The Eagles needed to prepare for last Sunday’s game without cornerback Ronald Darby, and they could play this Sunday against the New York Giants without two more key defensive backs: starting safety Rodney McLeod and Jaylen Watkins, who replaced Darby in the starting lineup.
Both players have hamstring injuries. No official prognosis has been offered, but a league source told the Inquirer and Daily News they could be sidelined for a few weeks.
That means veteran Corey Graham would start at safety in McLeod’s spot, and rookie Rasul Douglas would likely make his first career start in the place of Darby and Watkins. Both players played the bulk of Sunday’s loss to the Chiefs.
“We have confidence in both of those guys,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said Tuesday. “I’m not going to get up and give you the pluses and minuses of every player. …But it was the first experience for Rasul. It was not the first experience for Corey. Corey has been around the block. Rasul stepped in, and I thought he did a good job. He tackled well and made no mental mistakes. That’s a tough duty against what they do offensively from read option, reverses to shovel passes to jet sweeps to all the different stuff, and it’s a lot of moving parts. I was proud of him for that part of it.”
McLeod is the bigger loss of the two, but Graham is the more experienced replacement. One of the key players on the Eagles defense, McLeod plays deep safety, is an effective blitzer, and combines with Malcolm Jenkins for one of the NFL’s best safety tandems. Although Graham whiffed on a tackle on Kareem Hunt’s 53-yard touchdown run last week, the team can be confident in putting him into the lineup. In his 10th NFL season, he has 64 career regular-season starts and has played in 159 regular season games. He started in the Super Bowl, has appeared in the Pro Bowl, and knows Schwartz’s scheme. The Eagles even use a three-safety formation when McLeod is healthy to get Graham on the field, so even if Graham is not McLeod’s equal as a player, he’s as reliable of a reserve as there is.
“He’s an experienced player just like Rodney, smart,” Schwartz said. “Both guys were corners in the past — there’s a lot of similarities. Corey has been around a little bit longer, but we have confidence in both of those guys being able to execute whatever we wanted, and we liked them both enough that we had package to be able to match up some of the offensive stuff with both of those guys on the field.”
There is more pressure on Douglas, considering the third-round pick went from inactive to likely starter in two weeks. The Eagles could always play veteran Patrick Robinson in that spot, but they seem to prefer him at slot cornerback. And Douglas got the nod Sunday over Dexter McDougle, so he would seem to be their best option.
Douglas impressed in his 39 snaps against the Chiefs. He didn’t allow any big plays, played with confidence, and was a sure tackler. His performance was better than how he played at times during the summer. There was always the idea that Douglas would require development, but the injuries have forced him to learn on the fly. The Giants feature two accomplished wide receivers in Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandon Marshall, and Douglas could see time on both.
Beckham, one of the NFL’s elite players, poses a particular challenge. The Eagles keep their cornerbacks on a given side, so Douglas must be ready. Beckham is especially dangerous after the catch, when Douglas’ tackling ability will be key. The Eagles liked the physicality of the 6-foot-2, 209-pound cornerback at West Virginia. Against the Chiefs, Schwartz said, Douglas played with “good anticipation” and “good technique” while in off coverage, which means the Eagles weren’t pressing the wide receivers at the line of scrimmage. That was their coverage of choice Sunday and could be used again this weekend.
“Seemed like every time we did get close to them, we had a ball go over our heads, so we had a very concerted effort to keep them in front,” Schwartz said. “That only works if you make tackles. … We can go play a second down-and-3. It’s hard when it’s a 40-yard chunk or a 50-yard chunk and it’s either a touchdown or the ball is in the red zone.”
This would have been a good week for the Eagles to have Darby, their No. 1 cornerback. When deciding to trade for Darby in the preseason, the Eagles’ decision-makers watched film of Darby matched up against Beckham in 2015. It’s a matchup that could take place in Week 15, but that doesn’t help them Sunday.
What will help the injury replacements is a group of pass rushers who could take advantage of the Giants’ struggling offensive line. When discussing the past Darby-Beckham matchup, Schwartz noted that so many other factors are involved in good coverage. The best way to help Douglas and Graham acclimate to the starting lineup is by pressuring quarterback Eli Manning.
“It’s not just about stopping one guy,” Schwartz said. “It’s about playing good team defense, and if we do that, we’ll be able to exploit some of our better matchups in the game.”
Staff writer Les Bowen contributed to this report.
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