Eagles' top CB was nearly cut in camp

USA Today Images

Eagles' top CB was nearly cut in camp

On a team with countless improbable stories, Patrick Robinson might be the most improbable.

With his fourth team in four years. Turned 30 earlier this season. Had a dreadful training camp. Was so bad in the summer he was moved to a new position.

And here he is, enjoying perhaps his best season as a pro on one of the NFL's best defenses.

“It’s very rewarding," Robinson said Wednesday. "Around my age, you start to get those, ‘Oh, he’s getting older, he’s slowing down.’ People just assume that you’re going to slow down.

"So right now I’m just trying to prove I’m still good. I’m still running as fast as I’ve ever been. Still as quick as anybody in the league. I’m definitely not slowing down."

Robinson on Monday night tied his career high of four interceptions, set with the Saints back in 2011. He's the first Eagles' cornerback with four INTs in a season since Brandon Boykin had seven in 2013 and only the second Eagles' cornerback in his 30s with four INTs in a season since 1960. Sheldon Brown had five in 2009.

On a team loaded with promising young corners — Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills, Rasul Douglas and Sidney Jones are all 23 or younger — Robinson has given the Eagles a steady presence, secure tackling, timely playmaking and veteran leadership.

“I think it’s one of my best seasons," said Robinson, now in his ninth NFL season. "Starting off the way I did, it definitely makes me feel great about how far I’ve come."

Robinson was so bad this preseason and in training camp, it wouldn't have been a shock if the Eagles released him. If Jones were healthy, they probably would have.

"I started off slow but didn’t really worry about what people were saying and just kept working," he said. "Never got down. 

"At camp, as far as people getting on me, I didn’t know, I don’t pay attention to the media. I just knew what I had to do to be successful in this defense and that’s keep grinding, keep working on what I have to work on, and that’s what I did."

Robinson's turnaround began when defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz moved him from the outside, where he was struggling so badly, to the slot after the Eagles acquired Darby from the Bills two weeks into training camp.

Suddenly, Robinson looked comfortable and began making plays. And he hasn't stopped since.

"Patrick is a different kind of player, and it gives us the ability to when we have maybe a smaller, quicker guy, we can use Patrick in (the slot)," Schwartz said. "When we have a bigger, more physical guy, we can use Malcolm. He's a good complement to the other guys. He's played some good quality snaps for us outside this year, too.

"Starting in that first game when Darby went down, he went in and played some good-quality outside snaps for us. But he's really sort of taken that nickel spot and given us good consistent play there."

Although he's not technically a full-time starter — he's started eight of 15 games — Robinson has played 45 snaps per game, fifth-most on the defense and fourth-most among all the defensive backs.

He said he embraced the move from outside corner to the slot and the challenges it presented.

“It didn’t really matter to me," he said. "I just wanted to win. That’s all that mattered."

And the Eagles have won 13 of 15 games, earning the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoff bracket with a meaningless game against the Cowboys at the Linc remaining.

Playing in the slot requires a specific skill set, and Robinson has turned out to be a terrific fit.

"You definitely have to have great eyes," he said. "You have to be on point every play. Whether it’s a play-action pass or you’ve got to run out to the flat or cover the guy or if it’s a run and you have two guards coming your way and making sure you fit where you’re supposed to fit.

"And it’s a lot more physical."

At 30 years old, Robinson knows he has to take care of himself more than ever to continue playing at a high level deep into the season at such a physical position.

“Really it's just about being consistent with your body," he said. "Sometimes guys start off pretty good with their body, cold tub every day, but as the year goes along they start slacking off and get a little lazy.

"For me, I stay in the weight room, I stay in the training room, and I try to stay consistent with that."

This is the first winning team Robinson has played on since that 2011 season with the Saints, who went 13-3 and lost to the 49ers in the conference semifinals.

That makes all of this even more special.

"Absolutely," he said. "That’s the most important part of it for me. I just want to win. Everything’s a lot better when you win. I think I made the best choice. Everything’s going pretty good and I want to keep it like that."

Robinson is playing on a one-year, $775,000 deal, which is minimum wage for a player with his experience.

With Jones, Darby, Douglas and Mills all under contract for 2018, Robinson's future in Philly is uncertain.

But with his first playoff game in six years just over two weeks away, that's the last thing on his mind.

“I’m just doing my job right now," he said. "I’m not worried about that right now. When the time comes, I’ll do what I’ve got to do. It’s a business at the end of the day, and we’ll handle business at the end of the season."

