In the midst of suffering injuries that have severely challenged the effectiveness of the defensive secondary, the Eagles may have found some solutions that can serve them for the remainder of this season – and in the future.
The new guys are ballin'.
Second-year man Rasul Douglas is one starter at cornerback, rookie Avonte Maddox is the other starter on the outside – more on that below – and Cre'Von LeBlanc is the nickel cornerback. With Ronald Darby walking around the NovaCare Complex with a brace on his knee after suffering a torn ACL, Jalen Mills in a walking boot, and with Sidney Jones still rehabbing a hamstring that has given him fits for most of the season, the Eagles have had to reconfigure their cornerback depth chart.
There have been some bumps along the way, but the Eagles are hopeful that Douglas, Maddox, and LeBlanc are stabilizing the cornerback room. That's the word defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz used on Tuesday as he talked about the corners. "Stabilizing." It's not to be confused with "starring," but it's a start. And the Eagles, torn apart by the injuries in the secondary – the biggest one of all was a season-ending knee injury suffered by safety Rodney McLeod – will take any progress they can get.
"For me, just being on the practice field every day and learning more of the defense and becoming more comfortable, that's been the biggest thing," said LeBlanc, whom the Eagles claimed off waivers after he was cut by Detroit. "It makes a difference, knowing what the guys are doing and where I'm supposed to be on each play. My confidence is sky-high."
This is a week-to-week proposition for Schwartz and the secondary with so much youth and so many injuries in play here. LeBlanc played 74 snaps (97 percent of the defensive snaps) against a Rams offense that uses three wide receivers almost exclusively. His 298 snaps played in only six games represent 29 percent of the team's entire snap count for the season, and are the second most he's played in a single season in his three-year career (LeBlanc played in 695 snaps as a rookie with the Bears in 2016).
Douglas has played 433 snaps, almost more than last season when he was selected in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft. He has two interceptions and is coming off a monstrous 14-tackle game in Los Angeles. A big cornerback at 6-2 and 209 pounds, Douglas is tough, physical, and improving his technique and cover skills every week.
Maddox, a fourth-round draft pick in the spring, has been a revelation. He started the year as a nickel cornerback backing up Jones, but he also learned the outside cornerback responsibilities. When McLeod was injured, Maddox stepped in at safety alongside Malcolm Jenkins. Upon his return from knee and ankle injuries suffered in the loss at New Orleans, Maddox started on Sunday night on the outside for the first time and was brilliant with an interception and sure tackling and excellent man-to-man cover skills.
Those three, along with veteran Corey Graham – whose interception of Rams quarterback Jared Goff on Sunday night was officially changed to a sack for linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill and a fumble recovery for Graham – and first-year safety Tre Sullivan (who has played roughly 50 percent of the defensive snaps over the last four weeks) have kept the secondary intact.
With Houston coming to town on Sunday and the prospect of facing superstar wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, the secondary is going to be severely tested once again.
"Every bit of it is important. We have to work hard on communication and staying on the same page, being disciplined, and making sure we all understand our responsibilities on each and every play," Graham said after Sunday night's win in Los Angeles. "We've got some young guys back there. They're working hard, but you can't replace experience. So, we're doing the best we can under the circumstances."
How much this matters in the future – and I'm talking next year and beyond – remains to be seen. Darby is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after this season and, besides, there's no telling when he'll be ready to play after his ACL surgery. McLeod should be healthy and ready to go, but the Eagles know they need youthful depth at safety. Jones has not been able to find any sustained success in his two Eagles seasons. Mills should be a go in the summer for Training Camp.
For Douglas, for LeBlanc, and for Maddox and Sullivan, the reps they're taking are invaluable. They're showing their skills off to the Eagles for the short term and for the future.
"I just want to play well and earn the coaches' trust," Maddox said. "Wherever they play me, that's fine. I just want to play and help the team win. I know the defense and I feel the coaches are going to put me in the spots where I can have success. That's what this is about."