Patrick Robinson

Maybe, just maybe, Eagles cornerbacks can survive without Ronald Darby

Maybe, just maybe, Eagles cornerbacks can survive without Ronald Darby

When Ronald Darby went down less than a half into his Eagles career, many fans saw their playoff hopes being carted off with him.

However, the club received surprisingly good news on Darby’s health. The diagnosis is a dislocated ankle. Although it may be erring on the conservative side, he reportedly may miss just four to six weeks. So that was the best-case scenario after the frightening scene Sunday.

And that wasn’t the only good news for the Eagles. Maybe, just maybe, they found out they can survive for a stretch without Darby. Jalen Mills, Patrick Robinson and Jaylen Watkins all acquitted themselves well against Washington. Granted, it was only two-plus quarters, and the Redskins helped out with some drops. Still, the secondary appeared much improved from last season’s whiplashed mess.

What Mills lacks in foot speed he appears to have made up for with experience and anticipation. He’s never lacked for confidence, and now, he appears more poised to back up the finger-wagging.

Robinson was a full-fledged mess early in camp, but he looks much more comfortable in the slot than the outside. Despite him playing OK on the outside when pressed into duty for Darby, Robinson should stay inside. Rookie third-round pick Rasul Douglas should get the start outside.

The corners don’t stand alone in the receiving line of praise. Mills' interception was a direct result of the pressure the Birds' defensive line put on Kirk Cousins. The Eagles' front was relentless all afternoon, and coordinator Jim Schwartz’s blitz timing was spot on. They sacked Cousins four times and harassed him throughout the game. Not to mention, stuffing the run game.

If the Birds can continue to get that kind of consistency and disruption from their line, it could make up for a lot of sins and inexperience on the back end.

That said, this is by no means a declaration that all is well. Howie Roseman gave up a healthy sum for Darby and brought in Dexter McDougle late in the preseason. You’re not making those kinds of moves that close to the regular season unless there are issues. Douglas and McDougle were inactive last week.

And the next test will be a big step up in class.

In dropping 42 points on the champs, the Kansas City Chiefs had eight different players catch balls and piled up 537 total yards en route to a stunning road beatdown of the New England Patriots in Week 1. Rookie third-round pick Kareem Hunt amassed 246 total yards and three touchdowns. The Chiefs also have perhaps the fastest player in the NFL in Tyreek Hill and a top-three tight end in Travis Kelce.

Much will be written and spoken regarding Doug Pederson and Andy Reid’s relationship, which dates back to their time in Green Bay — Pederson as a backup quarterback and Reid as the offensive line/quarterbacks coach.

Where does the advantage lie: mentor or pupil? The question will be moot if the Birds' corners revert to last year’s form.

With revamped secondary, Eagles confident new unit will be an upgrade

With revamped secondary, Eagles confident new unit will be an upgrade

You know when you're playing Scrabble and you have lousy letters so you just trade them all in?

That's pretty much what the Eagles have done with their secondary.

Nolan Carroll, gone. Leodis McKelvin, gone. Ron Brooks, gone. C.J. Smith, Terrence Brooks and Aaron Grymes? All gone.

The Eagles reshaped their secondary this offseason — and even more during training camp — jettisoning six defensive backs that started 33 games and played more than 1,700 snaps last year and replacing them with a draft pick, a free agent and three guys who weren't even with the team when training camp began.

Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod, one of the NFL's better safety combos, both return, but the eight other defensive backs currently on the roster have started a total of eight games combined in an Eagles uniform.

It's a new group, but the Eagles believe it's a talented group, a fast group and an upgraded group.

We'll get our first glimpse of this reconfigured secondary when the Eagles open the 2017 season against the Redskins on Sunday at FedEx Field (see five matchups to watch).

“I hope there’s no growing pains and if there are growing pains, I hope they’re little ones," said cornerback Ronald Darby, one of three defensive backs Howie Roseman acquired during training camp.

