The Eagles finally addressed the biggest hole on their team over the last several seasons when they made a move to acquire CB Darius Slay from the Detroit Lions this offseason. In Slay, the Eagles have a player who is easily the best cornerback that Jim Schwartz has had to work with during his tenure in Philly. What does that mean for the defense as a whole? Just how good is Darius Slay anyways?
The Eagles Defensive Problem
There is no denying the Eagles had a problem in the secondary last season. They simply couldn’t stop opposing team’s #1 wide receivers.
In the first 7 weeks of the season, the Eagles gave up seven 100-yard games to opposing outside receivers. Then, down the stretch, they ended the year giving up 100-yard games in 4 of the final 6 games of the year.
Entering the playoffs, the Eagles ranked 32nd in the league in yards surrendered to outside wide receivers, 29th in explosive receptions allowed, 29th in TDs allowed and 27th in yards per target. Frankly, it is a miracle that a team with a passing defense that bad was able to get into the playoffs at all.
Enter Darius Slay
Darius Slay allowed only one 100-yard game last season. He held Terry McLaurin to 3 receptions for 42 yards on 10 targets. He held Amari Cooper to 2 receptions for 31 yards on 6 targets. He held Davante Adams to 4 receptions for 63 yards on 7 targets. Darius Slay has the ability to shadow #1 WRs all over the field and effectively take them out of the game.
He is a remarkably productive cornerback who leads the league in passes defended + interceptions since 2013. On top of all of that, he has only missed 6 games during his 6-year career. Darius Slay brings a combination of ball skills, production, and durability to the Eagles that the secondary hasn’t seen in years.
What Does That Mean for the Defense?
Jim Schwartz has talked at length about what Slay means for the defense. Here is what he had to say a few weeks ago:
“Over the last couple years we’ve taken a lot of strides to try to avoid the tells on our defense, whether it was man or zone. It really started like the week after the Super Bowl when we started meeting before the 2018 season,” Schwartz said. “We saw where people were going with man routes and pick routes and things like that and said, ‘Okay we’re tired of complaining to the officials that we got picked’ or, ‘That was offensive pass interference,’ so we needed to mitigate it ourselves. We needed to combat it in different ways.
One of the ways we did that, is we didn’t always have corners go over, and we tried to let guys play inside and outside. It helped us that we had safeties like Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod, both whom were corners in the past. That flexibility went a long way. And so, there is that, but when you acquire a player like Slay, who has that skill set, and can match a receiver, it adds a different layer to it. So now, guys who play nickel are going to need to be able to play outside corner also, because every time Slay lines up at the nickel position, it’s just too easy a tell if the only time he’s in there is man-to-man.”
After the Super Bowl run, Jim Schwartz realized that his defense became too predictable.
Quarterbacks were able to determine the defensive coverage scheme before the snap and make adjustments at the line of scrimmage. Running a defense that is so predictable is a recipe for disaster so the Eagles set out to remedy the problem.
One way they did that was by switching routes against compressed sets and against bunched sets. Switching routes simply means that the outside cornerback takes the out-breaking route and the slot cornerback takes the in-breaking route. This limits the effectiveness of rub routes and picks because your corners aren’t chasing a receiver through all of the traffic. What allowed the Eagles do to this was the fact that all of their safeties had cornerback experience.
Malcolm Jenkins is gone, but Jalen Mills is transitioning to safety from cornerback which keeps the cornerback background that Schwartz prefers in his safeties intact. Rookie K’Von Wallace and free-agent signee Will Parks also have experience playing cornerback which gives the Eagles the versatility necessary to do so.
“So, I don’t know that it’s going to be a 100 percent, all-the-time thing. Maybe it’s a particular game. Maybe it’s 50 percent of the games. Maybe it’s 75 percent of the games that Slay is matching a particular receiver, but you will see that from our defense.
And in order to do that, it’s not just on Slay to know inside and outside, which we have a very good comfort level with, and feel like he can do that. But now it’s going to make all of your corners, your safeties, and your nickels have to be just a little bit more multi-dimensional. If Slay lines up at the nickel, the nickel needs to be able to line up at the outside corner, and you need to be able to play man, and zone, and blitz from that same look.”
In order for the Eagles to keep offenses guessing, it will require Darius Slay to line up as the slot cornerback in situations when he is not playing man coverage on the slot receiver.
In those situations, the Eagles duo of outside corners will be Avonte Maddox (5’9″) and Nickell Robey-Coleman (5’8″). Having corners that small outside in zone coverage is going to force the Eagles into more cover 2 looks to provide safety help over the top for their mismatched corners. How effective that will be is yet to be seen, but the potential issue worth noting.
The Future of the Eagles Defense
The Eagles have been moving towards a more positionless style of defense for several years. They have drafted safeties and converted them to linebacker. They have moved cornerbacks to safety. They have asked a slot corner to play safety. They have asked Malcolm Jenkins to line up at every position on the field except the defensive line. Ultimately the question of how good this defense can be comes down to three factors:
- The pass rush
- The performance of Darius Slay
- The ability to move players between positions