If there has been a bright spot on the Eagles this season, and in particular on defense, it has been the play of Malcolm Jenkins.
The safety has made series-defining plays both as a run defender and in pass coverage. But what has separated Jenkins this season vs. last, at least through two games, has been his performance in the slot in the nickel package.
One of the unresolved issues on defense entering the season was who would replace Brandon Boykin inside against slot receivers. Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis experimented with various players in that role before ultimately settling on Jenkins and his vast experience.
“All the years I’ve had the most production has been when they’ve allowed me to play the nickel,” Jenkins said Thursday. “I played there a little bit last year and then a few years prior to that in my career. It’s something that I’m very comfortable with and probably enjoy more than safety.”
Three of the Eagles’ four starting defensive backs are experienced slot defenders. But when Davis has called for his nickel defense, Chris Maragos has come onto the field as the fifth defensive back and manned centerfield safety and Jenkins has mostly dropped down inside.
Jenkins has played 51 snaps in the slot and has been targeted only eight times and allowed five catches for 25 yards. Safety Walter Thurmond has also logged 13 snaps in the slot and given up four receptions for 29 yards in four targets.
Davis said one of Jenkins’ best plays this season came when he wasn’t even targeted. He was lined up opposite Cowboys slot receiver Cole Beasley on Sunday, but when tight end Jason Witten started to run in his direction Jenkins jumped the “rub” route. Quarterback Tony Romo pumped and was sacked – and injured – by linebacker Jordan Hicks.
“He’s extremely intelligent, hard working, and he studies the game as much as any veteran I’ve been around,” Davis said of Jenkins. “… He’s tenacious down there in the nickel spot, and you need a guy like that.”
The Eagles are still predominantly a single-high safety team, but Jenkins said that Davis has also added a few new wrinkles to safety coverage, employing more Cover 2 looks. For instance, Thurmond’s interception of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in Week 1 came out of a Cover 2 look in the nickel.
The addition of Thurmond, Jenkins said, has given the secondary more versatility.
“It gives me the freedom to be able to go down because they like having him back at safety,” Jenkins said. “He’s another guy that we like to free up and allow him to read the quarterback as well as him being essentially another nickel.”
SMITH LIKELY TO DRESS
Marcus Smith was healthy for the Cowboys game but didn’t dress, Chip Kelly said, because he hadn’t fully participated in a week’s worth of practice.
But it sounds as if the linebacker will finally dress after missing the first game because of a hamstring injury. Smith said he expected to be the third outside linebacker for Sunday’s game at the New York Jets.
“He’s been back training with us for a couple weeks now, and we’ve built him up,” Kelly said. “So he’s been full and I don’t think we’ve seen [that he hasn’t caught up].”
Injuries might play a part in Smith’s activation. The defensive line might be down two ends with Cedric Thornton (hand) already deemed out and Taylor Hurt (shoulder) still ailing. Vinny Curry has been jumping back and forth between end and third outside linebacker.
Smith’s return would allow Curry to move back to the line. He will also have to play on at least two core special-teams units to dress. But the Eagles, more than anything, need their 2014 top draft pick to step up. He’s running out of time to show that he can contribute.
“I just have to focus on me and do what I have to do,” Smith said.