Avonte Maddox is the Eagles’ top corner, heading into Sunday’s divisional round playoff matchup in New Orleans with the top-seeded Saints. He has come so far, so fast, sometimes it’s hard to remember that Maddox is a fourth-round rookie.
In fact, Maddox started the season as a special teams guy, didn’t play his first defensive snap until Week 4 at Tennessee. This is worth keeping in mind, when you see him not quite get the second foot down inbounds on an interception, as was the case last Sunday at Chicago, or when you see him bite on a double move and get burned, as happened a few times later in that game, after the Eagles’ pass rush slowed and Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky had more time to pump-fake and look long.
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“Once I have better eyes, I’ll definitely be fine. I’m going to keep playing the way I play,” Maddox said this week. “Once I get my eyes straight, definitely I’ll be good. ... The double moves are going to come, you’ve just got to have better eyes.”
Saints quarterback Drew Brees will test those eyes, and everything else Maddox carries into his second NFL playoff game.
“It’s football. You play corner, you’re not perfect. Certain things are going to happen,” Maddox said. He said he won’t carry any wounds from Chicago with him to New Orleans. “It’s all about how short your memory is, and mine’s short. … It’s about what you do the next play to make up for it. Definitely don’t let it dwell on me.”
Maddox’s near-interception in the second quarter was ruled a pick initially, overturned on review.
“I knew I had to secure it. I knew I got one down. I thought something else hit, at one point,” Maddox said. “I just gotta work on it; not every day at practice do you work on trying to get your feet down like a receiver.”
As defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has noted, Maddox’s ability to play safety, nickel corner and now outside corner at 5-foot-9, 184 is a big reason why the Eagles are here, instead of well into the offseason vacation they seemed bound for when they fell to 4-6 after their 48-7 loss at New Orleans, Nov. 18.
It has helped that after a season-long shuffle that has involved nine cornerbacks and several safeties, the defensive backfield has stabilized. Since Maddox returned against the Rams from a three-game absence caused by knee and ankle injuries he suffered at New Orleans, he and Rasul Douglas have been outside, with Cre’Von LeBlanc as the nickel, and Malcolm Jenkins and either Corey Graham or Tre Sullivan as the safeties. In dime – which was the setup for most of the Chicago game – all six defensive backs play together.
“You got all your DBs out there,” Maddox said, when asked the advantage of that alignment. “You got all the guys in the back end out there, right up and down this row [of locker stalls], you know you’re out there able to compete and match up with guys that can run.”
Stability has been so elusive this season in the secondary, Maddox said he didn’t want to jinx it by talking about settling in at outside corner.
“I’m not even going to say it; we don’t need none of that,” Maddox said. “If corner is my spot, that’ll be perfect. If I gotta move anywhere else, I can do it.”
But he acknowledged that playing with a set group for several weeks has benefited everyone.
“It helps a lot. Going in, you’ve got guys in spots, you don’t have to worry about moving around, shifting around, playing two spots at once during the game,” Maddox said. “You just focus on what you’ve got to do, your job, and it makes the game a lot easier. … You know how [fellow DBs] play, know their movements, you know you’ve got good communication out there.”
Maddox figures the Saints watched the Bears tape and will give him ample opportunity to be overaggressive.
“Definitely. I know it’s coming. Copycat league,” Maddox said. “And they already ran a lot of double moves before that.”
Maddox said he isn’t thinking yet about how he got here, about his journey from Pitt, from hearing his name called as the 125th overall selection in the draft, to indispensable starter in the second week of the playoffs for the defending Super Bowl champions.
“I’ll think about it when I get done with the season,” Maddox said. “It’s something I’ll reach out to when I’m at home sitting on my couch in the offseason.”
He hopes that won’t be next week.
Doug Pederson said Friday in his final session of the week with reporters that he wanted to see how corner Sidney Jones (hamstring) and wide receiver Mike Wallace (ankle) looked in Friday’s practice before making any decisions about their status for Sunday.
Both players ended up being listed as “questionable,” with only quarterback Carson Wentz (stress fracture in back) listed as “out” for the Eagles.
Jones has missed four games after his latest hamstring flareup. Wallace came off injured reserve the final week of the regular season but still hasn’t played since suffering a broken fibula Week 2 at Tampa. Could they take the field against the Saints?
Jones was listed as a full practice participant Friday, which would seem to make him likely to suit up. Wallace was a partial practice participant. But wide receiver Shelton Gibson also practiced only partially and was listed as questionable, with a hamstring issue. If Jones took over Gibson’s special teams duties, could Wallace go deep a few times with speed, to keep the New Orleans defense honest? We’ll see.
Eagles running back/returner Darren Sproles will play in the Superdome Sunday for the first time since he left the Saints for the Eagles in free agency, in 2014. Sproles was sidelined by a hamstring problem when the teams met there Nov. 18.
“Just ready to get there,” he said Friday, when asked about returning to the city where he starred from 2011 through 2013.
Sproles has been Drew Brees’ teammate in both San Diego and New Orleans.
“We’re real close," Sproles said. "We work out together in the offseason. We’re around each other a lot.”
Sproles said Brees’ intelligence and preparation help make him elite.
“Whatever you show him, he kind of already knows what’s coming,” he said.
Sproles missed 10 games this season with recurring hamstring issues. He has now been back for six games, and last Sunday at Chicago he played 56 percent of the offensive snaps, his season high.