In the first quarter of the Eagles' 34-13 victory over the New York Giants, dynamic rookie running back Saquon Barkley took off for the first of a few explosive runs on the day.
Barkley took the delayed handoff out of the shotgun just past the Giants' 35-yard line and burst through the middle. He appeared to have beaten the Eagles' defense down the sideline when newly converted safety, rookie Avonte Maddox, came sprinting from the middle of the field, caught up with Barkley, and took him down just past the 20-yard line.
With ease, Maddox took down the player the Eagles had the most troubling tackling all game. His tackle of a player three inches taller and more than 50 pounds heavier than him saved a touchdown forced the Giants to settle for a field goal, making it 7-3 Eagles.
"It was big," safety Malcolm Jenkins said Monday. "Our thing is, teams are going to make plays, it's up to us on the back end to make sure we get them on the ground. It doesn't have to be pretty, it doesn't have to be a big hit, just get them on the ground."
"It saved us four points," defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz added. "That's what a free safety should do, suck up all those runs that escape the front. Like I said, that's one of the things we liked about him, his range. He's tough, he's not the biggest guy in the world but he plays big. He's a pretty sure tackler and we saw all those things in the last game."
The tackle of Barkley was one of a few big plays made this season by the fourth-round pick who describes himself as a "defensive back" instead of a corner or safety.
After the Eagles lost safety Rodney McLeod for the season with a knee injury, Maddox stepped in at safety, a position he didn't play in college, beginning with the Eagles' game against the Tennessee Titans. He started the next two games, serving as the team's sixth captain last Thursday night against the Giants. When nickel cornerback Sidney Jones left the game early with a hamstring injury, Maddox seamlessly moved into the slot. He did all of this while also serving as the gunner on special teams.
In the past three games, he has 16 tackles, 14 of them solo, a pass deflection, and an interception.
"He's a smart guy, he's mature beyond his years," Schwartz said. "From the time he's got here, there really hasn't been a situation where things were too big for him. He's just got a great attitude. When we said, 'Hey, we need you to take some safety reps.' He was like, 'OK.' We said, 'Hey, you have to go in there and play the nickel.' (He said), 'OK.'
"Those guys with that low blood pressure, that serves them well in stressful situations like that. Doesn't serve defensive coordinators well or secondary coaches or anybody else, but those guys on the field, he never bats an eye no matter what you're asking him to do, special teams, you know, any position on defense."
Safeties coach Tim Hauck said that the transition worked because playing the nickel corner position is an extension of playing safety, just on the other side of the field. He said that Maddox was "hands on" with the safety position after McLeod went down and that Maddox's skill set works perfectly at his new position.
"I loved the way he played," Hauck said of Maddox's college tape at Pitt. "He played fast. He played hard. He played physical. You take those three things and put them together, you always say well you've got a chance to play safety even though he hadn't done it before. The skill set is obviously there. Love the kid to death because of what he does. He works hard at it and he plays extremely hard. You get that part done, you're halfway there."
Maddox's work ethic has been attributed to his success. As a rookie, he has been tasked and trusted with learning a new position and stepping into a starting role. He also had to continue studying the nickel corner position to fill in when needed. He will be expected to play either position in the coming weeks as Sidney Jones' status remains uncertain.
And Maddox is doing this at 5-9, 184 pounds. Jenkins, another player who moved from corner to safety in the NFL and became a Pro Bowl player at his new position, is listed at 6-foot, 204 pounds. But to Jenkins, Maddox isn't playing like an undersized player at all.
"You don't have to be the biggest guy, just get him down," Jenkins said. "We're not looking for guys to punish people. As long as you're efficient, and he's a willing and able tackler, no concerns there."
Maddox will have to remain ready to play either position in the coming weeks. Head coach Doug Pederson told reporters Friday that nickel corner Sidney Jones is "week-to-week" with his hamstring injury. The Eagles brought back cornerback Dexter McDougle, who has slot experience, on Tuesday.
But defensive backs coach Cory Undlin said that Maddox gave the Eagles the best replacement for McLeod. Undlin, who attended Maddox's Pro Day at Pitt, likes Maddox's speed and body type and said he is in awe of what the rookie has been able to accomplish in the past few weeks.
"There were no question marks on can the guy learn," Undlin said. "He's got great range. He's fast. Guy's really, really smart back there. He's got great awareness. ... For Avonte to go out there and do that, it was great to see."