Jim Schwartz stands by Jalen Mills, hints Eagles will use Avonte Maddox even more at safety
The defensive coordinator says he's sure Sidney Jones would do well if he had to play outside, but for now Jones needs to concentrate on being a better nickel corner.
Jim Schwartz indicated Tuesday that we are likely to see more of rookie Avonte Maddox at safety, and at least a little less of 33-year-old Corey Graham there, as the Eagles continue to seek solutions for dealing with Rodney McLeod's injury absence.
But in the aftermath of Sunday's 26-23 overtime loss at Tennessee, the howls of the fan base have been much more focused on cornerback Jalen Mills. What does Schwartz want to do there — move Sidney Jones outside from his nickel spot? Move Mills inside, perhaps? Maybe Mills could help out at safety, instead of regularly being abused deep by speedier wide receivers?
The Eagles' defensive coordinator seems more likely to disavow Iron Maiden or Judas Priest, his favorite metal bands as an early-'80s Baltimore youth, than Mills, the third-year corner from LSU who personifies Schwartz's brash, aggressive mind-set.
"We're comfortable leaving Jalen at corner," Schwartz said Tuesday. "I'm firmly behind Jalen Mills as a corner. One of the reasons we had a big parade on Broad Street was Jalen Mills."
Schwartz did not claim that Mills has played up to his 2017 standard, but he indicated his focus will be getting Mills back in form, not changing his duties.
"He's played a lot like a 2-2 corner. We've played a lot like a 2-2 defense, played a lot like a 2-2 team right now," said Schwartz, whose unit has allowed 28 points and 508 yards in two home games, 53 points and 833 yards in two road games this season. "There have been inconsistencies all around, but it's our job to help him through that. It's his job to get out of that, and I'm firmly behind Jalen Mills. That guy's played a lot of good football for us, and he epitomizes a lot of things we're about defensively – toughness, competitiveness, and the ability to bounce back. And I'm confident he will."
Schwartz said "a combination of scheme and technique" will make Mills more effective.
>> EAGLES PODCAST: Discussing Jim Schwartz's defense and Jalen Mills
Mills, 24, was not available during the time reporters were present in the Eagles' locker room Tuesday. The same was true for Maddox, a 22-year-old, fourth-round rookie cornerback from Pitt who had played exclusively on special teams before the Tennessee game. Maddox's training, through training camp and the preseason, has mostly been as a nickel corner.
Jones, 22, the 2017 second-round pick who would have gone in the top half of the first round if he hadn't suffered a torn Achilles' training for the draft, played 48 snaps Sunday as the nickel corner. His eventual future would seem to be outside, but Schwartz made it clear the future is not now.
"He's played suspiciously like a 2-2 player also," Schwartz said. Jones' pass interference penalty kept the game from ending on the Titans' fourth-and-4 in overtime. "He just needs to work on being more consistent at the nickel position.
"We're excited about him. He has made some really good plays … 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."
Schwartz said that McLeod, who had MCL surgery after being hit on the knee by Mills' helmet against the Colts, "will be sorely missed."
"He's been such an important part of our team. When we replaced him, we compartmentalized it into two positions: one was Corey Graham and the other one was Avonte. Of all the guys on our roster, we thought Avonte had a lot of the same traits that Rodney had," Schwartz said. "There's a lot of carryover between nickel and safety … Even though some things are new, he's got excellent quickness, and great eyes for the football. He's got the combination of being able to cover and being able to play the run. All the things we liked about him as nickel, we also like about him as a safety. And I think we'll see more of him going forward in that role."
Maddox intercepted Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota on Sunday, but he also was in coverage for the winning touchdown pass to Corey Davis, the first of Davis's career. At 6-foot-2, 205, Davis is listed at 5 inches taller and 21 pounds heavier than Maddox, who wrestled him in vain for the ball, after Maddox slipped as he tried to cut toward the middle.
The Titans won after converting fourth-and-15, fourth-and-4 and fourth-and-2 on their overtime drive, after the Eagles had taken a 23-20 lead. A stop on any of those occasions would have ended the game.
Schwartz said "you can't expect to win every one" of the shorter conversions, but "damned if we shouldn't expect to win every fourth-and-15. And that was probably the biggest disappointment … That cost us the game. We probably had about six plays that if we make any of those plays, we win the game."
On fourth and 15, Graham basically stood and watched receiver Taywan Taylor run away from him to a wide-open space at the sideline. Schwartz declined to discuss the lapse, other than to say, "coverage broke down." He said that Graham's 71 snaps (every defensive play) against the Titans were "probably a lot," and that "we'll just see going forward."
It was a strange game. The Eagles' defense gave up a field goal on Sunday's opening drive, then nothing, until a flurry of 17 Titans points in the final 18 minutes of regulation.
"I thought we played a really good first half of that game and then, second half, we weren't consistent at all," Schwartz said. "When you get a 14-point lead midway through the third quarter, we should win that game. That's on the defense. Defense should win that game. If we get a 14-point lead midway through the third, we get a lead in overtime, it's our responsibility to [win] that game. We didn't play consistent enough to win that game, and that goes from a fourth-and-1 all the way to fourth-and-15."