Why the Eagles remain so loyal to embattled Jalen Mills
The cornerback has become the subject of fan criticism after an inconsistent start to the season. But if there are changes, it does not appear Mills will be one of them.
It was only eight months ago when Jalen Mills jumped off the Eagles' buses during the Super Bowl parade, strutted to the barricades, and slapped hands with adoring fans along Broad Street. There was a love story between the Eagles and their fans, and few basked in it as much as Mills.
Throughout the offseason, Mills saw Eagles fans dye their hair in the distinctive lime green shade he has worn since he first came to Philadelphia. He gave a pep talk to Temple's basketball team. Mills was one of Philadelphia's most notable athletes, his finger-wagging emblematic of the bravado that helped him became a fixture on the Eagles defense and one of the leaders in the locker room.
Eight months later, the relationship is rockier. Mills has become the subject of fan criticism after an inconsistent start to the season in which he has been in coverage on big plays and big penalties. There had been curiosity about whether the Eagles might demote Mills or adjust his role after coach Doug Pederson did not rule out personnel changes earlier in the week. But if changes are made, it does not appear that they will involve Mills.
"I'm firmly behind Jalen Mills as a corner," defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "One of the reasons we had a big parade on Broad Street was Jalen Mills."
The easy punchline would be that the opposing wide receivers have been behind Mills, too. Cheap jokes aside, though, Schwartz is correct. Mills was a big part of the Eagles' success last season, and he has proven to be a starting-level cornerback during his two-plus seasons in an Eagles uniform. That has engendered loyalty; Schwartz said Mills "epitomizes a lot of things we're about defensively: toughness, competitiveness, and an ability to bounce back."
In the days that followed, the Eagles have taken turns defending Mills. Teammates know the cacophony of criticism that Mills has endured. They also say the criticism isn't fully merited. Fair or not, Mills became an easy target for a defense that lost a two-touchdown second-half lead and allowed the chains to move on three fourth downs in last week's loss to Tennessee.
Mills, who declined to speak to reporters this past week, will have a chance to redeem himself Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings.
"We all understand or are trying to re-emphasize that our opinions of him in this locker room are probably more important than anybody else," Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "We know when it's his fault and it's not. While he does take the brunt of a lot of things that are sometimes out of his control, in here, we try to reiterate that we believe in him, we trust in him, and won't bat an eye."
Fixing the secondary?
For whatever outrage exists, the Eagles actually haven't been that bad in the secondary this season. They rank No. 18 in the NFL in pass defense, which is middle of the pack. Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan had a passer rating of 57.4 against the Eagles, and his passer rating has been at least 116.1 in the three games since. Colts quarterback Andrew Luck had the fewest yards of his five games this season against the Eagles. The problems, if you can call them such, have been limited to the two road games.
But what the statistics don't necessarily reveal is that teams seem eager to test the Eagles deep. The Tennessee Titans were only 1 of 4 on passes of more than 20 yards during the first three games of the season. Against the Eagles, they threw five deep balls, with two completions and two close calls.
The Eagles' vulnerability was only exacerbated by safety Rodney McLeod's knee injury, leaving 33-year-old Corey Graham and fourth-round pick Avonte Maddox with expanded roles.
"It's not scheme-related," Pederson said. "And until we stop it, teams will continue to do it."
Schwartz said not all the plays were played correctly, but the coverage on the deep balls by the Titans were set up to prevent them from occurring. Pederson said the problem was not personnel-related, either.
When Schwartz was asked how to fix it, he explained that "11 different pieces … have something to do with them giving up deep balls." If the pass rush gets to the quarterback a blink quicker, it might be a sack instead of a deep pass. If the defenders play their overlapping zone better, there will be more deflections or interceptions.
"It's a combination of a lot of things," said Schwartz, who lumped penalties in with deep passes. "When we've played well as a defense, we haven't given up big plays. We need to get back to that."
Players insist that those outside the building don't know the specifics of the scheme or the responsibilities of a given play, so while it might appear Mills was supposed to be in coverage, the defense's expectations might be different.
Take DeSean Jackson's 75-yard touchdown in Week 2. Mills was in coverage, but Jenkins took responsibility for the play because he was supposed to be the safety help.
Titans wide receiver Corey Davis caught a 51-yard pass in the fourth quarter while Mills trailed Davis. When watching from home, it looked as if Mills was beaten on the play. As it turned out, there was an expectation that Ronald Darby would help over the top. Mills didn't have the closing speed to break up the completion, but the problem on the play wasn't entirely Mills'.
"A lot of the plays you see are not just him," linebacker Jordan Hicks said. "A lot of it is him expecting there to be help or people out of position or eyes in a bad place by someone else. You guys see one thing. We understand the scheme of the defense."
Strong body of work
The Eagles are clearly loyal to Mills. They're not looking at just the last few weeks. They're thinking about the last few years, too.
"Number one, he is the best player for the position, and number two, his body of work, what he's done over the course of two-plus years," Pederson said. "We've got a ton of confidence in him. Listen, that's something that if a quarterback goes through a slump, we're going to wrap our arm around him, encourage him, keep him coming, and keep coaching him. I don't believe in just kicking guys to the curb, 'OK, you're done. Let's go with the next guy.' "
On one hand, it's easy to look at the Eagles' cornerback situation and conclude that Sidney Jones has starting potential on the outside, Mills has experience playing the slot and at safety, and it would be an easy move to make.
But Pederson must consider the human element, too, and the long-term ramifications. If Pederson makes a lineup change, it's not usually for a one-week spark. It's how the team wants to play. (An exception was Nelson Agholor's one-week benching in 2016, but that was done to try to give Agholor a chance to catch his breath away from the heat.)
The Eagles would still need Mills to be a contributing player. Pederson insisted the Eagles cannot afford to make knee-jerk reactions and must realize the corresponding moving parts.
Mills is not the type of player who needs a week away to regain his confidence..
"Do you know Jalen? Do you ever see him?" Schwartz quipped when asked if Mills' confidence must be rebuilt. It brought to mind the first day of training camp in 2016, when Mills bypassed anonymity as a seventh-round pick by showing up with green hair.
"If you're going to be wearing that green hair," Schwartz told him, "you better be out here making plays."
Schwartz hasn't hidden his affection for Mills during the last two years. Schwartz believes that the top criterion for playing corner is "you have to be a competitor," and you won't find many players as competitive as Mills.
"We see what he does day in and day out to work on his technique, to compete, his confidence to be out there on an island, by himself, ask for the best receiver that's out there and never flinch," Jenkins said.
"I don't think anybody on this team or in this building doubts what Jalen Mills can do. He takes a lot of heat because we put a lot of pressure on him because we think he's capable enough to handle that – especially in this city."
Of course, cornerback must be more than attitude. Mills has his deficiencies — he's never been accused of being the fastest cornerback, which could hurt him on some deep balls. But teammates also note how important it is for a cornerback to move onto the next play.
Mills can get beat one play and wag his finger on the next. That might rub some fans the wrong way. Jenkins doesn't want him to pay attention, because then "you give up a play and the first thing you think about is, what are they going to say afterwards?"
Just as there's a next play, there's a next week. Mills can be criticized this week, and he can slap hands with an admirer with green hair the next.