The Eagles have essentially two issues in their secondary right now: They lost starting free safety Rodney McLeod and don't have an obvious replacement, and their starting outside cornerbacks – Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby — are struggling with consistency.
Some outside observers want Mills to be moved – to safety, to the slot or to the bench. But it's not that simple. If Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was to move Mills to safety – a position he played occasionally in college – it would set off a chain reaction of sliding Sidney Jones outside and promoting rookie Avonte Maddox to the slot.
"We have to be careful that we are not just on a whim swapping people out," Doug Pederson said Monday following the Eagles' 26-23 overtime loss to the Titans. "If you start doing that, it starts moving other people around as well."
There's a valid argument for swapping Mills for Jones alone. It would require the least amount of movement, but Schwartz is already trying to cover the loss of McLeod and one more change might make matters even worse.
Pederson said that he and his assistants would evaluate the roster for possible changes. But Schwartz announced Tuesday that Mills was staying in his spot – "I'm firmly behind Jalen Mills as a corner." – and that Maddox would probably play more of free safety ahead of Corey Graham.
The 33-year-old Graham played all 71 snaps on defense – most of them in McLeod's spot, some in his usual role as the big nickel and the dime – and he struggled.
"That's probably a lot," Schwartz said. "Short term, you can do a lot of things short term. Long term, it's probably a little bit unrealistic long term."
Maddox manned the centerfield safety spot in various packages, but it was the first time he had ever played the position. While Mills has experience, his skill set suggests he would be better suited to play strong rather than free safety.
"Of all the guys on our roster, we thought Avonte had a lot of the same traits that Rodney had," Schwartz said. He added: "I think we'll see more of him going forward in that role."
As Schwartz noted Tuesday, there were many responsible for Sunday's loss. On defense, the entire unit could have performed better. But the feeling here is that biggest issues facing the Eagles right now are in the secondary — personnel, technique and Schwartz's scheme and play-calling. Here's a closer look at what happened to the cornerbacks in Nashville:
In the Titans' first three games, they threw the ball over 20 yards just four times, completing one. Against the Eagles alone, quarterback Marcus Mariota aired it out five times. He completed two passes for 79 yards, but the damage could have been worse. Mariota missed an open receiver on an opening-drive toss and another pass was dropped in overtime.
Clearly Tennessee thought it could attack the deep middle with McLeod out and vs. the Eagles' corners. But the problems were also scheme-related. On the first missed opportunity, Schwartz called a Cover 3 zone with Mills and Darby as the deep outside defenders and Graham in the middle. Graham was playing a "robber" safety role, which allowed him to jump an intermediate route over the middle, if necessary.
He did so here, but that left Mills and Darby responsible to split centerfield.
It was a timely call by the Titans with designed routes that drew Darby toward the sideline and Mills all the way across the field. Mills isn't fast, but Deion Sanders couldn't have covered that ground. Lucky for the Eagles, Mariota overthrew receiver Corey Davis.
Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins: A lot of times people will look at this from home and probably think [Mills] had a bad game. A lot of it wasn't necessarily his fault. He's the guy by the ball, but the way we run our coverages it wasn't all on him.
A perfect example was Mariota's 51-yard bomb to Davis in the fourth quarter. Mills was the trail corner on a deep post route, but with the Eagles again in Cover 3 "robber," Darby should have been over to help Mills. He had broken up a long pass earlier in the game, but he was late here.
The Titans went back to the well again on this overtime heave and again had a receiver (Darius Jennings) running free down the middle of the field vs. Cover 3 "robber." Mariota's pass was on target, but Jennings dropped the ball.
It was a combination of factors that allowed the Titans to have success on those three passes, but Schwartz didn't seem to think scheme or the call played a role.
Schwartz: Not all of them were played correctly. And I'm confident to say this: All three of those are coverages that we shouldn't give up big plays on. They're plays that if they gain ten yards or five yards, we're sort of picking up and moving to the next play.
Pederson: These corners are on islands a lot. I think I look at it from an offensive perspective. When you see a guy that maybe you can attack, you try to attack and that is what offenses are doing right now.
Mills has had trouble with the double move, but he's not alone. It's one of the toughest routes to defend, especially if there's time for the play to develop. On this Davis 28-yard completion on the Titans' opening drive, Mills was up at the line, but he didn't use his hands, and bit on the short out on third and three.
Mills had solid coverage on a few other double moves. But he had trouble again in the third quarter – slipping briefly – and was flagged for pass interference when he briefly grabbed Davis.
Mills: I wasn't a fan of it. Me and him are competing for a spot. I'm trying to get to the ball and then, at the end of the day, the ball was thrown out of bounds.
Schwartz and Jenkins said that there were some technical areas in which Mills could improve upon, but they also said they had confidence – something Mills doesn't lack – the cornerback would rebound from the errors he has made.
Schwartz: He epitomizes a lot of things we're about defensively: toughness, competitiveness and ability to bounce back. And I'm confident he will.
Jenkins: He shouldn't feel like he needs to defend himself. There are times when we need him to play better, but he shouldn't let whatever anybody wants to say change his mind about who he is. … He's our best option and we need him.
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Darby has been just as erratic. On this first down pass, he played off as the Eagles were again in Cover 3. With Davis feigning a deep post route, Darby turned his hips inside and was out of position when the receiver stopped on a dime and caught a 25-yard pass before the sideline.
Schwartz: Any player you want to ask about how they're playing a lot like a 2-2 [the Eagles' record] player right now.
Schwartz clearly had his reasons for playing a lot of Cover 3, and for most of the first half, his coverages worked fine. But the Titans exploited the deep drops, as they did here again on this 16-yard completion by receiver Taywan Taylor on first and 15.
Darby kept him short of the sticks, but the receiver carried the cornerback over the marker.
While Mills has been solid at tackling, Darby has been suspect. Only one NFL cornerback has missed more tackles than Darby, who has six, this season.
Pederson: Our open field tackles, something we will have to address with the defense. It is something we got to maintain, we got to get in good position, head up, eyes up, you got to wrap up, be strong, keep moving your feet.
The second-year corner had a strong start Sunday and for the most part this season has given up little. On this third down, he switched with Jenkins on a pick route and ran step for step with the receiver, looking back as the ball sailed short.
Schwartz: Made a great play. Big third-down stop for us.
Jones had his struggles in the second half and overtime, as well. He couldn't stay with receiver Tajae Sharpe when he caught an 11-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter and he was called for pass interference when he hooked a receiver on fourth down in overtime. On this third quarter third down he lost his assignment in man coverage.
Schwartz: He had his warts also.
The 181-pound Jones isn't as stout as Mills (191) and Darby (193). He's going to have trouble bringing some receivers and running backs down. But he has been a willing tackler, as he showed on this check down pass on third and long.
Schwartz:We're excited about him. He has made some really good plays. I think one that fell below the radar, we never talked about it last week, was he made a tackle on the blitz. It was an incredible effort. There are good things. He's trending in the right way. We have a lot of confidence he can play outside. If he's asked to do that, I'm sure he'll do a good job.