Jaylen Watkins

Emphasis, execution of tackling by corners key to defense's success

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Emphasis, execution of tackling by corners key to defense's success

Sure, they've had good tackling cornerbacks before. Eric Allen loved being physical. Troy Vincent rarely missed a tackle. Sheldon Brown during his prime was as good as any cornerback in the league bringing down receivers.
 
But this? A secondary where every cornerback is a capable and willing tackler?
 
This is uncharted territory.
 
One of the reasons the Eagles go into the bye week 8-1 with a seven-game winning streak is the ability of this defense to prevent big plays. And that's all tackling.
 
By everybody. Not just the linebackers, safeties and guys up front.
 
Jalen Mills, Rasul Douglas, Patrick Robinson and Jaylen Watkins, the four guys who've gotten virtually all the cornerback reps this year, have all proven to be exceptional tacklers.
 
And it really sets the Eagles apart from other defenses.
 
"For me and for us, it's an absolute necessity, just like it is being able to cover and catch a ball or make an adjustment in the defense," secondary coach Cory Undlin said.
 
"I mean, if you can't tackle the way offenses are running the ball, especially this (Cowboys) team we're about to play, if you can't tackle on the perimeter, you're not going to be any good. We've committed to that just like we have with everything else as we go about our daily business. 
 
"You've got to be able to tackle. You guys have seen it. … That is an absolute necessity. If you can't do that, you're not going to be out there. Just like if you can't cover somebody, you're not going to be out there."
 
The Eagles have allowed only 24 plays of 20 yards or more this year, and only four teams have allowed fewer per game. 
 
But the numbers only say so much. You just watch these corners play, and you see how committed they are to being tough, versatile and physical.
 
“We’re very prideful in it," Mills said. "The whole defense tackles well, and we as corners don’t want to be the weak spot. 
 
"You’re not going to knock down every pass or pick off every pass. That’s just the game. So when you don’t, you want to get those guys down as fast as possible. That 2nd-and-6, they complete a pass, stop 'em short of the (first down), and now it’s 3rd-and-1 and you give your defense a chance to get off the field."
 
And the Eagles are third-best in the NFL on third down.
 
So it all goes hand in hand.
 
“Honestly, it’s something that we demand out of each other, something we take pride in," Pro Bowl safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "I’ve been around groups, especially in New Orleans, and it’s something we wanted to emphasize this year, that not only do we want to break up passes and intercept passes but we want to set a physical tone and message when we come up and tackle guys. 
 
"Because, especially the way we stop the run, a lot of teams will attack us on the perimeter. They’ll pack everybody in, block everybody, and then try to (hit short passes) and dare our corners to tackle. 
 
"And all year we’ve kind of sent the message that we’re completely fine with that, and not only do our corners tackle, they show up with an attitude. I just think it gives us a physical presence that we love to carry.”
 
This is a different kind of group of corners from previous years in a lot of ways. They're younger, they're largely home-grown, and they're physical.
 
They're complete players.
 
Head coach Doug Pederson said their tackling ability is tied to a deeper understanding of the defense.
 
"You're seeing (it), then read and react," he said. "Where a year ago, there might have been hesitation there. A year ago, you probably would say we weren't making those tackles, and this year, we are."
 
Douglas, the rookie third-round pick, wasn't active on opening day, but with Ronald Darby out the last eight games he's averaged 42 snaps per game and proven to be not only solid in coverage but as sound a tackler as we've seen by a rookie cornerback in a generation. Probably since Allen in 1988.
 
“Corners gotta tackle," he said simply. "You’re not just a cover corner, you’re a tackling corner. Corey goes over it every day. We spend 10, 15 minutes on tackling every day after practice. 
 
"We know the expectations of our room. Gotta make a tackle. We all pride ourselves on tackling. A lot of us have played safety — me, Jalen (Mills), Jaylen Watkins. I've always had a tackling mindset. Now that I’m playing corner, it’s different angles but it’s the same thing. We all just want to be complete corners.”
 
