A little more than two months ago, Ronald Darby stepped wrong near the Eagles' sideline while chasing Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins, the QB loose on a scramble early in the second quarter of the season opener. Darby left FedEx Field on a cart. He was the first casualty of a season that has seen a handful of key Eagles sidelined long-term.
Monday, Darby took part in a full practice for the first time since dislocating his right ankle on that Sept. 10 play. He said he worked with the first team, in his former spot. Presumably, Darby will start there Sunday night against Dallas, though after such a long layoff, he might not play every snap. We might or might not know more Tuesday when defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz speaks.
This situation is complicated. The Eagles traded for Darby in August to be their top corner. He was just settling into that role when he suffered the gruesome injury, which looked season-ending at the time, but turned out not to involve any broken bones.
While Darby was out, third-round rookie Rasul Douglas and veteran Patrick Robinson stepped up, helping the Eagles forge an 8-1 record. The only game they lost was the first week Darby missed, Douglas' NFL debut, at Kansas City. Without Darby, Schwartz hasn't played as much press coverage as he'd planned, and probably has given up more yardage than he wanted, but the overall results have been solid.
"It helped a lot, for them to be out there playing the way they did," Darby said Monday in his first session with reporters since the week after the injury. "They're going to be there to push me, at the end of the day. I got some shoes to fill, coming out there with them – them boys been holding it down since Week 1. I'm going to go out there and give it my all. If I'm real winded one play or so, I'm just going to take a few plays off. They're going to work me back into everything.
"I'm going to push myself, but I feel comfortable knowing we got like, ballers, at the end of the day. They help bring your game even more. When they're over there not giving up [anything], you're not going to give up [anything]. Everybody pushes each other."
The most likely scenario is that Darby and Jalen Mills start outside, as they did in the opener, with Robinson playing the nickel and Douglas working mainly on special teams; the Eagles released corner Dexter McDougle on Monday when they signed veteran linebacker Dannell Ellerbe.
Douglas seemed OK with that Monday. Asked what his role would be with Darby back, Douglas noted he was inactive in the opener.
"What was my role from the beginning? I had no role," he said. "It's always been, whatever you want me to do, I'll do it. If I play 60 snaps alongside of him, [or] at nickel, at dime … if I have to be a waterboy, I'll be a waterboy. If I have to play special teams, whatever … We're winning, and we just want to keep winning. That's the only thing that matters to us."
Corner/safety Jaylen Watkins said Darby should be as comfortable in the defense as anyone. He hasn't really played in it much, but he was with the team all through his recovery.
"He was in meetings when we were. … He had the same amount of accountability that I had or Malcolm [Jenkins] had. … There were questions that needed to be answered, coach would call on Darby, and he had to be ready," Watkins said.
"That was an extra eight weeks for him to learn the defense, and the small things that we all know."
"I learned a lot, being hurt. All you can do is study, for the most part, so I learned, like, everything they do on the field, I see it, understand it," he said.
Darby said he stayed in Philly and "got a lot of work in" during the bye week. His ankle, which he plans to tape but not brace, "feels real good, to be honest." He was a partial practice participant for a few weeks before the bye.
"Eight weeks was the goal, but it wasn't feeling right at that time, so there was no need for me to rush back out there and look horrible, and everybody [say], 'Well, why'd you rush back?' " he said.
Darby said the main thing he noticed about Schwartz's corners was "aggression."
"You know how Jalen Mills, PRob and them fly around, even the safeties fly around," Darby said. "One thing he stresses: being present in the run game. That's something I notice about those boys – they comin' down full speed to get you. That's something I notice you've got to be willing to do in his defense."
Something else Schwartz will be asked Tuesday is how Darby's return will affect how the corners play, whether he will want to press more.
"A lot of corners are comfortable playing off. I like to press," Darby said. "Some people like to play off. It's whatever works for you. They're out there making plays [in the current setup]. I feel like it's going to be the same – it ain't broke, so don't fix it."