A team needing a spark to turn things around in the right direction, the Eagles get defensive tackle Tim Jernigan back for Sunday's game against the New York Giants. Making his 2018 debut after an undisclosed (Jernigan chose not to discuss the nature of his injury) offseason injury that required surgery, Jernigan brings energy, nastiness, and a snarl to the defensive line.
Amped to play, Jernigan knows he has the challenge of keeping his emotions in check against New York (1 p.m. kickoff) at Lincoln Financial Field.
"It's going to be tough, it's going to be tough, but at the end of the day, I've got to be smart because it's not about me. It's about this team and right now our main focus is winning. We've got to beat the Giants," Jernigan said. "I'm definitely going to bring energy, I'm definitely going to bring passion and just that swagger, man. We've got to get back to really just dominating up front. Our front seven has to dominate on Sunday."
Jernigan's arrival should help a run defense that has been leaky of late, allowing more than 120 yards in four of the last five games, including 171 yards to Dallas and 173 yards in last Sunday's loss at New Orleans. The Giants have rookie sensation Saquon Barkley, who gained 130 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries when the teams met in October (the Eagles won, 34-13). With a defensive secondary that won't have starting cornerbacks Jalen Mills (foot) and Sidney Jones (hamstring) along with safety Avonte Maddox (knee) and could be without cornerback Rasul Douglas (knee, ankle, hasn't practiced this week), the line must win in the trenches and take as much pressure as possible off the secondary.
Plus, it's a positive to have Jernigan and his game approach back. He's a high-tempo player who fits perfectly into what coordinator Jim Schwartz wants from his front – aggressive, up-the-field play. Jernigan and Fletcher Cox teamed well together in 2017 as the Eagles led the NFL in run defense at about 80 yards per game.
"It's great. I haven't had that fella all year and it's going to be real great to have Timmy back on Sunday," Cox said. "To see him running around in his first game of the year, he's going to come out with his hat on fire. I know that we'll probably be smart about him since he hasn't played in a game since the Super Bowl, but he'll be excited.
"Tim makes plays and he causes a lot of disruption in the backfield. The biggest thing with him is, teams gotta make up their minds now. Are you gonna double me or are you gonna double him? Whoever you double, the other guy is going to be there to make the plays. It will be great to have Timmy back starting with me."
Said safety Malcolm Jenkins: "It means a lot. He's a talented player but he also has a mean attitude. He's one of those guys who is very disruptive up front. Everything that we do on defense is predicated on how we disrupt up front whether it's the run game or the pass rush. Obviously, we want to put an emphasis on the run game. Having him back helps."
Jernigan underwent surgery in April and was unable to lift weights for six months. There were times when Jernigan wondered about his future. That's the nature of being injured. Nothing is guaranteed after having surgery. Jernigan said he was "nervous" after surgery. His oldest daughter (Naomi, age 3) told him to "get his butt back out there and play football." And so that's what Jernigan has done.
He's worked hard to get his flexibility back, his strength all the way to pre-injury level (and then some, he said), and put weight on. Jernigan has practiced the last few weeks and is hungry to play on Sunday. Having the game taken away from him as it was by the injury, Jernigan's appreciation for football has increased.
"I will never let anybody play with more passion and purpose than I plan to play this game with as long as I'm playing," Jernigan said. "It definitely means so much more to me. It's definitely been tough watching."
Watching the first 10 games of the season, Jernigan had times when he thought, "I could have made that play," but had to rein in his emotions until his health was all the way back. He knocked off his rust in practice and he says it will be "interesting" and "I will find out a lot about myself" when he suits up on Sunday.
This is a must-win game for the Eagles in an NFC East race that has Dallas and Washington at 6-5 with the Eagles at 4-6. Sunday's game is the first of three straight games against division foes, with Washington coming to town next week and the Eagles in Dallas a week later.
How much of a difference can Jernigan make? For a defense depleted (including the absence of middle linebacker Jordan Hicks), having Jernigan back comes at a most opportune time.
"I just want to be able to come back and contribute. Whatever coach asks me of me, whatever he needs from me, I'm ready to do that Sunday," Jernigan said.