ARLINGTON, Texas – Ronald Darby knew the Cowboys were going to challenge him Sunday night.
He hadn’t played in a game in more than two months, since dislocating his right ankle against Washington in Week 1. He was, by his own admission, a little rusty.
“I expected them to come after me,’’ the Eagles cornerback said after the 37-9 win over Dallas. “I went into the game knowing I was going to get tested. It was either show up or get exposed.’’
The Cowboys found out early which one it was going to be. On their second possession, they drove down the field and had a second-and-9 at the Eagles’ 11. Dak Prescott threw a quick pass to wide receiver Dez Bryant on the left side. Darby, the only player standing between Bryant and the end zone, made a nice one-on-one tackle in space, holding Bryant to a 2-yard gain.
On the next play, Prescott went after Darby again, throwing a fade to Bryant in the end zone. Darby knocked the pass away, and the Cowboys settled for the second of Mike Nugent’s three field goals, which accounted for all of Dallas’ points.
“I was feeling they were going to try my [butt]. I was feeling it in my head,” Darby said. “Like, the whole stadium probably knew it.
“When he did it, I just stayed disciplined, looked over my shoulder, made sure [Bryant’s] back shoulder wasn’t coming [back to the ball]. And then I just went up and attacked the ball. I kind of regretted it afterward. I probably should’ve gone up for it [and tried for the interception]. But hey, I’ll get it next time.’’
Actually, Darby got it a short time later. On a third-and-17 in the second quarter, Prescott went to Bryant again. But feeling pressure from rookie defensive end Derek Barnett, who had sacked him just two plays earlier, Prescott underthrew Bryant and Darby picked off the pass.
It was one of three Prescott interceptions Sunday, and that’s just one fewer than the Cowboys quarterback had thrown in the previous nine games.
In addition to the three picks, the Eagles also sacked Prescott four times, twice by Barnett, including a strip that linebacker Nigel Bradham returned 37 yards for the Eagles’ final touchdown.
Prescott ended up with a career-low 30.4 passer rating. Darby and the Eagles held him to 4.7 yards per attempt.
Bryant was targeted 14 times and had eight catches, but for only 63 yards.
“We knew they were going to test him,’’ the Eagles’ other starting corner, Jalen Mills, said of Darby. “That’s what you’re supposed to do in the NFL. A guy comes back from injury, you test him.
“That play he made in the end zone, that was big. It gave us a big lift. Set the tone for the game.’’
Besides being rusty, Darby also had to adjust to being moved from the left side to the right. He has spent most of his career on the left side, but defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz decided to keep Mills on the left and move Darby.
“It was a little different — I ain’t gonna lie,’’ Darby said. “But cornerback is cornerback. I’m still a little rusty. I felt it on certain drives.
“When you sit out two months and come back, you’re not going to be on the same level as the rest of these boys right away. I just made sure I ran to the ball and played fast.’’
Getting Darby back is a big boost for the Eagles. He’s their best cover corner. The secondary played very well in his absence as Schwartz switched to more off-coverage, with the emphasis being on the defensive backs’ keeping the ball in front of them and limiting yards after the catch rather than denying the receiver the ball.
With Darby back, they can be more aggressive. He gives them somebody who can go mano-a-mano with elite receivers such as Bryant.
Darby and the secondary got help Sunday from the Eagles’ front four, which did a good job of keeping Prescott in the pocket and not letting him get outside. And on the few occasions when he did, linebacker Mychal Kendricks came up quickly and forced him to get rid of the ball.
“That was the No. 1 part of the game plan,’’ defensive end Chris Long said of keeping Prescott in the pocket.
“He’s a dynamic player. A playmaker. He throws on the run as well as anybody. Keeping him in the pocket allowed our DBs to do a great job. Then our rush got to him when they had to open things up” after the Eagles took the lead.
Darby said he played more than he thought he would in his first game back.
“I thought at first I was going to be eased back into everything,’’ he said. “In practice, I had been trying to focus on getting my endurance up. I threw up a few times in practice. It was hard at first. I had been on a scooter for like three weeks [when he was recovering from his ankle injury].
“I had to try and get my feet back under me. Especially on the right side. I had to adjust fast.’’
Said Mills: “His whole week of preparation, he was practicing hard. He was going all-out. That’s what you want to see. Him coming back and playing the way he did was very big for us.’’