It’s no coincidence the Eagles’ defense has suddenly started playing light years better the last few weeks.
That’s when Jalen Mills showed up.
For some reason a large segment of the Eagles' fan base has decided Mills isn’t any good.
Maybe because he was a seventh-round pick. Maybe because he doesn't have typical NFL cornerback wheels. Maybe it's the green hair.
But if you forget your assumptions and actually watch him play, you see a tough, physical, smart, fundamentally sound cornerback who has helped transform the Eagles’ defense from a disaster the first month and a half into the season into a legit unit today.
Mills came back for the Cowboys game and Ronald Darby a week later for the Bills game. Along with safeties Rodney McLeod and Malcolm Jenkins and slot corner Avonte Maddox, it's the first time the Eagles have had their full projected starting secondary together since Week 3 of last year.
Jalen is playing at a high level all across the field,”defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “He's tackling well, he's covering well. He's up to the challenge of covering guys, and he brings us a lot of spirit and a lot of competitiveness and toughness. I think you've seen the level of defensive play increase since he's been back. He's always been a respected member of our defense and a guy that the coaches and players both have a lot of confidence in. He was down for a while. He worked really hard to get back, and I think all that hard work is paying off for him. I'm really proud of him.
The Eagles are 22-8 over the last three years when Mills starts and 15-6 when both Darby and Mills start.
Mills missed over a year with a foot injury. Darby missed the stretch run last year with a torn ACL and then four games this year with a hamstring injury.
Let’s take a look at the Eagles this year with and without Mills. The difference is astonishing:
Passing yards allowed
Before Mills: 280 per game (27th)
With Mills: 174 per game (3rd)
Opposing completion percentage
Before Mills: 64.3 percent (14th)
With Mills: 56.9 percent (3rd)
Opposing passer rating
Before Mills: 94.5 (20th)
With Mills: 81.1 (11th)
Opposing TD passes
Before Mills: 13 (27th)
With Mills: 4 (6th)
Opposing net yards
Before Mills: 353 per game (15th)
With Mills: 174 per game (3rd)
Obviously there are other factors. But after missing 16 games, Mills has picked up right where he left off.
“I feel good,” Mills said. “I’m running round, playing a lot of different positions for sure, more this year than I did in my previous years.”
Mills has gotten some work in the slot over the past few weeks, something he did at LSU but hasn’t done here since his rookie year in 2016.
At the end of the day I pride myself on being a defensive back, I don’t pride myself on just being an [outside] corner,” he said. “Whatever the game plan is, Schwartz needs me to play on the outside, inside, weak side, strong side, it doesn’t matter, I feel like I can do it.
With Mills and Darby holding it down at corner as opposed to Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas and all the others who've come and gone, Schwartz is able to call a much more aggressive game. You can’t blitz if you don’t trust your corners.
Finally, Schwartz does.
“It never hurts to have your guys back in there,” Schwartz said. “It does give you a little bit more flexibility and be able to match up different ways."
You saw that Sunday, when the Eagles harassed Tom Brady throughout the afternoon. The Eagles lost, but the defense held Brady to a pedestrian 67.3 passer rating, just 216 yards and no TD passes.
It was only the fifth time in 172 games over the last 10 years Brady has had a passer rating under 70, fewer than 220 yards and no TD passes.
You think that’s happening without Mills?
The most remarkable thing is that Mills literally did not play football from Oct. 28, 2018, until Oct. 20, 2019.
As soon as he got back, he was back to his old self.
Jalen has never checked out, so you could say, ‘Yeah, it's surprising because it's a tough thing to do,’ but I also recognize all the work that he's put into it, and it hasn't just been sit around for a year waiting for it to come back," Schwartz said. "He's been actively engaged in every one of our meetings and every one of our game plans. Even if he wasn't playing, he sits right over there and he's into the game taking notes like if he was playing. And that's paid off for him. We've had other players, not just Jalen, injured players, but we've had guys on the practice squad that have been that way, and generally the guys that succeed are the guys that stay ready so they don't have to get ready, and Jalen certainly personifies that.
Things don’t get any easier Sunday when Russell Wilson and the mighty Seahawks come to the Linc.
But with Mills and Darby back there, at least the Eagles will have a chance. Without them? They would have none.
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