Eagles

Tim Jernigan might help Eagles’ DTs move past Spinal Tap drummer territory

Tim Jernigan might help Eagles’ DTs move past Spinal Tap drummer territory

When asked about Tim Jernigan on Monday, Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz began talking about the defensive tackle position as a whole and couldn’t help himself.

He tossed in a Spinal Tap reference.

“A lot has been made of our linebacker situation or our corner situation,” Schwartz said, “but defensive tackle … there's some drummers from Spinal Tap that would rather be a drummer for Spinal Tap than — you guys got that one?”

If you don’t understand that reference about the fictional band, it’s OK. Schwartz said his players don’t understand his references like that either.

Just know that Spinal Tap went through a lot of drummers, who all met their untimely demises. Likewise, the Eagles have gone through plenty of defensive tackles this season — and it wasn’t supposed to be like that.

Finally, in the Bears game before the bye week, Tim Jernigan returned after missing six straight games with a foot injury. He played just 16 snaps, but it was a start and a small step back to some level of normalcy at the position next to Fletcher Cox.

“He didn't play a ton, and it was probably unrealistic to think he was going to play more than that,” Schwartz said, “but it was a good start for him and we'll just see where that goes week-to-week.

“I think that it will be nice to have him out there for significant reps over the course of the year, but we just have to take it as it goes.”

Getting Jernigan back could be huge down the stretch, but it’s hard to image the Eagles can really rely on his ability to stay healthy; he’s struggled with that. Still, getting a healthy Jernigan back for the final seven-game playoff push could go a long way to help salvage some of the depth they were originally supposed to have.

To steal a phrase from Schwartz, the Eagles have been “star-crossed” at the defensive tackle position this year.

They came into the 2019 season with Cox, Jernigan, Malik Jackson and Hassan Ridgeway. Sure, the Eagles lost some depth from 2018 at defensive end, but this depth was supposed to make up for that.

Then Jackson suffered a season-ending foot injury in Week 1.

Then Jernigan hurt his foot in Week 2.

Then Ridgeway went on IR with an ankle injury suffered in Week 7.

“Going into the season, really felt good about Malik and Timmy and Ridge and all of a sudden we're looking at none of those three,” Schwartz said. “Took a little while to get some new guys in there and solidify things. A little bit like some of those other guys, getting those guys back on the field, there's nothing like having those contributors back on the field.”

While they waited for Jernigan to get healthy, the Eagles had Akeem Spence for six games before cutting him. They played Bruce Hector, Anthony Rush and Albert Huggins — all undrafted players in their first or second seasons. It’s been a rotating cast of mediocre players next to Cox, who has come on strong recently, but faces double teams at an alarming rate.

At the very least, Jernigan can beat an occasional 1-on-1 and is stout against the run on first and second downs. A healthy Jernigan next to a finally healthy and resurgent Cox sounds pretty good.

“I think that it will be nice to have [Jernigan] out there for significant reps over the course of the year,” Schwartz said, “but we just have to take it as it goes.”

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Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders: How bitter rivals became best friends at Penn State

Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders: How bitter rivals became best friends at Penn State

Two of the most dynamic young running backs in the NFL will be on display at the Linc Monday night.

One had the third-most yards from scrimmage ever by a rookie last year. The other is now a rookie and actually averaging more yards per touch.

They’re both 22, both from Pennsylvania, both dynamic runners and receivers, and both went to Penn State.

They’re fierce competitors. And they’re best friends.

Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders won’t be playing against each other Monday night, but you better believe they’ll be measuring themselves against each other.

That's how it's always been.

Barkley arrived at State College in the fall of 2015 and by the time Sanders arrived a year later, Barkley already had a firm grip on the starting running back position.

For two years, Sanders sat and waited.

He didn’t play until last year, when Barkley was with the Giants. But the respect they developed for each other as they competed became the basis of their friendship.

I wasn’t going to allow a five-star recruit to come in and take my job,” Barkley said from East Rutherford, New Jersey, earlier this week. “I knew they obviously envisioned a role for him, so we just competed the whole time but in a friendly way. Even though there was competition to be that starting back, it was always out of love, and I think just the respect we had for each others’ talents is what made our friendship grow so much stronger.

