Murphy: Eagles' glaring shortcoming remains cornerback

WHILE THE Packers spent the first quarter marching down the field against the Eagles defense, Jalen Mills spent it on the sideline. He wore his helmet, and he occasionally bent from side to side and back to front in an attempt to stay loose, but by the time he entered the game for his first shift, the Eagles were trailing, 14-7.

This was an interesting development, given that it was occurring in Week 12 of a season that is increasingly looking as if its legacy will rest somewhere in the future instead of the here and now (read: the postseason). Elsewhere on the field, first-year players Bryce Treggs, Paul Turner and Isaac Seumalo all saw their first significant action of the season. That was mostly due to necessity, but cornerback is hardly exempt from that kind of thing, as Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense showed on their first two possessions. In fact, after Davante Adams caught his second touchdown pass of the night, Mills replaced Leodis McKelvin at left cornerback, and remained there for most of the rest of the game.

The names changed. The results, not so much. Therein lies the point. In a month or so, Doug Pederson, Jim Schwartz and Howie Roseman will sit down and sift through the aftermath of another season out of the playoffs. They will find plenty of reason for optimism, starting with a rookie quarterback who looks every bit the franchise quarterback the Eagles have long sought. At the opposite end of that list will be a position that looks no more promising now than it did in August. The Eagles are several pieces away from Super Bowl convention. But priority No. 1 should be a long-term solution at cornerback.

None of this counts as a bold declaration, except for the other areas that have siphoned off much of the angst supply in recent weeks. The two biggest story lines heading into Monday night's 27-13 loss were the lack of available bodies on the offense line and in the receiving corps, where the Eagles started two backup guards and a backup tackle and used a couple of undrafted rookies in their rotation of receivers.

Yet cornerbacks were the most glaring liability on a night when Adams finished with five catches for 113 yards and the two touchdowns, and Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb combined for 13 catches and 132 yards.

To be fair, the Eagles faced one of the most talented quarterbacks of all time, and Rodgers looked every bit the part while completing 30 of 39 passes for 313 yards. The second of his touchdown passes came via one of the prettier you'll see, the ball dropping into Adams' basket over a stunned Nolan Carroll, who was running stride for stride, with the wideout only yards away from both the sideline and end line.

But let's rewind to his first touchdown pass, which was a simple case of Adams beating his man, as McKelvin turned his hips to the outside at the line of scrimmage and was then crossed over by an inside move that left the Packers' receiver wide open on a slant for a 12-yard touchdown. The problem with this group is that none of them inspires confidence in man-to-man situations. Mills has played about as well as you could hope for a seventh-round draft pick. Problem is, that's a low bar, because seventh-round draft picks tend to be severely deficient in at least one tool, and Mills' deficiency is his recovery speed. In a loss to the Seahawks last week, he almost single-handedly spotted Seattle three points by surrendering back-to-back big plays, a 44-yard catch by Doug Baldwin and a 30-yard catch by Tyler Lockett.

The Eagles have attempted to make do with their flawed cast by rotating Mills and McKelvin at corner. Mills has shown impressive physicality throughout the season, both in run support and in press coverage. But after he entered the game in the second quarter, the Eagles gave him deep help in the form of Jaylen Watkins on virtually every play. That took a man out of the box who earlier was defending against the run and underneath passes, while putting a linebacker on a tight end in man-to-man coverages. That's way less of a limitation when you have a capable cover man on the opposite side of the field.

On the few exceptions Mills didn't have help, Rodgers went deep to Nelson. On the first, Mills was running stride for stride with Nelson and the throw was off. On the second, Nelson had a step and Rodgers through a perfect pass that Nelson simply couldn't handle. On the third, Nelson came down with a 22-yarder.

Heading into Monday, the Eagles had given up 24 passing plays of 24 yards or longer, tied for sixth-most in the NFL. Green Bay's biggest completion was a 50-yard connection from Rodgers to Adams, who beat McKelvin off the line of the scrimmage. But the Packers did most of their damage underneath, thanks in no small part to the cushion their defenders afforded them at the line of scrimmage.

The big concern with the cornerbacks isn't how much of a liability they have proved to be this season, but that they may have yet to reach the bottom of their potential. Even now, after weeks of reflection, it is difficult to understand how these cornerbacks managed to hold the Steelers and Falcons to to a combined 18 points. Perhaps those two victories stand as the ultimate testament to the production Schwartz has gotten out of his front four and his safeties.

Add a legitimate No. 1 cornerback to that mix and everybody gets better: the front four, the safeties, and the other guy playing cornerback. The Eagles are within sight of a dominant defense. Monday night was a reminder of their biggest impediment.


dmurphy@phillynews.com

@ByDavidMurphy