Ronald Darby practiced this past week for the first time since his gruesome ankle injury, and while he isn’t expected to play Monday night in the rematch with the Redskins, his long-awaited return is likely to upgrade an outside-cornerback position that has been one of the few inconsistent spots during the Eagles’ winning streak.
Jalen Mills and Rasul Douglas have held their own. And with the Eagles’ often ahead in games and their run defense forcing offenses into passing situations, the secondary has seen more attempts than any other NFL team. Most cornerbacks would have breakdowns under such a barrage.
But Mills and Douglas have had their share of leaks. Neither possesses elite long speed and their relative inexperience makes them increasingly susceptible against laser-eyed quarterbacks such as Redskins’ signal-caller Kirk Cousins. The youngsters, who have a combined 12 career starts, are going to take their lumps.
It hasn’t yet cost the 5-1 Eagles. But it could be only a matter of when if Darby continues to miss games. It seems almost greedy to question his return. The third-year cornerback dislocated his right ankle early in the second quarter of the opener at Washington, and as his foot dangled in the air, a possible return this season seemed far-fetched.
But Darby didn’t break any bones or suffer any nerve damage, and the original forecast for his return was four to six weeks. The six-week mark is Sunday, and while Darby worked out last week, he did so on a very limited basis. The Eagles listed him as questionable for Monday, but he isn’t likely to dress.
“I’m not thinking that anybody’s trying to rush him back,” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said Friday.
The Eagles didn’t make Darby available to the media this past week.
Coach Doug Pederson revealed Thursday that Darby would return to practice, but he said unprompted that he couldn’t commit to when he would be ready to play.
“With the time off, there’s a lot of things that are involved,” Pederson said. “Conditioning, No. 1, is probably the most important thing. How sore does he get during the week? By no means do I want to rush him back and just say, ‘Hey, we said this is the week, or whatever, let’s go play.’”
So it’s Douglas at right cornerback, and possibly more of slot man Patrick Robinson, for at least another week. And, again, that hasn’t necessarily been a disaster despite what the numbers state. The Eagles are 29th in the league in passing yards allowed per game and 20th in passing yards per play.
Mills, Douglas, and Robinson have also surrendered some of the highest number of catches and yards when targeted on the outside. In 257 snaps, Mills has been targeted 57 times and allowed a league-high 38 catches for 366 yards and three touchdowns, according to Pro Football Focus. Douglas has been targeted 31 times and given up 20 catches for 272 yards and a touchdown in 158 snaps. And Robinson, in 76 snaps, has been targeted 19 times and surrendered 11 catches for 147 yards.
But all three have two interceptions – and have been in position to snatch a few more – and each has tackled well, particularly Mills. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has asked his corners to play a fair amount of off coverage to keep the Eagles from getting beat over the top, and while that has padded some of the stats, the trio has mostly kept receivers in front.
And, bottom line, the Eagles are winning.
“This is the group that we kind of anticipated going into the season with before we traded for Darby,” Jenkins said. “We’re moving along the way we planned to. Obviously, getting Darby back makes us better. But I think we had all the confidence in the world this offseason and this training camp for [the other cornerbacks] to be playing the way that they are.”
But the Eagles’ front office wouldn’t have traded receiver Jordan Matthews and a 2018 third-round draft pick to the Bills had it not been worried about personnel. Douglas wasn’t even active for the opener and Jaylen Watkins got the nod to start ahead of him the following week after Darby’s injury.
When Watkins left the Chiefs game early with a hamstring injury, however, Douglas rose to the challenge. He allowed four grabs on five targets, but he limited Kansas City receivers to just a total of 22 yards. The following week he got his first interception against the New York Giants. But he allowed big plays against the Chargers and lost most of his playing time in base personnel to Robinson.
“The biggest thing is that Rasul has played, and he’s played in some big games, and made some big plays for us, a couple interceptions,” Pederson said. “He’s just getting better. It gives us great depth now at that corner position.”
Jenkins said that Robinson’s move to the outside in base against the Cardinals and Panthers was primarily based on matchups. Schwartz wanted Jenkins in the slot against bigger receivers. But Robinson has been much better when exclusively inside. In 147 snaps, he has been targeted only 17 times and has allowed 10 catches for 144 yards and a touchdown. Both his interceptions have also come from the slot.
“Nobody pitches a shutout as a corner,” Schwartz said. “I mean, it’s incredibly difficult to do. It’s how you respond.”
Darby, whenever he does return, won’t be the antidote to whatever ails the secondary. He has the pedigree and the track record, although he regressed last season and was up and down during this preseason. He’ll slide back opposite Mills and give the Eagles one more battled-tested cornerback.
There’s still hope that second-round rookie Sidney Jones will be cleared to practice in the next month as he continues to recover from an Achilles tendon tear. The Eagles had the option to the corner from the non-football injury list last week. But they chose to keep Jones in protective wrap – for now.
Was he upset?
“Trust the process” was all Jones said.
And patience is a virtue.