It doesn’t get any easier for Alshon Jeffery. Last week, it was Josh Norman. This week, he’ll spend much of his Sunday afternoon shadowed by Chiefs Pro Bowler Marcus Peters. Next week, it’s Janoris Jenkins and a Giants pass defense that was one of the best in the NFL in 2016. Further down the road are matchups against four of the best man-to-man corners in the NFL: the Cardinals Patrick Peterson, the Seahawks’ Richard Sherman, the Broncos’ Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib.
Against Norman last week, the numbers were modest: seven targets, three catches, 38 yards. But the element that Jeffery brings to the Eagles offense is one of those football things that defies quantification. Flash back to his first catch of the season, midway through the second quarter of Sunday’s 30-17 win over the Redskins. Jeffery ran a quick slant inside Norman, enveloped a Carson Wentz bullet with his hands, then absorbed a hit from safety Deshazor Everett for a 14-yard gain. The play’s positive implications were short-lived — two snaps later, Ryan Kerrigan picked off an ill-advised and ill-executed pass intended for Darren Sproles and returned it for a touchdown — but it still offered some reassurance that the Eagles offense now includes a dimension that it had lacked since the departure of Jeremy Maclin after the 2014 season. Throughout Wentz’s rookie season, how many times did we see similar situations result in a ball squirting onto the turf like a greased watermelon, or, worse, caroming off the hands of a receiver who seemed to have diverted some of his intention to the impending contact. An offense cannot operate at maximum efficiency if the guy responsible for the ball does not have confidence that any of the guys responsible for catching it can do so.
One of the problems that plagued the Eagles during Andy Reid’s early years at the helm was Donovan McNabb’s reluctance to throw the ball to receivers who were not wide open. It was one of the reasons he limited his interceptions, but it was also one of the reasons many drives stalled. Wentz has expressed confidence in Jeffery since the Eagles signed him to a one-year, $9.5 million deal as a free agent this offseason, and the early returns suggest he was not blowing smoke.
The most encouraging throw of that Wentz made in Week 1 might have been an incompletion. On 3rd-and-21 from the Eagles’ 39-yard-line late in the third quarter, Wentz took a deep drop, rolled to his left, and launched a high-arcing throw down the field to Jeffery, who was sandwiched by a pair of Washington defenders. It was a smart play call and a smart throw: an interception would have had the same result as a punt that netted 41 yards. Might as well give Jeffery a chance, right? He almost made the most of it, rising up over Bashaud Breeland and high-pointing the ball before his fall to the turf knocked it loose. Jeffery said after the game that the impact of his elbow striking the ground dislodged the ball, but said that it was the type of contested catch he expects to make.
“I thought I had it for sure before I hit the ground,” he said after the game. “It’s a tough play, but at the same time … I gotta make that. Next time around, definitely make that.”
He was being a bit hard on himself, but that’s also the point: there wasn’t a receiver on the roster last season who would’ve had a chance at converting that catch.
With Jeffery’s ability to make catches in traffic, and Torrey Smith’s ability to stretch the field — you saw the latter on a couple of occasions against the Redskins, though both of Wentz’s passes fell incomplete — the Eagles have two critical components that were absent from last year’s team. Though the two veterans combined for just four catches in Week 1, they clearly opened up the field for guys like Zach Ertz (eight catches, 93 yards) and Darren Sproles (five catches, 43 yards).
“I was trying to be real conscious of trying to — and I don’t want to say forcing balls, but trying to get 17 [Jeffery] involved, getting 82 [Smith] involved, getting 86 [Ertz] involved, along with the runners,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “You know, once we got 17 a couple touches, and then he made another big catch late in the game, and the two-point conversion was huge. He did exactly what we asked him to do and will continue to grow.”
According to Pederson, Jeffery was the first option on the Eagles’ second play of the game, but Norman played on his outside hip and was in perfect position to play the post corner route they had called.
“We just tried a double move on Josh and he kind of had it locked down,” Wentz said. “He made a good read on it.”
Jeffery hasn’t put up great numbers against any of the top-shelf corners he’ll face this season. In his lone matchup against Patrick Peterson, he caught just one pass for 35 yards on four targets. In three games against Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson, he totaled 12 catches on 19 targets for 110 yards and no touchdowns. He has not faced Chris Harris, Aqib Talib, Richard Sherman, or T.J. Carrie. Before Sunday, his lone matchup against Norman came in a game when the Pro Bowl cornerback played just 16 snaps.
This week will be his first matchup against Marcus Peters, a third-year player out of the University of Washington whom the Chiefs selected in the first round of the 2015 draft, two picks before the Eagles grabbed Nelson Agholor.
Do the Eagles need to get Jeffery more involved? No. They need to win games. Whether or not he improves upon last week’s numbers, his mere presence on the field will be a significant factor in the Eagles favor.