With 'luxury' of versatility, Eagles to use variety of slot corners this season

With 'luxury' of versatility, Eagles to use variety of slot corners this season

Who's the Eagles' slot corner this year?

Simple answer: Patrick Robinson.

More accurate answer: A whole bunch of people. Depending on a whole bunch of factors.

In Year 2 under Jim Schwartz, things are changing. Getting more complex. And one major change comes at nickel, where Schwartz said the fifth defensive back in clear passing downs could change several times within a game.

"Last year, it was (whoever) played the nickel was more of a game decision," Schwartz said. "If Malcolm was playing the nickel, he was going to play it pretty much the whole game, where this year we potentially have the ability to get in and out of (formations) within games, as opposed to just for that one game."

In other words, Robinson might be listed as the Eagles' starting nickel corner. But depending on the opponent's personnel, the score, the down and distance and several other factors, Robinson, Dexter McDougle, Jaylen Watkins, Corey Graham or even Jenkins could be manning the slot.

Why is this so important? Because nickel has really become the Eagles' base defense. Last year, the Eagles had five or more defensive backs on the field on 696 of 978 plays, or 71 percent.

As the NFL has evolved more and more into a passing league, the nickel has become more and more prevalent. Teams generally play five D-backs twice as much as they did a decade ago. And the Eagles like their options this year.

“It’s all about matchups," Jenkins said. "Just in our division, you’ve got (Jamison) Crowder, you’ve got Odell Beckham, who’s in the slot sometimes, you have (Sterling) Shepard, and then you’ve got (Cole) Beasley.

"So the body types change week-to-week and so sometimes that guy in the slot might be a tight end type of body, it might be a shifty route runner, it might be a team’s No. 1 receiver, and you need enough guys who are versatile enough to play that position, and I think that’s one of the advantages we have. We have guys who can move in and out of positions."

The Eagles open the season at 1 p.m. Sunday against the Redskins at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.

It will be our first chance to see a new Eagles secondary — Jalen Mills is the only cornerback remaining from last year's opening-day roster. And our first chance to see how the Eagles' new slot system works.

Crowder, the Redskins' regular slot receiver, had 67 catches for 847 yards and seven touchdowns last year. He caught five passes for 89 yards in the Redskins' two wins over the Eagles.

“I think he does everything well," Jenkins said. "He runs his routes really well, he’s patient, he does the dirty work for them, he blocks, he’s running across the field, down the field, he’s running their option routes, and he’s just a tough guy.

"For him not to be that big, he’s a scrappy player, good with the ball in his hands after the catch, and he’s a reliable target for (Kirk) Cousins. He’s one of those guys we definitely have to circle every time we play them."

When training camp began, Ron Brooks was the incumbent slot guy. He played in 76 percent of the snaps the first five weeks of last year before getting hurt. But he was released, leaving Robinson as the de facto No. 1 slot corner going into Washington.

“If we're playing one of those small quick guys, then I’ll be in there most of the time," Robinson said. "If we've got a team that has two really good receiving tight ends, we might have bigger guys in the slot. It's all going to depend on the matchups.

“You got quick guys, shifty guys, big guys, crafty guys, all kinds of guys playing slot (receiver). You definitely need a (defensive back) who’s going to be on point with everything he’s going to do."

Robinson struggled early in training camp but finally got comfortable when he moved from the outside to the inside. It was his progress in the slot that made Brooks expendable.

“That’s just me being here longer and getting more comfortable," he said. "Knowing the defense as far as my assignment.

"Since the spring, I've definitely gotten better. I’ve gotten better slowly but I’ve definitely gotten better over the past couple months."

The slot corner doesn't need the same sort of speed as outside corners but does need some safety traits because he needs to be physical, play the run and defend bigger, stronger receivers.

“In the slot, you definitely have to think fast and you have to recognize formations a lot faster," Robinson said.

"You have to be strong enough to take on a fullback or something like that, but your eyes have to be really good. You have to be really focused on formations and really tuned in to technique and your assignment."

Schwartz said the Eagles will go into Washington with six different secondary formations, more than last year. The versatility of newcomers like Robinson, Graham and McDougle allows it.

So who's the slot? Robinson is.

And McDougle. And Watkins. And Mills. And Graham. And Jenkins. And who knows what else Schwartz has up his sleeve.

"Versatility is always the way to go because the one thing that’s always consistent in the league is injury," Jenkins said.

"So while you might start out with (one formation), you’re one rep away from putting in another player and if the drop off is too far, you can’t get away with it. Right now, we’re confident in a lot of different guys at that position, and that’s a luxury.”

LeGarrette Blount advises Eagles to 'stay humble' after 5-1 start

LeGarrette Blount advises Eagles to 'stay humble' after 5-1 start

With a 5-1 record, the Eagles sit all alone atop the division and conference standings, and are tied for the best mark in the NFL. Their quarterback was recently given the best odds of winning the league’s Most Valuable Player award. So, yes, right now, a trip to the Super Bowl seems to be very much on the table for this squad.