Because of the Eagles' ferocious pass rush, NFL-best run defense and big early leads, teams are throwing against the Eagles more than any other team.
 
Opposing teams are on pace to throw 645 passes against the Eagles, which would be eighth-most in NFL history.
 
But the Eagles are allowing only 5.8 yards per pass play, which is nearly a yard less than last year and their best since 2009.
 
We keep seeing quarterbacks try to unload the ball quickly to their outside receivers to avoid the pass rush and try to get yards after the catch.
 
And they keep failing.
 
"It's not just a cover league," defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "You have to be able to tackle on short passes, and a lot of the NFL is short passes, limiting run after the catch and run game.
 
"Most run games, particularly a lot of stuff that we see and even some stuff that our offense runs, is just designed toward having the ball bounce or get to an unblocked corner and most offenses like that matchup. ‘Hey, we've got a good running back, maybe 230 pounds, and the guy that we can't block is not a linebacker or a safety. The guy that we are choosing not to block is a corner.’
 
"Well, you have to be able to answer that, and you do that with good tacklers. We put a lot of emphasis on it, but putting emphasis on it doesn't get the job done. It gets done with guys with shoulder pads and helmets out on the field that play with good technique. 
 
"I think our corners have all embraced that, too. There's nobody in our locker room that says, ‘Hey, I'm just here to cover.’ They all understand how important it is."

Malcolm Jenkins expands already impressive versatility

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USA Today Images

Malcolm Jenkins expands already impressive versatility

This season is Nigel Bradham's sixth in the NFL. 

He's never seen a player as versatile as Malcolm Jenkins. 

"Man, no!" Bradham said. "Not in my career. He's definitely the first. A guy that can play from corner to defensive end pretty much. Seriously. It's amazing, man."

Throughout his time in Philadelphia and in the league, Jenkins has played both safety spots, cornerback and nickel cornerback. On Sunday, Jenkins expanded his versatility even more, playing linebacker in the Eagles' dime package.  

It's not an entirely new position for Jenkins, but it is a little different. The biggest difference is that as a linebacker in the run game, Jenkins has to take on offensive linemen instead of tight ends and running backs. 

It can be tough to get off those blocks. 

"Nah, I get off of them fine," said the ever-confident Jenkins, wearing a smile. 

Over the last two seasons, the Eagles have talked a lot about the versatility they have in their secondary with guys who can play both safety and corner. There hasn't been much talk about safety-linebacker versatility, which defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz called "old school." 

It's not uncommon for teams to use a hybrid safety-linebacker position or to want their safeties to have corner abilities. 

But having a player who can play safety, corner and linebacker? 

"It’s pretty rare to find guys that can do all three," Schwartz said. "Malcolm is one of them."

The Achilles injury to Jordan Hicks sort of opened the door to allow the Eagles to use that dime package a little bit more last week. Had Hicks been healthy, the team likely would have trotted out the nickel package with Hicks and Bradham. 

Jenkins isn't sure if that will be the plan every week; the packages will probably be decided based on matchups. But he was happy to play more in the box against the 49ers. 

"I was kind of whispering for it for a long time," he said. "You want to put your best guys on the field, even if it's sometimes a disadvantage in certain parts. I feel like we do such a good job stopping the run that when we do get to those third downs and run's really not an option, it's better for us to put another DB on the field."

Jaylen Watkins, who is a pretty versatile player himself, is impressed by Jenkins' versatility but not surprised. Like Bradham, Watkins thinks Jenkins can play just about every position on defense, including defensive end if they ever asked him. 

Watkins joked that he wasn't sure Jenkins would be big enough physically to handle playing end, but said the safety would at least know what to do even if he couldn't get it done. 

He wasn't surprised at all to see how well Jenkins acquitted himself as a linebacker. 

"With someone like Malcolm, he's going to study each play and know which guard he's getting," Watkins said. "He's never going into anything blind. That's why giving that job to him was probably a no-brainer for the coaches."