Barkley ran for nearly 1,100 yards as a freshman, then 1,500 yards as a soph and nearly 1,300 yards as a junior before declaring for the draft and going to the Giants with the second pick.

Sanders, buried behind Barkley, got just 25 carries as a freshman and 31 as a sophomore.

When he first got to campus, little things like drills we would do, 7-on-7s, his ability to catch the ball, you knew from the get-go he was going to be a tremendous player,” Barkley said. “It didn’t go how he wanted it to go. He probably wanted more reps or more carries while we were there at Penn State. But he was the same guy. He was a hard worker, he didn’t let that impact him. He always had that same work ethic and that same mentality that he wanted to be a lead back in college football one day, and he turned out to be one.

Sanders averaged less than three touches per game as a freshman and sophomore.

Barkley never left the field, and Sanders barely got on it.

Every single day [in college] I’m bringing out the best out of him, he’s bringing the best out of me,” Sanders said. “Drills, team practices, running certain plays, just seeing what he sees and what I see, just seeing the difference, stuff like that. We’d always do stuff after practice too, so it was always me and him, locked in, just trying to get better. … Everything didn’t go how I expected. It just didn’t go my way, but that didn’t change the way I felt about him or anything. Unbelievable player. Everybody knows that, the whole world knows that, nothing but respect for him. The relationship is really good.

Barkley told the story about his last home game in college. This was November of 2017, Penn State vs. Nebraska at Beaver Stadium.

That whole week, I was hurt with a back injury and I remember telling people, ‘I can’t not play, because if I don’t play the world’s going to see what this guy can do already and it’s not my time yet to leave.’ So that was in the back of my mind, finish the season out strong and let him do his thing next year.

Sanders laughs when he's asked about that game. Everybody on the outside thought this would finally be his chance to shine. Sanders knew better.

The whole week, he didn’t practice, he was in the training room the whole week, and everyone’s getting me ready like I’ll be starting. I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t tell my family, because you never know. We’ve got Superman over there. He gets the start and then he takes one 60 yards (65 yards on the first play of the game). I’m like, ‘His back’s fine.’

With Barkley finally gone last fall, Sanders ran for 1,274 yards, and the Eagles drafted him in the second round.

Barkley averaged 22 touches per game as a rookie. Sanders is averaging about 12. So the numbers are difficult to compare. 

One thing is clear. They can both play.

The football world will see that Monday night.

It’s going to be real special,” Sanders said. “I remember talking about this even before the season started, when we were guessing where I would end up. I told him if I’m with the Eagles, we’d get to see each other twice a year. But really at the end of the day I’d be pretty selfish to tell you that I’m focused on Saquon. For real, for real, I’m really just focused on getting a W. We’ve got some stuff to handle. We’ve got to handle business. It’s going to be fun, but I’m mainly focused on something else.

The Giants have lost eight straight games and are playing out the string under head coach Pat Shurmur, the longtime Eagles assistant coach, who will likely be fired after the season.

The Eagles still have a fair chance to win the NFC East, but they’re 5-7 and have lost three straight.

Barkley vs. Sanders will be a fascinating side story to a game between two struggling teams.

I’m not too focused on out-rushing Miles. He’s one of my really good friends, I wish nothing but the best for him, just a healthy game, a healthy rest of the season and rest of his career. My main focus is going out there and trying to help my team win.

- Barkley

We’ve got to win these four games to get into the playoffs, and to be in the playoffs my rookie year would be pretty special, so that’s really all I’m focused on. But it’s definitely going to be fun playing against Saquon, don’t get me wrong.

- Sanders

A quick comparison:

• Sanders is actually averaging more yards per touch so far than Barkley did during his Rookie of the Year season — 5.9 to 5.8.

• Barkley had 911 yards from scrimmage on his first 147 touches. Sanders has 879 yards on his 147 touches.

