The Eagles are reevaluating what defensive backs will play in the nickel defense this week – and perhaps for weeks to come – while Sidney Jones recovers from a hamstring injury. After Jones' injury in Thursday's win over the Giants, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz decided to move Avonte Maddox from safety to slot cornerback and use Rasul Douglas as the deep safety.
"Not ideal going forward," Schwartz said, "but…we'll make the best of what we have each week."
The Eagles used Douglas, who is more of an outside cornerback but has practiced at safety during the last two weeks, because of his experience in the defense. That was especially helpful given the team had limited time to prepare for the New York Giants game on a short week. They chose him over Deiondre' Hall and Tre Sullivan, both of whom are safeties. They decided to move Maddox to the slot because of his background at the position instead of moving starting cornerbacks Jalen Mills or Ronald Darby inside.
With a full week to prepare, the Eagles have a few options they consider. The game plan is usually finalized on Tuesdays and the Eagles return to practice to prepare on Wednesday for Sunday's game against the Carolina Panthers.
Jones is "week-to-week" with his injury, which in Doug Pederson parlance, means he'll miss time. The Eagles also need to factor in the health status of Corey Graham, who missed last week's game with a hamstring injury. Whenever Graham returns, he would be the best option for the nickel safety. But if Graham is out, the Eagles could try Hall or Sullivan in that role. They could continue with Douglas, too. It doesn't sound like the Eagles will use Mills or Darby inside while keeping Maddox in place and playing Douglas as the outside cornerback.
"Because I like both of our corners," secondary coach Cory Undlin said. "The less moving parts, the better. …Avonte had played so many snaps, close to as much as [Jones] had through OTAs and training camp, so that when [Jones] got hurt, there was no question. Avonte knew he was next. The players knew he was next."
Schwartz said the Eagles can help the slot cornerback more than the outside cornerbacks, which was also why they didn't want to move their top two cornerbacks. Maddox, who spent the summer as a slot cornerback, transitioned to safety after Rodney McLeod's knee injury. The Eagles like him at both spots. What's clear is that Maddox will be on the field throughout the game and the Eagles don't believe it's too burdensome for him to move positions from play to play.
"From the time he's got here, there really hasn't been a situation where things were too big for him," Schwartz said. "He's just got a great attitude. When we said, 'Hey, we need you to take some safety reps.' He was like, 'OK.' We said, 'Hey, you have to go in there and play the nickel.' 'OK.' Those guys with that low blood pressure, that serves them well in stressful situations like that. Doesn't serve defensive coordinators well or secondary coaches or anybody else, but those guys on the field, he never bats an eye no matter what you're asking him to do."
The coaches emphasized that playing Douglas at safety wasn't done on a whim. They've been training him for that role and the staff always wants to "cross-train" their defensive backs – especially the reserves. But it's noteworthy they chose Douglas over Hall or Sullivan.
"Rasul's a smart guy, he's been in that room for two years, and he really understands the defense," safeties coach Tim Hauck said. "It was a comfort factor, Rasul's going to go out there and do the right things."
Hall, who joined the team in Week 2, is still adjusting to the Eagles defense. Sullivan, who has bounced between the active roster and practice squad this year, has been in the organization much of the past two seasons, although he hasn't yet proven to be the caliber of play that Douglas is.
No matter who plays safety in the nickel, the defense must adjust. The Eagles benefited from the continuity of having Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod for much of the past two seasons. They went into this season with confidence in Mills, Darby, and Jones as their top three cornerbacks. The nickel formation (five defensive backs) is what the Eagles use the majority of their defensive snaps, so whatever combination the Eagles use this weekend will lack two of the five players they relied upon entering the season. It's why the Eagles are forced to use a lineup that, as Schwartz said, is not ideal.
"Look at our roster, I don't think anything you put out there is going to be ideal," Jenkins said. "But I think we have what we need to be successful. That rotation, that matchup, usually changes every week anyway based on what we have. We have full trust that, within a week's time, we can put in a game plan that will be for advantageous for us."