Ronald Darby learned a valuable lesson last week: Never take an NFL opponent lightly.
Cliché as it may sound, Darby's fourth-quarter interception to set up the Eagles' game-winning field goal against the Raiders was a product of the cornerback's work in the film room. It was also a level of effort the third-year veteran wouldn't necessarily have put in against an inferior opponent were it not for his embarrassing performance against the Giants.
"Last week taught me you should never overlook an opponent," Darby said after the Eagles' 19-10 victory over the Raiders (see breakdown). "I don't care who it is.
“Knowing that the Giants didn't have their starting receivers, at the end of the day, those dudes get paid in the league just like me. I feel like I underprepared, and I didn't take it seriously, and that's what happens when you mess around.”
Darby came under fire for his performance against a 2-13 Giants squad that threw for 431 yards. The 23-year-old defensive back was only part of the problem but was among the players singled out afterward.
Determined to not draw that kind of criticism again, Darby studied up on the 6-8 Raiders closely. With 57 seconds remaining in a tie game and quarterback Derek Carr trying to move his team into scoring position, Darby's knowledge of the tendencies of wide receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree paid off.
"Coop is one of the hardest dudes in the league to get your hands on off the line," Darby said. "As the game was going on, I was trying to study his releases. It's different on film when you're lined up in front of them, he and Crabtree.
“On film, I noticed when they ran their slants in press, they start off slow, then try to pick up, and then boom — hit that one step to get you to overcommit and get back under you. So when it started out slow, I just stayed square the whole time, and when he made that step, boom, I just flipped and then looked for the ball, and I caught it.”
Six plays later, the Eagles kicked the go-ahead field goal, and the defense was able to close the game.
It was exactly the kind of play Darby may not have come up with earlier in his career. And it was those types of missed opportunities in the clutch that may have led the Bills to trade him to the Eagles back in August.
"At Buffalo, I was making a lot of plays," Darby said. "I just wasn't finishing them.
“That's something I talked about in training camp when they were like, 'I had a down year.' My down year was I wasn't finishing on plays. I dropped like five picks last year. This year I made sure I focused on that.”
You could go so far as to say Darby is feeding off of the criticism.
“It's great," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. "It's what these guys do, and what he does. They use it as a little motivation, probably a little fuel. It lights a fire.”
The pick was Darby's third of the season. It's a new career high despite his playing in only seven games so far because of an ankle injury. As for Carr, he managed just 140 passing yards against this vastly improved Eagles secondary.
More importantly, the turnover helped the Eagles pull out a hard-fought victory and clinch the top playoff seed in the NFC — on Christmas Day, no less (see Roob's observations).
“That play he had today will go down in the history books of Christmas miracles," Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "To have the situation where it's not really looking that good and you come up with an interception, and almost scored on it, we needed that play.”
It can all be traced back to Darby's outlook leading into the game, which was decidedly down in the dumps after the previous contest.
Darby wound up apologizing last week after going on Twitter to rant about his critics. In the end, he realized there was some truth to it and altered his approach accordingly.
As it turned out, the Eagles sorely needed Darby's change of mindset Monday. Without it, they likely wouldn't have been able to pull out another close one.
"Last week, our offense was carrying us," Darby said. "We were playing like trash, playing horrible. This week, our offense was making little mistakes, and we had to come out there and make some plays.
“It's a team effort. One side of the ball isn't always going to be perfect.”