Barring the speedy recovery of Jaylen Watkins or some unforeseen personnel switch, the Eagles’ Rasul Douglas and Jalen Mills will be the youngest starting outside cornerback tandem in the NFL this weekend.
Douglas (22 years old and 24 days) and Mills (23 and 169 days) are a combined 45 days younger than the Saints’ projected starting duo of P.J. Williams (24 and 113 days) and Marshon Lattimore (21 and 125 days).
Injuries to Ronald Darby and Watkins catapulted Douglas, who was inactive for the opener, into the starting lineup. But the rookie responded in the second quarter of Sunday’s loss to the Chiefs and gave up very little — whether he was targeted or not.
“Rasul stepped in, and I thought he did a good job,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “He tackled well and made no mental mistakes.”
The bullets will keep coming at a position that can be unrelenting, but like Mills, who was tossed into the deep end in last season’s opener as a rookie, Douglas only stands to benefit from playing so early in his career.
“It takes a while. The game moves a little fast,” safety Macolm Jenkins said. “Even with Jalen, I thought he played well his rookie year, but if you asked him today how he felt this year compared to last year, the game is probably 10 times slower. But that learning curve and mistakes are still going to happen.”
Douglas and Mills face one of their most difficult tests — as far as receiving talent — when the Eagles host Odell Beckham, Jr. and the New York Giants on Sunday. Neither appeared cowed by the challenge.
“I’m always confident. I feel that I can beat anybody,” Douglas said. “It’s just in me. If you don’t believe you can’t expect Schwartz to go in there and put his job on the line for you.”
Mills walks around with the same swagger. Jenkins called him the most confident player in the defensive backs room.
After many down years without young cornerback talent, the Eagles appear to have some talent to build around. Darby (23 years and 264 days old), who suffered a dislocated ankle in the opener, and rookie Sidney Jones (21 and 123 days), who is likely to miss this season with an Achilles tendon rupture, round out the group of young guns.
“You see a lot of secondaries that started out young — Seattle, Denver,” Mills said. “You see them as young guys and as they grow, they grow together, and they just get better and better with time.”
Douglas, like so many rookies, had a minor crisis of confidence during training camp. After performing well throughout most of spring drills, he struggled with the playbook and processing calls on the fly.
“They were coming fast,” Douglas said. “I would hear one call, process it, and then they would give me another, and by the time I would process it, the ball was snapped. I was in no man’s land.”
But after “wandering around” for a few weeks in camp, as Mills described it, it started to click for Douglas. He buried his nose in the playbook and said that once he knew what to expect, the game started to slow down.
The Chiefs went at Douglas almost immediately after he replaced Watkins, but a short pass to the electric Tyreek Hill netted only five yards after the corner tackled the receiver short of the sticks. Douglas, who finished with four tackles, later broke up a third-down pass out of the slot.
A year ago, Mills was also called upon in his first career NFL game when Leodis McKelvin hurt his hamstring.
“It was the same exact thing,” Mills said. “First play in, they run a comeback on third down and I make the tackle. … It happens so fast that you don’t really get a feeling. Guy goes out and they call your name.”
Douglas wants his name to be remembered, like the other young Eagles cornerbacks he’s competing against.
“We push each other like we’re vets,” Douglas said. “We want to be good. We all want to establish a name in the NFL. I’m a nobody right now, can’t speak for the other ones.”
Head and shoulder
Carson Wentz was asked if had watched any other quarterbacks throw the back shoulder pass. He didn’t give any specific names likely because every quarterback has that throw in his arsenal — at least any one worth his salt.
“You see it all the time,” Wentz said Wednesday. “Good quarterbacks in this league can make that throw.”
They almost have to. It can be an almost-impossible pass to defend if thrown accurately against man-to-man defense. Wentz started to throw it more often late last season, particularly to former Eagles receiver Jordan Matthews.
Matthews is gone, but with the upgrades at outside receiver, Wentz has attempted more back shoulder passes thus far this young season. On Sunday against the Chiefs, he threw four — split between Torrey Smith and Alshon Jeffery — and completed two for 40 yards and a touchdown.
A third could have been caught for another touchdown, but Smith couldn’t pull in a high but catchable toss in the third quarter.
“It just comes down to your guy making a play, giving him a chance, and really being on the same page,” Wentz said of the back shoulder. “That’s something that we worked on and talked about in the offseason. Even when we see it on tape we talk about, ‘Hey, that’s a good look.’ Maybe we didn’t throw back shoulder, but that’s a good look, that’s the time.”
The throw should come against man coverage. The receiver has a “go” or “fade” route with the option to slow and turn back for a pass that is typically on his back shoulder. But there are variants.
“Every back-shoulder throw can be a little different,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. “It can be a true stop route where you actually stop the receiver. It can be truly a back shoulder where he’s still on the run but it’s right on the back shoulder.”
Chemistry is key and that is developed through repetition. The quarterback and receiver need to be on the same page. Wentz will sometimes signal his receiver with a subtle pre-snap hand gesture. But often it’s just a “feel” based on how the receiver is being defended.