These 4 Eagles want another serving or two

AP Images

These 4 Eagles want another serving or two

It took Nigel Bradham six years in the NFL before he got a chance to play in his first playoff game. 

He's not taking any of this for granted. 

"It's funny, man, because you think, 'Damn, I've been playing in the league six years and this is my first appearance,'" Bradham said this week as the Eagles prepare for Sunday's NFC Championship Game. "You kind of be like, 'Dang, man, why'd it take so long?' It's more than just you, obviously. It's a team sport. I've been fortunate enough to be on a great team and to have the opportunity. 

"Right now, I'm 1-0 and I'm looking forward to having more success in the playoffs. It's definitely an amazing feeling."

Bradham isn't the only Eagles player in a similar situation. Stefen Wisniewski, in his seventh season, and Rodney McLeod and Alshon Jeffery, both in their sixth seasons, all played in their first playoff game last Saturday against the Falcons. 

The group, which had a combined 369 regular-season games without a playoff appearance, finally got a taste of the postseason. They're not ready for this ride to end. 

Because no one ever really knows how long it might take to get back. 

"The feeling was great," McLeod said. "To go out there, first playoff game, at home and come out with the win. Couldn't ask for a better story. 

"But now knowing that game is history and moving on to the Vikings, who are a great team and they've been like that all year. We're going to have to elevate our game even more than last week if we want to get to that next step. The road to the Super Bowl doesn't get easier."

All four definitely made their impact felt against the Falcons last Saturday. Bradham played well all game and came up huge on the final fourth down. McLeod was called for a personal foul, but it was a weak call and either way, it saved a touchdown. Jeffery caught four passes for 61 yards, including some that came in huge situations. And Wisniewski played his best game since joining the Eagles two years ago. 

Jeffery called the atmosphere at the Linc against the Falcons "electric" and expects the same type of level from fans this Sunday in the NFC Championship Game. 

"I just try to stay in the moment, stay locked in," Jeffery said about his first playoff run. "I'm not trying to reflect on anything right now. I think I'll do that after the season, when the season is officially over with. Right now, I'm just trying to do a great job trying to stay locked in one day at a time." 

It's pretty clear it meant a lot to Jeffery to finally make it to the playoffs, but he's also very clearly not happy with just getting there. He's always a calm guy during the week, but it's obvious he's working to keep his emotions in check. 

"Of course, we all know we're one game away from the Super Bowl," Jeffery said, "but you just have to be relaxed and try to not go out there and think about that." 

Of course, these four players aren't the only first-timers the Eagles have in the playoffs. They have many more. It's just that these four had to wait the longest. 

In the week leading into the Falcons game, head coach Doug Pederson admitted he of course wondered how his first-timers would perform under the bright lights of the playoffs. Based on one win, he got a pretty quick answer. 

One thing is for sure: the four guys who had to all wait at least six seasons for their first taste of the playoffs will do almost anything to keep this going. 

"This is what we worked for," Bradham said. "When you go back to OTAs and all your training and doing everything in the offseason with the guys, 7-on-7 and things like that. This is what it's all for. You put all that work in, man, and you know what's on the line. We all are excited. We're just ready to go out here and play."

5 key Eagles matchups vs. Vikings

5 key Eagles matchups vs. Vikings

The Eagles are just one game away from heading back to the Super Bowl. 

There's just one team standing in their way: the second-seeded Vikings. 

The Vikings probably feel pretty lucky to be in the NFC Championship Game after it took a miracle on the last play to get past the Saints, but they're not just one win from the Super Bowl — they're one win from playing a Super Bowl in their own stadium. It's hard to imagine a team needing any more incentive to get to the biggest stage in the world, but the chance to play at home could be it. 

The biggest story on the Vikings is Case Keenum, who came in as the backup and has played out of his mind all season. Everyone has waited for him to come back to Earth and it hasn't happened yet. The Eagles will need to keep him in check, but there are other matchups that might loom even larger.

Here's a look at five of them: 

Alshon Jeffery vs. Xavier Rhodes
Jeffery didn't have a catch in the divisional round game until the final drive of the second quarter, but it was a huge 15-yard catch that put the Eagles into field goal range. He then heated up in his first-ever playoff game and finished with four catches for 61 yards to lead the Eagles in receiving. Jeffery hasn't been the volume receiver many fans probably hoped for when he signed, but he is clearly their best receiver and has made some big plays this season. 