• Barkley and Sanders rank first and fourth in most total yards by Penn State running backs as rookies. Here’s the all-time top five: Barkley (2,028), Curt Warner (1,774), Franco Harris (1,235), Sanders (879), Blair Thomas (824).

Barkley and Sanders are the only Penn State running backs drafted in the first two rounds since Larry Johnson in 2003, so Monday night’s game will be quite a showcase for a program not known for producing running backs.

When I got there my first year, going 7-6, and now being one of the top programs and having two running backs in the NFL playing on a Monday night from the same school just shows you where we’re going as a program,” Barkley said. “You can see last year’s Rookie of the Year and a guy who’s been playing at that caliber as a rookie this year over there at Philly and you can see where we came from and where it kind of started.

Barkley is signed through 2021 and Sanders through 2022, and both will probably be sticking around longer than that.

They’ve been ferocious rivals and the best of friends since they were teenagers, and they’re only getting started.

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The area where JJ Arcega-Whiteside is showing some potential

The area where JJ Arcega-Whiteside is showing some potential

For a second-round pick, it’s fair to say that JJ Arcega-Whiteside’s rookie season hasn’t been a resounding success to this point. 

So it’s definitely notable that his two biggest catches of the season have come on off-schedule plays. 

“That’s kind of like backyard football,” Arcega-Whiteside said this week. “Ain’t no real way to coach it or train for it. It’s just like, broken play, get open. There’s no technique or nothing. It’s just get open. I’ve just been lucky that Carson [Wentz] has found me and I was in the right place at the right time. Hopefully, we can get some more going forward.” 

For whatever reason, it seems like the rookie is better in those situations right now. Maybe it’s because of the NFL learning curve or because these are the situations where thinking is completely removed from the equation. Just go out there and make a play. 

It’s encouraging to see his playmaking ability, even when it hasn’t come as much on the initial play calls. At least we can see that he has it in him. 

Arcega-Whiteside caught a 29-yard pass on an off-schedule play in the fourth quarter of the Patriots game. And then on Sunday in Miami, his first NFL touchdown came on a 15-yarder on a broken play. 

The touchdown came with 13 seconds left in the first half against the Dolphins. It was 3rd-and-goal from the 15, which is a difficult situation to convert. In fact, NFL offenses have gotten touchdowns on just 2 of 13 such opportunities this year. 

“He's been at the right place at the right time,” offensive coordinator Mike Groh said. “The play there at the end of the half for the touchdown where he's inside releasing there and then he is working with Carson as Carson scrambles out there to the right, and then he's able to get out of the grass above the DB and come back and fight for the ball was a really good play by JJ and Carson.”

As Wentz escapes the pocket, you can see the rookie lock eyes with him. He’s about to take one more step toward the sideline and cut back inside, avoiding the defender that had tight coverage on him. Wentz puts it on him. 

Arcega-Whiteside and Wentz haven’t played a ton together, so it’s impressive that they’re able to connect on these types of plays. The receiver has to understand where the quarterback is going to throw it and the quarterback has to trust that the receiver is thinking the same thing. 

“We talk about it,” Arcega-Whiteside said. “It’s like, ‘ideally, we want this guy to do this or this guy to do this.’ But at the end of the day, just get open. Come back to the quarterback, be friendly and play ball.”

That’s usually the main coaching point for receivers in these off-schedule situations: Be quarterback friendly, which means give him a target, give him an opportunity to get the ball to you. 

That’s exactly what Arcega-Whiteside also did in the fourth quarter against the Patriots a couple weeks ago. He found an open spot in the field where Wentz threw it and came back to get the ball. 

 

What makes Arcega-Whiteside good in these situations?  

It’s pretty simple. 

“Just his ability to keep working,” Wentz said. “JJ does a great job of it.” 

The Eagles have struggled to find consistent plays from their receivers this year, so the fact that their second-round pick had trouble getting on the field at first and still has just six catches for 101 yards isn’t great. But Arcega-Whiteside and Wentz will be together for a least a couple more years after 2019. 

And these plays are certainly a silver lining. 

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