With safety Cre’Von LeBlanc getting close to making a return to the Philadelphia Eagles’ secondary rotation, it’s important to note that the group will be at full strength for the first time in more than a year.
Furthermore, the success of the Eagles’ defense over the last month has a lot (or maybe everything) to do with one piece after another being added back.
After spending most of the first half of the season without starting cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby and slot corner Avonte Maddox, the back end wasn’t holding up and opponents were taking advantage.
Darby (hamstring) missed four straight games from Sept. 26 through Oct. 20. Maddox (neck) was injured in a Week 4 game at Green Bay and couldn’t return until Nov. 3 against Chicago. Mills (foot) missed the first six games of the season.
When he did return, in a Week 7 meltdown at Dallas that ended in a 37-10 loss, Maddox and Darby were still out, and the defensive backfield was still being patrolled by the likes of cornerback Orlando Scandrick and safety Andrew Sendejo, both of whom have since been deemed expendable and cut.
But since that fateful game in Dallas, the Eagles have allowed no more than 17 points in any of their four games. Balls no longer fly over their heads for deep completions with the same frequency. The tackling, despite Darby’s shortcomings, is better. So is the communication.
Darby returned the week after the Dallas loss, and the Eagles won, 31-13, at Buffalo. Maddox came back the following week in a 22-14 victory over Chicago. Losses of 17-10 to New England and 17-9 to Seattle followed.
But at least they are able to stop opponents now. They’ve allowed fewer points over their last four games (61) than they did in the two right before that (75), and suddenly they rank 12th in the league in pass defense, allowing 231.8 yards through the air per game, after starting October being ranked dead last.
Not coincidentally, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz also feels more confident dialing up blitzes than his default setting, which is to play with a numbers advantage in coverage whenever possible.
Having a full complement of cornerbacks he can rely on gives him a lot more confidence than he had when his unit was struggling.
In their last game, the Eagles sacked Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson six times. Four of those came on blitzes.
“I put an extreme amount of pressure on the corners in this last game,’’ Schwartz said. “I mean, it’s hard to play Russell Wilson and try to contain not only the passing game, but all his scrambles, unless your corners are going to have to shoulder an extremely heavy burden. We also knew going into the game that they weren’t going to be perfect. Our message to those guys was, `You give up a completion, bounce right back and compete the next play,’ and I thought those guys did a good job with that.
“I think the other thing with blitz is, it’s never just one guy. It’s everybody doing their job within the scheme. All 11 guys need to execute or you can look bad in blitz, whether it’s a physical mistake or a mental mistake. I like where we’ve been going that way.”
Said Maddox: “It definitely helps a lot having the whole secondary back. You’ve got guys that can move around and play different positions, so you get to play tighter coverage.”
LeBlanc, who’s still on the injured reserve list but practicing for the first time since training camp after the Eagles opened the 21-day window for a final decision on his status, would represent the final piece, which presumably would allow Schwartz to play four corners in his dime package, instead of three corners and three safeties.
That would make the back end all that much more formidable and perhaps make the Eagles true NFC East title contenders heading into December