Let’s skip the generalities and forgo the attempts to soften the blow. Sunday’s game is not a referendum on the Eagles secondary as a whole. The big question mark is not Malcolm Jenkins or Rodney McLeod or Ronald Darby. All have been integral parts of an Eagles secondary that has kept the lid on the Falcons’ potent passing attack. This is about Rasul Douglas and Sidney Jones and whether either one can show Jim Schwartz that he can be trusted on an island against NFL receivers.
Three years after the Eagles selected both of them in the draft, the jury is still very much out on whether either has the speed or technique to keep pace in a game that gets quicker and faster with every passing season. In Week 1, both had moments where they looked severely overmatched against Terry McLaurin’s 4.35-second speed. Early in the second quarter, Douglas was still losing ground by the time the Washington rookie crossed the goal line with a 69-yard touchdown catch. There was no complexity to the play. McLaurin was set up on the 30, Douglas on the 33. By the 50, McLaurin had nothing but green space in front of him. If the field was another 25 yards longer, Douglas may not have been in the television frame.
Douglas’ lack of footspeed is nothing new, yet Schwartz still decided to give him the start over Jones in Week 1. Whether that says more about Douglas or Jones is difficult to say. What is clear is that Schwartz realized that the unfavorable physics could have been fatal. When the second half started, Jones was playing right cornerback in place of Douglas.
The numbers say the second half went better than the first, at least with regard to McLaurin. The film tells a different tale. Late in the second quarter, with the Eagles having stormed back to take a 21-20 lead, McLaurin turned Jones to the outside and then blew past the back of his jersey on what would have been a 73-yard touchdown if not for a Case Keenum overthrow.
“I feel like a lot of the bad plays were very fixable, kind of like what-the-heck-am-I-doing kinds of plays," Jones said earlier this week.
They do not lack for confidence, which is something that Schwartz prizes in his cornerbacks. The question is whether they have all of the other things that successful cornerbacking requires.
Jones has been a work-in-progress ever since the Eagles drafted him in 2017 as he was recovering from a torn Achilles. He spent most of last season battling a hamstring injury that cost him eight of their last 12 games. Douglas, meanwhile, played 100 percent of the defensive snaps in six of the last seven games, including the season-ending loss to the Saints in the divisional round of the playoffs. That experience is why you shouldn’t be surprised if Douglas is back out there at the start of Sunday’s game in Atlanta.
“Every game’s different. You never know what it’s going to look like, how many snaps you’re going to have to play. Things like that,” Schwartz said. “We’ll take it on a game-by-game basis and see where it takes us.”
While Washington took advantage of Douglas’ lack of footspeed, Falcons No. 2 wideout Calvin Ridley does not come close to McLaurin’s straight-line speed (McLaurin ran a 4.35-second 40-yard dash at the combine; Ridley ran a 4.43). The Eagles have shown that they can limit the Falcons without shutting down Julio Jones. While Jones has gone over 100 yards in each of the three games they have faced him since 2016, his catch rate (29 of 51 targets) and yards-per-target (7.9) are well below his overall numbers during that span (63.5 percent, 10.1). The big question is whether they can avoid giving up the big plays that hurt them against the Redskins, and that will almost certainly require winning some one-on-one matchups against Ridley.
In their last two matchups against the Falcons, the Eagles relied on Jalen Mills’ physicality to challenge the Falcons wideouts. With Mills still injured, that role will likely fall to Douglas or Sidney Jones. That’s the formula Sidney Jones rattled off when asked how to contend with such a dynamic tandem.
"I think tight coverage, challenging them, competing, pressure on the quarterback, causing him to make some errant misthrows to help us on the back end," he said.