“The timing and rhythm of it, seeing the leverage of the defender, trusting it, trusting the receiver, because there’s always the option to still throw it over the top,” Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. “It’s something that you have to trust that the receiver is feeling the same thing that you’re feeling.”
Screen door shut
Dating as far back as Andy Reid’s tenure, the Eagles ran some of the most effective screens in the NFL. Reid, Chip Kelly, and Doug Pederson were simply taking advantage of personnel with running backs, like Brian Westbrook, LeSean McCoy, and Darren Sproles, who were dangerous in space.
But there is much more to pulling off a screen than just the talent of the player with the ball in his hands, as evidenced by the woeful results the Eagles endured on almost all their screens in Sunday’s loss to the Chiefs.
“Timing and execution are everything when it comes to the screen game, and you’re trying to take advantage of the pass rush obviously and/or a man [defense] situation,” Pederson said. “We’ve just got to continue to work it, got to get better at it. It’s a big part of our game.”
The Eagles called for six screens to Darren Sproles and Wendell Smallwood and only one gained positive yards — a 14-yarder to Sproles. Only one of the other five was completed — the first attempt—– but Smallwood was dropped in the backfield for a 3-yard loss when linebacker Ramik Wilson knifed past guard Isaac Seumalo.
Smallwood couldn’t hang onto the next try when the Eagles offensive line failed to account for a Chief, who help force the incompleted pass. The fourth screen proved disastrous when a pressured Carson Wentz attempted to throw the ball away at the feet of Sproles, who had tripped over center Jason Kelce’s foot.
The ball hit the back of linebacker Justin Houston’s helmet and ricocheted to defensive end Chris Jones for an interception.
“They can work really, really well for you, but if they’re a little bit off it can be wasted plays,” Kelce said. “That’s just the way it goes. I think that we had a couple of screens that if they would have hit throughout the game could have been huge plays for us.”
Wentz’s throws were errant on the last two. He threw short of Sproles on the first and over his head on the second.
“There is an art to it to some extent,” Wentz said.
Five questions: Brandon Graham
- If you couldn’t play the position you now play in the NFL, which position would you want to play? Wide receiver. It’s fun on the outside. I know it’s a lot of running, but I would be slim and trim.
- What’s your least favorite part of the week’s practice leading up to a game? The hard day — Wednesday.
- What’s the hardest you’ve ever been hit? Kickoff and [the Packers’] Mike Daniels came and got me … a few years ago. I stayed in, but that was the hardest I ever got hit because I didn’t see him.
- What’s your favorite play you ever made in football? Two weeks ago [when his sack of Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins resulted in a fumble/touchdown]. I ain’t never had a walk-off game like that where I just ended it.
- When did you first think that you were good enough to play in the NFL? My second year in college. I had a three-sack game and I felt like how the game slowed down for me at that point.
Inside the game
Jim Schwartz typically keeps praise to a minimum, but the Eagles defensive coordinator didn’t need to be prompted when he said that he was encouraged by his unit’s discipline.
“I don’t know where we are in the league … but we had two [penalties] in the first game and two in this one, and one was offset and the other one was five yards, so we allowed no first downs,” Schwartz said Tuesday.
While it is early, the Eagles’ three defensive penalties are tied for the fourth fewest in the NFL. They were tied for the sixth most in 2016.
— The Eagles have already rushed linebacker Mychal Kendricks on seven pass plays this season, according to Pro Football Focus. While that may not seem to be many, it’s 26.9 percent of his pass snaps and just one fewer rush than he had last season.
Kendricks rushed eight times on 105 pass plays in 2016. He finished the year with no sacks and two hurries. He already has a sack this season. Kendricks said that it was too early to presume that he’ll blitz more this season.
“I’m just doing it the way it’s drawn up,” he said. “Sometimes it may look like I’m rushing, but I’m just hugging a guy.”
Inside the locker room
Jason Kelce didn’t talk to reporters following the Eagles’ loss to the Chiefs. While he didn’t elaborate why a few days later, it was clear that part of the reason had to do with his brother, Travis, being on the victorious side.
“It’s frustrating. Obviously, you want to win a game against your brother,” Kelce said. “We’re very competitive guys, two years apart.”
Travis Kelce led Kansas City with eight catches for 103 yards and scored the go-ahead touchdown with a 15-yard run and freakishly-athletic leap into the end zone in the fourth quarter.
Two series earlier, guard Isaac Seumalo was called for a false start in the red zone and the Eagles eventually had to settle for a field goal. Jason Kelce said the penalty was his fault.
“Have one Kelce making a mistake in the red zone, another one … jump over for five yards for a touchdown,” Jason said. “That’s a huge shift momentum-wise.”
Earlier, Travis Kelce was penalized 15 yards when he taunted the Eagles’ sideline following Kareem Hunt’s 53-yard touchdown run.
“I didn’t even know that it happened until after,” Jason said. “I think he was just yelling in my general direction, probably. That’s what I would bet.”
By the numbers
Number of fumbles by Carson Wentz over the last two seasons — most in the NFL. He has lost four of the fumbles.
Number of batted passes by Wentz over the last two seasons – tied for second most in the NFL.
Average seconds it takes for Wentz to throw this season – third longest in the NFL.