In this dime package, Jenkins has a few different responsibilities. If the opposing team runs the ball, he needs to turn into a linebacker and hit a gap. Other times, he'll be blitzing. And there are times he'll be covering running backs or tight ends. 

What makes Jenkins able to play all these positions is his rare combination of cover skills and toughness. 

"If you ask me about coverage, I think I'm a corner," he said. "If you ask me about run fits, I think I'm a linebacker. It's one of those things I always see it as a challenge."

How simply navigating locker room can be a difficult task for some Eagles

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Tom Finer | NBC Sports Philadelphia

How simply navigating locker room can be a difficult task for some Eagles

As soon as a towel-clad Jaylen Watkins walked out of the showers and into the Eagles' locker room Thursday afternoon, his shoulders slumped and he let out a near-silent sigh. 

He approached the horde of reporters near his locker stall before he locked eyes with one who was standing directly in his space. The two chuckled as they awkwardly sidestepped each other to swap positions. 

The media contingent that covers the Eagles is one of — if not the — biggest in the entire league. That's great news for fans, who have plenty of options. 

It's not great news for Watkins, who just wants to get changed. 

Watkins' locker is positioned just to the left of team leader Malcolm Jenkins'. Jenkins holds court with reporters a couple times per week, which can be a slight inconvenience for Watkins and Patrick Robinson, who also shares a wall with him.

And Watkins knows whenever there's a political story in the news, reporters are going to want to talk to his outspoken teammate. 

"I guess that's what comes being next to Malcolm," Watkins said. "You get good insight on stuff, but you also have to deal with the baggage that comes with him." 

NFL locker rooms are weird places and it's not because of the nakedness. After all, locker rooms are meant for changing. But trying to change while a group of media members slowly infringes upon your personal space makes it a little strange. 

But for three 45-minute windows each week, reporters fill the room. On any given Wednesday or Thursday during the week at the NovaCare Complex, there can be as many as 30 to 40 media members in attendance. It's just a part of the deal in Philadelphia.

For Shelton Gibson, this is all new. 

The rookie receiver said reporters weren't allowed in the West Virginia locker room. They met with players in a different space.

Being placed next to Torrey Smith has been a great thing for Gibson and the two have become close. But Smith is one of those guys who draws a crowd. 

"It's funny," Gibson said. "Last week I was looking at it. It's just like, you can't interrupt. You're not hoping that he'll hurry up or anything. It's just funny because [it's just a] big ass [crowd] around your locker." 

While Watkins normally stands behind the media scrum, waiting for his moment to pounce, Gibson has taken a different approach. While waiting for the crowd to disperse, he takes walks. He'll find a teammate in another part of the locker room to visit. Sometimes, though, he will hang around as Smith gets interviewed. He wants to see how the veteran handles it all and he always comes away impressed. 

In the middle of the locker room, on the right side, Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham are neighbors. Two of the best defensive players on the team, they are both pretty popular interview subjects.

So just about every week, one of them will walk out of the showers and see a seemingly impenetrable wall of camera and recorder-holders in their way. As veterans, though, they're beyond patiently waiting. 

"It's cool, man, because I just tell everybody to move out the way," said Graham, one of the more jovial players on the team. "That's all. That's my cue to have a little fun with the reporters." 

Watkins has dealt with this long before he was placed next to Jenkins. In fact, during his first training camp in 2014, he was in a popup stall in the middle of the floor. The locker on the wall nearest to him belonged to LeSean McCoy. It used to be annoying, especially when he didn't have a good day of practice, but there's not much he can do about it. 

After practices, the coaching staff will tell the players if that day is a media day. When Watkins knows it is, he hurries into the locker room as fast as he can and if he's lucky, he gets out before Jenkins gets in. 

But sometimes it backfires. Sometimes when Watkins goes to the cold tub and for treatment, he'll get back in the room at the same exact time Jenkins is about to start answering questions. 

And then the waiting begins. 

"So I just kind of stand by the side and let it happen," Watkins said with a shrug. "I'm used to it now."