NFL cornerbacks are not, as a general rule, always selected or prized for their tackling ability. They have very difficult jobs keeping up with the league's gazelles at the wide receiver position, and their skill at staying with those guys and defending passes is probably at the top of their positional to-do list.
It's certainly an added benefit when a cornerback tackles well, but plenty have had long and celebrated careers despite a dedicated distaste for contact. Deion Sanders is the poster boy for that group, one of the greatest pass defenders in history but notorious for being nowhere to be found when a big running back came rumbling around the edge.
The Eagles have had their share, too. The celebrated trio of Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie – the Dream Team of 2011 – had become a tackling laughingstock by Andy Reid's final season of 2012. Pro Football Focus rated the Eagles cornerback trio as the worst tackling unit in the NFL, and second place wasn't close.
That's five years ago, but it has taken this long to get a cornerback group that is not only willing but able to make tackles. It certainly wasn't the Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams combination, nor the Byron Maxwell and Nolan Carroll combination. This season, from the ashes of what was supposed to be a positional disaster, the cornerbacks have risen to become a real roadblock for the opposition.
"It's a good tackling defense," coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "I appreciate that about them."
He was speaking of the defense as a whole, but opposing offenses will find the weak spots to attack and, in terms of avoiding tackles, that hasn't been the cornerback position. Second-year starter Jalen Mills is second on the team in tackles, behind only Malcolm Jenkins, and two other corners, Patrick Robinson and Rasul Douglas, are also among the team leaders.
The coming-together happened quickly. Three of the five cornerbacks on the team – Douglas, Robinson, and Ronald Darby – weren't here last season. In general, the group might not have the greatest coverage skills, but it has been aided by the Eagles' ability to put pressure on quarterbacks. On the other hand, when teams get tired of trying to run up the middle on the Eagles, which is quickly, they haven't had success on the outside, either.
"We practice it. You can't just go out and expect it to happen magically," Mills said. "When you look at our D-line, our linebackers, and our safeties, we've got guys out there who, when they get a chance, just crush guys. We don't want to be that one group, or that one guy, who doesn't get it done. The other guys on the team push us to be that type of player when the time comes."
The other guys have noticed, too.
"It's certainly not a given," defensive end Chris Long said of NFL cornerbacks and their tackling ability. "I don't know if our guys got together and decided to be great at this, but they've certainly turned it into a strength. Because of the way we play in the middle, people try to get the ball out on the perimeter with screens and that sort of thing, and our cornerbacks complete our defense. You can't lump them in with all cornerbacks. They're different."
All of the defensive secondary players, cornerbacks and safeties, give some credit to the accountability of their meeting room. Position coach Cory Undlin is demanding but almost not as demanding as the players themselves.
"You expect a coach or coordinator to point out if you miss a tackle, but we clown on each other," said Jaylen Watkins, who plays both secondary positions. "Nobody wants to have somebody clown on you because you didn't get your job done."
The job continues Sunday in Seattle,when the line will be chasing around quarterback Russell Wilson and the cornerbacks will have to keep track of him, too. Wilson is the leading rusher for the Seahawks on his frequent scrambles, and he has a dangerous, quick receiver in Doug Baldwin, who has 58 catches this season.
It is a different job. Aside from Cam Newton, the Eagles haven't really faced a quarterback who is a threat to run, but every week in the NFL is a different job, and the defense as a whole, and the cornerbacks particularly, have been up to them so far. That's even true with their tackling.
"They're athletes, man. We got a group of guys who can do pretty much everything," said linebacker Nigel Bradham. "They don't give other teams opportunities to get yards after the catch or long runs on the perimeter. They're physical and they get their hands in there and fight and they like to do that."
Not every cornerback group is similar. In fact, there are plenty of guys in the NFL who play the position of "defensive wide receiver." The Eagles have had a few of them recently, but not this season. This season is different. But, then again, you've probably noticed that already.