"But we can’t think about that. We have to go into the game playing fast and if we make a mistake, make it full-speed.

"We have no choice but to make it come together fast. We don't have time on our side, so you have to take the extra time and really stress the little things as well as the big things to make sure you’re on track with everyone else."

Darby and Jalen Mills will start at corner, with another newcomer, Patrick Robinson, the primary slot. Rookie Rasul Douglas is also in the mix at cornerback, as is Dexter McDougle, who joined the Eagles less than two weeks ago. Another rookie, second-round pick Sidney Jones, is currently out with an Achilles injury.

The overhaul was certainly necessary. The Eagles allowed 27 pass plays of 30 yards or more last season, second-most in the league (the Raiders allowed 28).

The Eagles have allowed 25 or more touchdown passes in eight straight seasons, the only team in NFL history to do that.

“I think we’ve got a lot of eager guys, a lot of guys who are very hungry to play in this defense and get on the field, and it shows at practice," Mills said.

"The new guys are active in meetings, asking questions if they don’t know something or certain adjustments, if not asking the coaches, asking the players. So I think those guys are adjusting really well." 

It's easy to assume that when you have this many new pieces, it's going to take some time for the whole thing to come together.

But the Eagles don't have a lot of time. So guys like Corey Graham, McDougle and Darby — who all began training camp elsewhere — had to do plenty of extra work just to catch up and be ready for Sunday.

“It's just guys putting in the time and the effort," said Graham, now in his 11th NFL season. "These guys know defense, you just have to learn the terminology, so for us, it’s tough but you see all the young guys asking a lot of questions, staying later, doing what they need to do, and those are things that help you as a defense play all as one."

Only two of the 10 defensive backs on the roster are Eagles draft picks. Mills was a seventh-round pick last year and Jaylen Watkins a fourth-round pick in 2014 (but was with the Bills in part of 2015).

It's an intriguing group, and not including Chris Maragos — who is essentially a special teamer — only Jenkins has been here since opening day 2015.

“We have a lot of competition," Watkins said. "We have a lot of young guys, but they’re really competitive trying to make their mark on this league, and then our older guys are our hardest-working guys, and the young guys follow them."

The Eagles haven't had an elite pass defense since 2008, when they ranked third in the NFL in passing yards allowed. Not coincidentally, that was their last year with Brian Dawkins on the field and Jim Johnson in the coaching booth.

In the eight years since, the Eagles have allowed 234 touchdown passes — the most any team has ever allowed in an eight-year span.

This group believes those days are over.

“I like where we are,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “Obviously, the proof is in the pudding over the course of the season. …

"There's a lot of different ways we can play. We'll probably have six different personnel packages that we can play in this game, which is a little bit more than we carried last year. And I think a lot of it has to do with some of the flexibility the guys have in the secondary.”

Graham said Jenkins, a Pro Bowl safety two years ago, is the key to the defensive back room because he's so well respected by everybody around him.

"When you have a guy like Malcolm Jenkins in your room, who’s a serious, get-my-job-done kind of guy, then the young guys buy in," Graham said. "If he’s out there joking and playing all the time, then that’s what they’re going to do. It’s all just falling in line with what your leader is doing.”
 
So how does such a new group come together almost overnight?

Think about it: The Eagles signed Robinson on March 28, they drafted Jones and Douglas on April 28, they signed Graham on Aug. 3, they acquired Darby in the Jordan Matthews deal Aug. 11 and they acquired McDougle on Aug. 27.

That's six guys who weren't Eagles six months ago.

"Just guys paying attention to detail, taking it serious, wanting to be great," McLeod said. "I think all of us got something to prove, whether it's Darby being traded over here and being the new guy, whether it's Corey Graham getting a second chance, myself just kind of being underrated, Jenk, maybe he wants to be higher in the (player) rankings. 

"Everybody's been working, holding each other accountable. It's going to be good this year. We have a lot of diversity in the group, a lot of guys who are very interchangeable and it's allowing us to do a lot more with this defense.