Jeffery is certainly familiar with the Vikings. Because of his time in Chicago, Jeffery has faced them nine times in his career. He has 45 catches for 685 yards and seven touchdowns against them. He has more touchdown catches against them than any other team. Three of his seven best career games have come against the Vikings. 

But Rhodes is pretty damn good. He's arguably the best cornerback in the NFL and has been a shutdown guy all year. 

These two have had their battles. In eight games against each other, Jeffery has been targeted 32 times, according to ProFootballFocus. He has 19 catches for 235 yards and a touchdown. But Rhodes has won his battles too; he has one pass defensed and two interceptions while covering Jeffery. 

"We had some good battles," Jeffery said. "He's a great competitor. We like to compete against one other. Strong, physical. I look forward to the battle." 

Jerick McKinnon vs. Eagles' linebackers
The Eagles have the best run defense in the NFL, so maybe the key to this game isn't stopping Latavius Murray, the Vikings' best running back. The bigger test will probably be against McKinnon, who is a receiving threat out of the backfield. 

Sure, the Eagles lucked out by not having to worry about the Saints' Alvin Kamara, but McKinnon can be a handful as a receiver too. This season he caught 51 passes for 421 yards and two touchdowns. Though, he caught just three passes for six yards against the Saints last week. 

At times, the Eagles have struggled to cover running backs. This will fall on all their linebackers, but Mychal Kendricks is the one to keep an eye on. Kendricks has great straight-line speed, but him covering running backs 1-on-1 will always be a mismatch. He struggles with their lateral play. 

Halapoulivaati Vaitai vs. Everson Griffen 
Unlike many of the top pass-rushers in the NFL, Griffen doesn't primarily rush against the right tackle. That has been an advantage for the Eagles throughout most of this season because right tackle is where All-Pro Lane Johnson resides. It'll be up to "Big V" to slow down Griffen, who had 13 sacks this season. 

Over the last four seasons, Griffen has 43½ sacks. Over the past four seasons, just three players (Von Miller — 48.5, Ryan Kerrigan — 47, Chandler Jones — 46.5) have more sacks than Griffen. Griffen had one sack against the Saints in the divisional round, while Vaitai played well against the Falcons. 

"We've faced some tremendous defensive ends all season long and this will be [Vaitai's] greatest challenge in this game," Doug Pederson said. "But I have a lot of confidence in V and what he's done this season and he'll get a good week of preparation and be ready to go."

Joe Berger vs. Fletcher Cox
Cox had a monster game against the Falcons after putting some extra pressure on himself heading into that one. He told NBC Sports Philadelphia that as the highest-paid unit on the team, the defensive line needed to step up. The group did and Cox was at the forefront of that. He has the ability to wreck games and the Eagles are going to need another elite performance from him on Sunday night. 

This season, Berger gave up three sacks, two QB hits and 18 QB hurries, according to ProFootballFocus, so Cox will have some opportunity to get after Keenum. But Cox also needs to continue to be stout in his run defense. 

Pederson said Cox was a "man on a mission" against the Falcons. The Eagles need him to bring it again. 

Jay Ajayi vs. Vikings' run defense
Ajayi finished the game against the Falcons with 98 yards from scrimmage, but that's actually lower than what he probably should have had. After one quarter, Ajayi had already rushed for 49 yards on seven attempts. The Eagles got away from Ajayi in the second quarter, which Pederson said was just a flow-of-the-game situation, but it would make sense for them to use him against the Vikings on Sunday. 

The problem is that it won't be an easy game for Ajayi. While the Eagles had the best rushing defense in the NFL this season — giving up 79.2 yards per game — the Vikings weren't far behind at 83.6. They held the Saints' two-headed rushing attack of Kamara and Mark Ingram to a combined 68 yards and held the entire Saints team to just 80 yards on the ground. Now, a big part of that was that the Vikings got up early and forced the Saints to pass their way back into the game. But they're still nasty against the run. 

The good news for Ajayi is the way he picked up yards against the Falcons should be at least somewhat sustainable against the Vikings or any team. Of his 54 rushing yards, 39 came after contact, according to ProFootballFocus. Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount were excellent after contact this season. Ajayi averaged 2.8 yards after contact per attempt, while LeGarrette Blount averaged 3.6, the third-best average in the NFL.