Jim Schwartz has this routine during which, the night before a game, he makes a list of all the possible scenarios his Eagles defense might face the next day. Injuries, unusual circumstances, anything that he can conjure up in that creative mind of his to make sure he's covered and is prepared for when the clock starts on gameday. The list for Saturday night includes numbers and names that he is just now getting to know.
With an Eagles secondary decimated by injury – starting safety Rodney McLeod and starting cornerback Avonte Maddox were placed on Injured Reserve earlier in the week, and starting cornerback Darius Slay (concussion) and reserve defensive back Grayland Arnold (hamstring) did not make the trip to Arizona – Schwartz is forced to turn to some unlikely defensive backs in Sunday's game against a Cardinals team with as dangerous a wide receiver corps as any in the entire NFL.
"It's certainly not an ideal situation. But injuries happen in the NFL. Particularly at defensive back. Not only are there muscle pulls but they are generally smaller guys that take a lot of contact and things like that. So we've seen that firsthand," Schwartz said earlier in the week. "I think the biggest thing is you have to balance your game plan versus the skill set of the guys that you have. Every player has strengths. Every player has weaknesses. Whether you're up from the practice squad or you're a six-time Pro Bowl player, every player has strengths and weaknesses, and you have to balance what you need to do in the game plan versus what your matchups are and what the skill set of the players are."
Who plays for the Eagles in the secondary on Sunday? The Eagles used Marcus Epps and rookie K'Von Wallace at safety last week in the fourth quarter of the win over New Orleans, and those two could line up as starters in Arizona should Schwartz opt in that direction. Jalen Mills, a cornerback for four seasons before moving to safety this year, finished the win over the Saints at cornerback. First-year Eagle and NFL veteran Nickell Robey-Coleman, signed in free agency to play the nickel position, could be a starter outside with flexibility to move inside.
The rest of the candidates? Michael Jacquet (jersey No. 38, in case you don't have a roster handy at home while you're watching on television) is a rookie from Louisiana-Lafayette who played 30 snaps against Dallas and 21 a few weeks ago in Green Bay. There is Kevon Seymour (No. 41), signed to the practice squad in early December and who played his first NFL snaps since the 2017 season last week against New Orleans (35 snaps against the Saints). The Eagles elevated Jameson Houston (No. 46), a rookie from Baylor who was signed by Cleveland in the post-draft period and then spent Training Camp time with Carolina, from the practice squad. He's a relative veteran, having been on the Eagles' practice squad since late November.
And in the spirit of the idea of "positionless" players the Eagles envisioned when they reconfigured their personnel in the secondary way back in the spring, the Eagles also have safety Rudy Ford back from a hamstring injury and promoted both Elijah Riley, listed as a "defensive back" and safety Blake Countess, signed to the practice squad this week, available to play.
Household names? Not exactly. On one side of the line of scrimmage in this game, the Cardinals will roll out future Hall of Famers Larry Fitzgerald (45 catches, 345 yards in 2020) and DeAndre Hopkins (94 receptions, 1,155 yards, 5 touchdowns this season), along with speedster Christian Kirk (6 touchdowns on 38 receptions) and sneaky-fast fourth receiver Andy Isabella. On the other side, the Eagles have players who have an incredible chance to establish themselves in this league.
This is gonna be interesting, indeed …
"They know the standard. The standard has always been the highest standard in the room regardless of who is out there whether it's the first string, second string, or third string, so they know as far as their preparation goes and how to take care of their bodies and being in their playbook, they know the standard. This is a great opportunity for those guys to showcase that," Mills said.
"We've got a great game plan in. Coach Schwartz has put us in good positions to make plays against this offense. DeAndre Hopkins, he's one of the best. You see that week in and week out, him making a crazy catch with a guy draped all over him in perfect coverage. We've got to know that this quarterback can throw the ball, he's going to throw the ball to him, and if he does go up and make a play and catch the ball, we've just got to say 'a good one for the bad guys' and go to the next play."
Add into the mix the multiple skills of quarterback Kyler Murray, one of the most difficult players in the league because of his mobility, and Schwartz is going to be deep in his "what if" scenario list.
"All those young guys, we're going to need all of those guys to come back and play significant snaps for us. Communication is very important," Schwartz said. "We have some injury situations in the back end that we're going to have to figure out and we might not even know for sure until Saturday night before the game. But we'll have a good plan and we'll get the guys out there."