"I feel like everybody has something to prove and we all set out for one common goal and that's to win and get to the playoffs and Super Bowl."

Eagles-Redskins 5 matchups to watch

Eagles-Redskins 5 matchups to watch

The Eagles haven't fared well against Washington in recent years. In fact, the Birds have lost their last five contests against their division rival, including both games last season. 

The two losses against Washington last season came by a total of 12 points. 

This is a big game for the Eagles. A win could start off their season on the right track, especially before a really tough game against the Chiefs on the road in Week 2. 

So here's a look at five matchups that will play a major role on Sunday afternoon at FedEx Field: 

Lane Johnson vs. Ryan Kerrigan 
You probably remember what happened in the first matchup between the Eagles and Washington last year. Back on Oct. 16, Johnson's 10-game PED suspension kicked in and the Eagles were left with rookie Halapoulivaati Vaitai at right tackle. Eventually, Vaitai ended up having a pretty decent rookie season but it didn't get off to a great start. In fact, his introduction to the NFL was pretty ugly and he can thank Kerrigan for that. Carson Wentz was sacked five times in the game and half of them belonged to the veteran pass rusher. 

After missing both games against Washington in 2016, Johnson is back and hoping for a little revenge. In fact, he's already said the Eagles are going to "whup some ass" in the opener. 

"First of all, [Kerrigan] is a great player," head coach Doug Pederson said. "He's a high-motor guy, a relentless finish. That's what you have to identify with him. It's good to have Lane back. Obviously, that was V's first start last year and he struggled in the game. To have Lane back, a little confidence there. Should be a good matchup all day, and just have to give the guy respect. He's a good pass rusher."

Jamison Crowder vs. Patrick Robinson 
After a terrible start to training camp, Robinson rebounded once Ronald Darby was acquired. That move pushed him inside and he found a home in the slot position for the Eagles. For the most part, that will be a position by committee this season, but against a shifty player like Crowder, Robinson should get first crack, while Malcolm Jenkins will have to deal with tight end Jordan Reed. 

For as much attention as DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon got over the last couple years, Crowder has turned into a really solid option. He had 67 catches for 847 yards and seven touchdowns in 2016. Against the Eagles last year, he had five catches for 89 yards and a touchdown. He's a big part of Washington's offense. 

Brandon Scherff vs. Fletcher Cox
Scherff, Washington's right guard, went to his first Pro Bowl in 2016, a year after he was taken in the first round out of Iowa. It's a big matchup, because there's a good chance Scherff will go 1-on-1 against Cox, who doesn't see a ton of 1-on-1 matchups anymore. 

"[Scherff] does the little things right," Cox said. "You just have to study him and watch the things that he's gotten beat on. Just study him and just study their line because I think they have a solid group of guys that play together on the same page." 

Kirk Cousins always seems to bring his best games against the Eagles, so Cox's ability to generate pressure could potentially change the game. 

Zach Ertz vs. Redskins safeties
Ertz had one bad game against Washington in 2016 and one great game. In the first matchup, he had one catch for 22 yards, but the next time, he had 10 for 112. Of course, that second game was in December, when Ertz seems to come alive. But there will be chances for Ertz on Sunday, especially because Washington will be without safety Su'a Cravens, who is contemplating retirement. That leaves Washington with D.J. Swearinger and Deshazor Everett at safety. Neither are known for their cover skills. 

Alshon Jeffery vs. Josh Norman
Expect Norman to travel and stick with Jeffery for the entire game on Sunday. Washington head coach Jay Gruden on Wednesday said he didn't know if that's what he would do, but it seems pretty clear that's what will happen. 

Last year when Jeffery faced Washington as a member of the Bears, Norman stayed with him all game. Jeffery ended the game with five catches on 10 targets for 92 yards. 

"Alshon won his share and Josh won his share," Pederson said. "It's a good battle. I think those two have a lot of respect for each other and it's great competition."