In past seasons, the days before a matchup with the Arizona Cardinals would include safety Malcolm Jenkins clamoring for a chance to cover future Hall of Fame wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Jenkins would still like to defend Fitzgerald, but he’s no longer responsible for the opposing team’s slot receivers on a regular basis.
That’s because of the way veteran Patrick Robinson has played for the Eagles.
“The way he’s playing is it gives us no reason to second-guess his ability in there or him being able to match up with any slot receiver at this point,” Jenkins said Wednesday. “I do think there will be some different opportunities. If they go into some four wide-receiver looks, I probably match up with Larry better than any of the other receivers. But that depends on what we get in the game.”
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said most defenses use their slot cornerback on Fitzgerald with a help defender, so it’s not often one-on-one. But the fact that the conversation even includes Robinson shows how much has changed for the Eagles since the beginning of the summer.
When training camp started, Robinson played with the first-team defense as the outside cornerback. It did not go well, and the Eagles traded for Ronald Darby after the first preseason game. Robinson lost his starting job on the outside. It turned into a boon for the Eagles and Robinson. He moved inside to slot cornerback, where he has thrived. After Darby suffered a dislocated ankle in the season opener, the coaches went down the depth chart instead of moving Robinson.
“I think he’s performed at a really high level,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said Tuesday. “He’s really taken that position over. He’s limited his focus to that position. I think that’s helped, also, and has quietly done his job.”
Robinson, 30, is in his eighth season and on his fourth team in four years. Injuries and inconsistencies have kept him from finding a steady home. Robinson can be found by his locker before and after practice, electrically stimulating his leg muscles to help avoid injuries. His performance has benefited from focusing exclusively on the slot, where his quickness and experience are assets.
“I think I’ve played pretty [well], but I know I can play much higher,” Robinson said.
Robinson’s emergence has also changed Jenkins’ role. For most of the past two seasons, Jenkins covered opposing slot receivers. He likes that role because it brings him closer to the ball and allows him to cover and make plays. It was also out of necessity; in 2015, the Eagles traded Brandon Boykin. Last season, Ron Brooks went down with an injury. With Robinson playing the way he is, the Eagles can keep Jenkins at safety.
“It’s something I’m still adjusting to,” Jenkins said. “I’m trying to find and taking advantage of any opportunity that does come – whether it’s a tackle for a loss in the run game, or when I do get put deep, making sure it’s where I need to be. Sometimes I get a little too aggressive when I play deep, looking to make a play. And a lot of times, the ball goes where I should have been.”
The new role hasn’t resulted in eye-popping statistics, because Jenkins is not covering receivers as often. He covers tight ends, but they don’t always run pass routes. He’s more involved in the running game, and he already has two tackles for a loss.
What stands out to Schwartz is how Jenkins is playing given his responsibilities and how he’s adjusted to different players in a depleted secondary.
“He’s taken a lot on himself to stay productive, and I think he’s playing at a higher level than I’ve ever seen him play,” Schwartz said, “and that says an awful lot, because he’s been a good player in this league for a long time.”
If the Eagles needed Jenkins to cover a receiver, Fitzgerald is the type of assignment that fits him best. At 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds, Fitzgerald is a big, physical slot receiver. Jenkins, at 6-feet and 204, has had less success against smaller, shiftier receivers. Fitzgerald has dominated the Eagles, with 50 catches for 845 yards and 11 touchdowns in eight regular season and postseason games. But his least productive outing – and the only one without a touchdown – came when Jenkins covered him in 2015.
The Eagles have a three-safety package, with Corey Graham, who returned to practice after missing two games with a hamstring injury, at safety and Jenkins at slot, but they’ve had success with Robinson in the slot and Jenkins at safety. A four-receiver set could require Jenkins to come down and cover Fitzgerald. The situation will dictate the coverage.
How the Eagles do against the Cardinals’ top receiver could determine the success of the defense on Sunday.
“It can’t just be about Larry Fitzgerald, and it can’t be about one player,” Schwartz said. “If you make it that way, you’re going to be susceptible to other things, and we’ve got to do a better job of not being susceptible to other things.”