The Eagles have the No. 1 red-zone defense in the NFL. They've allowed just eight touchdowns on 23 possessions inside the 20 through six games. Overall, the Eagles have surrendered 27 plays of 20 yards or longer, significantly more per game (4.5) than last season (3.1). But they've clamped down in the red zone, and have given up a lower percentage (34.8) of touchdowns than in 2017 (55.2).
The season is far from over, but Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby have been instrumental in the Eagles' red zone success. Opposing offenses have thrown 51 passes inside the 20, and have targeted the outside cornerbacks 22 times. Mills and Darby have allowed just six completions and two touchdowns, and have broken up a combined 11 passes.
"Both guys have just proven it over and over again that down there is critical," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said, "and they've both come up making plays already this season."
The corners have struggled in other areas. Mills has been susceptible to double moves and the deep ball. Darby has given up his share through the air, as well, and didn't tackle well for a stretch.
But there may not be a more thankless job in the NFL. Quarterbacks are the stars and the league will do as much as they can to protect them and feature the passing game. Scoring is up and so are TV ratings.
"When you play corner in this league," Eagles defensive backs coach Cory Undlin said, "it's kind of the cost of doing business."
Some want Mills or Darby benched. They want the Eagles to trade for a cornerback. They wanted Mills, at least, to move into the slot when safety Rodney McLeod was sidelined.
But Jim Schwartz has stood adamantly in Mills and Darby's corner, and when slot Sidney Jones left Thursday's game against the New York Giants with a hamstring injury, the defensive coordinator kept both on the outside. Avonte Maddox moved from free safety into the slot and cornerback Rasul Douglas came off the bench to replace Maddox.
With Jones unlikely to play Sunday against the Panthers, and Corey Graham (hamstring) still a question mark, Schwartz will have to scramble in the secondary again. But he's unlikely to move Mills and Darby.
"They're our best corners," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "There's no point in moving them anywhere else."
Here's a closer look at the outside cornerbacks, particularly in the red zone where they've fared best this season.
On Monday, Mills was asked to assess his play thus far this season.
Mills: On a grade scale, I'd give myself — besides Thursday — maybe a C-minus. I wasn't playing great at all early in the season.
In the Eagles' first five games, Mills allowed 25 catches for 385 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. PFF's numbers aren't perfect, but they provide a baseline for comparison. Only Darby allowed more catches in the NFL over that span. (32 catches for 326 yards).
Schwartz often places his corners on islands, so that must also be considered when evaluating the corners, but scheme has hardly been an issue in the red zone. Mills (No. 31) has been excellent, allowing just one catch on nine targets. His technique on this late corner fade to Giants receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. (No. 13) was ideal.
Mills: It all boils down to a different technique. I can't play the same technique that I play in the field in the red zone. My mindset definitely changes.
Jenkins: That was a perfect technique that we're teaching our corners. It shows up week to week for us.
The lone red zone pass completed when Mills was in coverage – a 4-yard touchdown pass to Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans – wasn't entirely on the corner. In fact, more blame could be placed on linebacker Nigel Bradham, who followed quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's eyes with his feet and failed to stay home and take away the slant.
Mills: It's definitely bang-bang in the red zone for everybody – offense and defense – just because the field is shorter. You got guys running all over the place.
Mills' issues with the double move have been well-documented. It's a difficult route to defend if the timing between a quarterback and receiver is perfect. But that's part of the job and Mills got beat by Vikings receiver Adam Thielen (No. 19) on this pass two weeks ago.
Schwartz took some of the heat for his blitz call. Mills has become a lightning rod for fan discontent. He said that the support he received from his coaches, teammates and the Eagles front office has helped him block out the criticism.
Undlin: When you play corner and they run that, you're going to give it up sometimes. The alternative would be you don't move and then they just throw the slant 40 times in front of you and you never tackle it. Now, listen, I'm not giving an excuse that he can give up a double move every time, but when you play that positon it's going to happen to you.
If Mills were to wallow after giving up a deep pass then Schwartz might have considered giving him a seat. But the third-year corner doesn't lack confidence and nearly always bounces back, as he did here after the Thielen catch. He broke up two red zone passes and the Vikings were forced to kick a field goal.
Undlin: The guy turned the switch and moved onto the next play, and if you can't do that at corner you're not going to make it. I don't have to say much to Jalen. He knows what comes with the territory.
Mills' physicality and strength come in handy in close quarters, but he said that eye discipline is the most important skill set in the red zone.
Schwartz: It's about having vision on the ball.
Mills wasn't unblemished. He gave up this pass – a 39-yard toss to receiver Cody Latimer (No. 12) on a deep post – playing in a half-quarters zone.
But he bounced back, per usual, several plays later when the Giants ran a similar play against the same coverage.
Giants quarterback Eli Manning (No. 10) didn't play well. His protection was suspect. But the Eagles defense, Schwartz's scheme and the play of Mills (he allowed just the one completion when targeted) deserve ultimate credit.
Mills: I played with a lot of energy. Guys had my back. I had theirs.
Darby had arguably his best game of the season. This was the player we saw during training camp. He allowed just one catch for zero yards when targeted. He had four pass breakups, two coming in the red zone.
On the first, Darby (No. 21) pressed, disrupted the route and still got his hand on the ball before receiver Sterling Shepard (No. 87).
Schwartz: He's got great speed, everybody knows that, but his ability to get his eyes back and be able to find the ball leads to a little bit more [pass breakups] there, plus his technique of staying square.
Darby: Get up, play bump and run and challenge the receivers. … You got to play aggressive, play fast.
Schwartz designed one of his more complicated schemes for containing Beckham (six catches for 44 yards). He played a fair amount of Cover 2, in various forms, and some quarters zone. Basically, the Eagles were shading a safety (mostly Maddox and then Douglas) over Beckham.
Darby: In certain situations, we would be two-man or sometimes we'd be in cloud. I made one play – the first play – when I was in cloud. The other one we were just in straight man and I broke [it] up.
Darby missed a team-high six tackles through the first four games. He's had a clean sheet the last two games. His recognition and speed on this screen to Beckham made for a relatively easy tackle.
Darby has been targeted more than any other Eagles defender in the red zone. He's allowed five catches on 13 passes for 18 yards and two touchdowns. Both touchdowns came on corner fades, the first to Colts receiver Ryan Grant (No. 11).
Schwartz doesn't usually get overcomplicated in the red zone.
Jenkins: Everybody's knows where they need to be, how we're handling almost every scenario. But we don't help our corners at all in the red zone. And we bank on them using great technique.
One false move or a blink of the eye could result in a touchdown.
Undlin: If you look at the wrong thing for a fraction of a second, it's too late down there.
On this red zone pass, Darby and Jenkins (No. 27) executed a switch. Darby plastered tight end Scott Simonson (No. 82), and even with the height disadvantage, he high-pointed Manning's pass and knocked it away.
Darby and Mills have areas in which they can improve. The same could be said of the Eagles' red zone defense, even with their recent success. With efficient offenses in New Orleans and Los Angeles still on the schedule, challenges await.
Jenkins: Teams will try to attack it different ways. We'll learn new things about our defense and we'll adjust accordingly, continue to focus on technique. We'll see where it goes. Right now, it's doing pretty well.
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