CARSON, Calif. — Things have fallen apart and been put back together quickly for the Eagles defensive backfield during this young season. It has to be that way for a team that lost one starting cornerback, then another combination back, and finally found itself putting a rookie on the lonely piece of property on the outside where the best receivers wait to test them.
For Rasul Douglas, the speed has been particularly blurring. He was inactive in the season opener, played but didn’t start when Ronald Darby went out due to an injury, and then went into the lineup against the Giants when Jaylen Watkins was also lost.
It is one thing to feel prepared for the moment, but it is another to actually experience it. Douglas did well against New York, but Sunday against the Chargers he was picked on by a veteran quarterback who was very sure which guy was the rookie.
“Hall of Fame quarterback,” Jalen Mills, the starting corner on the other side, corrected. “At every position, if you’re a rookie, everybody knows it. The quarterback knows it, and you’re going to get tried.”
The education of Rasul Douglas wasn’t always pleasant on Sunday for the 22-year-old from West Virginia taken in the third round of the draft. But it was necessary.
“I learned how to stick through it and grind it out,” Douglas said. “Plays are going to happen, but you have to come back and make some plays of your own. Believe me, I’m going to critique myself the hardest.”
The Eagles aren’t a rookie team, but they are young for the most part. Like Douglas, they are learning to pick their way through these games and survive. A year ago, they were 1-6 in games decided by seven points or fewer. After just four games of this season, they are 2-1 in those games, including the last two games.
“We’re finishing better,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said, “but we’ve still got a ways to go.”
Against the Chargers, the Eagles defense didn’t get much pressure on quarterback Philip Rivers, perhaps because Fletcher Cox was missing from the middle of the line. In any case, that put extra work on the linebackers and defensive backs, and Rivers had himself a pretty decent day. He had five completions that went for 20 yards or more and racked up 215 of his 347 passing yards on those five plays alone.
Two of three biggest — a 75-yarder to Tyrell Williams for a touchdown and a 49-yarder to Keenan Allen that set up a field goal — came in the second quarter and both targeted Douglas. He bit on outside moves on both plays and it could have been that he expected safety help on at least the first one, but nevertheless. Those two plays helped account for all 10 Chargers points in the first half and kept the game close.
“That’s on me, nobody else. If there’s a catch on my side, it’s my fault. We’re into accountability here,” Douglas said. “I play the hardest position out there. I’m going to give up catches. I’m going to give up touchdowns. That’s normal. You can’t show me a cornerback that doesn’t do it.”
True enough, but on this afternoon, what happened in the first half assured that the test would continue in the second, and it did. River kept going after Douglas, and had some success, but the rookie and the rest of the defense did just enough to get a road win.
“He gave up a couple, but he kept fighting. That’s the biggest thing,” Malcolm Jenkins said. “They want to see how you’re going to handle it, and I thought he stayed in the game, stayed locked in. Obviously, he’ll have some things to learn from it.”
It’s standard to hear teams echo the next-man-up mantra when injury takes a player off the field and a reserve has to take his spot. That’s a handy phrase and they have to believe it in order to remain confident. But there’s usually a reason that the next man up wasn’t up to begin with. In the case of Douglas, it was because he was a rookie. After two starts, he’s still a rookie, but learning quickly.
“My teammates, no matter what happens, have faith in me,” Douglas said. “They kept talking me through it. I tend to let plays keep going even when they are over. Malcolm will be like, ‘Let’s go. That play already happened.’ As a rookie on that island, you will be tested. I’m just glad we got the win.”
It was one of those games that might have gone the other way a year ago. Maybe they are more comfortable with who they are, so that the prospect of failure doesn’t shake them in those moments that make the final difference. The rest of the season will answer that.
Rasul Douglas was shaken a couple of times on Sunday, but he wasn’t defeated. Neither was the team. The two things are probably related. At least for the moment, the Eagles think so.