But take it from LeGarrette Blount, somebody who’s won a couple of world championships — the Eagles can’t afford to get caught up in the hysteria right now.

“We could lose 10 in a row,” Blount said Tuesday. “We could go 6-10, so we don't want to jump the gun, jump to conclusions. We want to make sure we take it week by week, day by day, keep a level head and make sure we're going to be ready for whoever the next opponent is.”

Blount is one of only five Eagles players with a Super Bowl ring, and the only member of the roster who owns multiple. The veteran running back won two of the last three years with the New England Patriots organization, which has been a perennial championship contender for the better part of the last two decades.

In other words, Blount knows better than anybody inside the Eagles’ locker room exactly what it takes to not only reach the big game and come away victorious, but also how to sustain that success.

“You have to stay grounded,” Blount. “You have to stay humble and make sure that all the guys that are in the building are on the same page. The coaches, the staff, everybody is on the same page, ignoring the noise, not worrying about what other teams are doing, what other teams' records are – just worrying about ourselves and locked into us.”

Easier said than done given the week the Eagles just had.

After going to Carolina and upending a tough Panthers squad on Thursday night, the Eagles watched as massive blows were being dealt to some of their stiffest competition over the weekend. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone on Sunday, potentially crippling one of the NFC’s elites for the remainder of the season. And Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott is awaiting word on the status of a six-game suspension that could seriously hamper the division rival.

But the noise can also be Eagles fans and their exponentially rising expectations, or a media that’s quick to point out any tiny flaw and raise controversy.

Blount has experienced the latter firsthand. Two weeks into the 2017 campaign, he finished a game without a carry — an Eagles’ loss — and was averaging 3.0 yards per carry going back to the preseason. The constant questions coming from reporters about his role easily could have become a distraction.

In the four weeks since, Blount has 344 yards on 56 carries for a 6.1 average. He never allowed the noise to get to him, instead becoming a big reason behind the ongoing four-game winning streak.

“We know what we've been doing to get to this point,” Blount said. “We know what it takes, so we just have to buy in to continue to do that, and continue to do every that it takes to continue winning games.

“A big part of it is just making sure you ignore the noise, don't listen to the outsiders, everything that is in house stays in house, and that you make sure and know that everybody that you see on TV isn't in your corner. Sometimes that can discourage the younger guys. Every now and then you'll hear them say, 'Oh, did you hear them say this,' or, 'Did you hear them say that? Or, 'Did you see this,' or 'Did you see that?'

“The big part is making sure that everybody ignores that stuff.”

Blount has been through extraordinary highs and lows in his football career and learned to maintain an even keel. But Eagles leadership has also done a tremendous job insulating players from the kinds of rumblings that have a tendency to create discord and cause entire seasons to come off the rails.

For evidence, look no further than rumors that defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was trying to undermine head coach Doug Pederson — and how quickly such talk dissipated.

“The veteran groups have a lot to do with it,” Blount said. “I also think the coaches have a lot to do with it — keeping the guys grounded, keeping the guys to where we have to continue to come here and work if we want to continue the success.

“Most of the young guys, all of them have bought into the program, and everybody's locked in and knows their role and what they want to do.”

While Blount wouldn’t go so far as to draw parallels between the ways the Eagles and the Patriots handle distractions, it’s clear he’s been able to quickly establish a bond with his new teammates and coaches since signing in May.

“Every team is different,” Blount said. “I can't compare this team to the New England teams, or any other team. We have a really close-knit team. We believe in each other. Everybody loves each other and we have each other’s backs.”

As far as Blount’s performance on the field is concerned, the best may be still to come. He’s finished with at least 12 carries in each of the last four games, and looked explosive and elusive while doing it. And with extra rest between a Thursday night game in Carolina and this Monday’s contest at home against Washington, the bruising runner said he’s feeling refreshed.

Most of all, it sounds as though Blount is in a great frame of mind and feeling comfortable with all of his surroundings. And if you’re looking for a great read on the Eagles’ situation through six games, just listen to the guy who’s come to expect confetti and parades in February.

Judge grants Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott reprieve, cleared for 49ers in Week 7

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Judge grants Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott reprieve, cleared for 49ers in Week 7

NEW YORK -- Dallas Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott has been granted another legal reprieve in the running back's fight to avoid a six-game suspension over domestic violence allegations.

A federal judge granted a temporary restraining order blocking the league's suspension Tuesday night, clearing Elliott to play Sunday at San Francisco.

U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty's ruling comes five days after a federal appeals court overturned a Texas court's injunction that had kept Elliott on the field this season.

Crotty granted the request for a temporary restraining order pending a hearing before the presiding judge, Katherine Polk Fialla.

Elliott, last year's NFL rushing leader as a rookie, was barred from the team's facility Tuesday as players returned from their off week. The NFL placed him on the suspended list Friday, a day after the ruling from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

The Eagles visit Dallas in Week 11 on Sunday night, Nov. 19. They host the Cowboys in Week 17 on New Year’s Eve.