ago against Dallas. Injuries to Sidney Jones, Rasul Douglas, and Avonte Maddox in Sunday's blowout loss at New Orleans meant 26 snaps against Drew Brees. Against the Giants, Sullivan seems likely to at least double that total.
"It's been crazy the last month, from being on the practice squad to playing as much as I have the last few weeks, but I've been preparing, day-by-day, just learning as much as I can," Sullivan said. "It's a dream come true. For somebody to give you a paycheck to play football, it's almost unreal. I've been dreaming about it all my life. I'm very grateful and very fortunate. I just want the team to improve."
You and many, many fans, Chandon. The 4-6 Eagles might be down to their last chance to save their season, against a 3-7 Giants team that has won two games in a row after making Barkley its offensive emphasis. The Eagles won 34-13 at MetLife, but they have lost a lot of players and blown a lot of chances since then.
"We got what we got," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "We'll let everybody else focus on the reasons why we shouldn't be successful. We'll focus on the things we need to do to have success.
"We already have a tight group. Bausby was with us last year [on the practice squad], so it's not like he's new. Sully's been here the whole [season] … We're a group that spends a lot of time together, so it comes together pretty quick. LeBlanc is really the new guy on the block, but he's played a lot of ball. Actually played really well last week, challenging receivers. He's been playing well in practice … We feel very comfortable putting him out there."
LeBlanc, who started nine games for Chicago in 2016, came here as a waiver pickup from Detroit on Nov. 5. Now, he is the Eagles' most-experienced healthy corner. Bausby was on the practice squad this season, before being released Sept. 11. He returned to the practice squad Nov. 5 and joined the active roster just before the New Orleans game.
LeBlanc acknowledged that he didn't expect to be starting when he heard he would be heading to Philadelphia, instead of to the Lions' practice squad.
"It doesn't seem weird," LeBlanc said. "At the end of the day, it's ball … . We need to get together and put in extra work. Even when we go home, everybody's still in their books, everybody's studying. We've been playing football our whole lives.
"I'm just worrying about what's in front of me, which is the playbook, and getting communication down with the guys that's on the field right now. When the [other] guys get back, they get back."
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz acknowledged there are limits to the NFL's "next man up" credo.
"Communication can be a little challenging," he said. "There is something to all of that training camp practice and all the off-season practice and the practice we do during the week."
Schwartz said that when an offense is playing tempo, there might be times when a player in charge on the field might not be able to make a call – but experienced players know what they should be doing by the situation and formation. That is lost when guys are inexperienced.
Sullivan – not to be confused with the other inexperienced, emergency defensive backfield fill-in Sullivan, Tre, who plays safety – was buried far down the depth chart all summer. He made some plays in the preseason, usually getting his chance long after the starters for both teams had departed.
"In the preseason, especially, he just found ways to get his hands on the football," Jenkins said. "Very productive in practice. Now, coming up to an active role, it's just getting him used to some of the game-speed things, more so like run fits and kinda the speed of how some of these linemen get up on you, things like that. Other than that, he's a confident guy who I think can go challenge receivers and play the ball in the air."
Sullivan came to the Eagles' attention through his former Georgia State head coach, Trent Miles, now in his second year on Doug Pederson's staff, as an offensive quality control and assistant running backs coach.
"He said I was a diamond in the rough," said Sullivan, recalling when Miles recruited him out of Winder-Barrow High, in Georgia's Northern Gwinnett County. Sullivan started as a receiver at Georgia State but became a three-time All-Sun Belt Conference corner.
The Panthers rank well below the Georgia Bulldogs and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the hearts of Atlanta-area fans. Sullivan is used to making the best of an imperfect situation.
"When I didn't make the [Eagles'] 53 initially and they put me on the practice squad, I saw the positive when other people might see that as a negative," Sullivan said. "I got to go against Alshon [Jeffery], Nelson Agholor, Carson Wentz every day. Just continued to work on my craft. Then I got called up, playing more special teams than I ever have in my career, playing more defense now. Everything's new, but I feel like I've been preparing the right way and going about it the right way.
"In college, I played a lot of man coverage, bump-and-run. I'm learning how to play zone here, just trying to turn into a complete corner."
Sullivan didn't envision learning on the field, at the Linc, against Barkley, Eli Manning, Odell Beckham, and the Giants. But here we are. As LeBlanc said: "Once your number's called, you just gotta be ready. I guess the time is now."
How the corners crumbled
Oct. 28: Jalen Mills hasn't played since suffering a foot/toe injury against Jacksonville.
Nov. 11: Ronald Darby tore his ACL vs. Dallas.
Nov. 18: Rasul Douglas and Avonte Maddox suffered knee injuries at New Orleans.
Nov. 18: Sidney Jones reinjured his hamstring at New Orleans, after missing the previous three games with a hamstring injury suffered Oct. 11 against the Giants.