When the Philadelphia Eagles defense took the field on Monday night against the Falcons, they did so with four new starters. Of those four, three were in the secondary - and that's not counting the slot cornerback position.
The results were somewhat predictable. The Eagles' loss to the Falcons was due, in part, to the defense's inability to stop Atlanta's passing attack. Wide receiver Julio Jones racked up nine catches for 141 yards and two scores. But despite the secondary's forgettable day, head coach Chip Kelly said Tuesday that he was pleased with the play of his safeties.
Walter Thurmond III made his first career start at safety, and continued his ballhawking ways. Early in the third quarter he made a nice play to intercept a Matt Ryan pass. The Eagles scored on the ensuing drive and began closing the 20-3 halftime deficit. Kelly said he was impressed with Thurmond's playmaking ability.
"I thought Walt did a really nice job," Kelly said. "But he made a huge play on the interception. He was actually going to double Julio, who ran an out route, and then spun back because he ran an out route and came back inside and picked the dig off going the other way. But it's kind of what we've seen from him. He seems to be around the ball. He seems to make plays and he's a real savvy football player from that standpoint."
While Thurmond was able to come down with an interception, fellow starting safety Malcolm Jenkins had the chance to top Thurmond's interception total. Unfortunately, Jenkins dropped two interceptions during the game. Still, Kelly said the entire coaching staff was pleased with the former Saint's performance.
"We all thought Malcolm had a really good game," Kelly said. "He was very consistent in his coverage, no matter who they put in there. A couple times he was on Julio because he was inside. But again, he did make two big plays. They were good plays. If they're great plays, he comes up with interceptions in those situations. But we were really pleased with how Malcolm played."
The cornerback situation was a different story. In his first game as an Eagle, former Seahawk Byron Maxwell put on a laughable performance and was targeted often by quarterback Matt Ryan. But one area that encouraged Kelly was at slot corner. And given the summer the Eagles had, it's something of a surprise.
Rookie sixth round pick JaCorey Shepherd was supposed to take the spot this summer after the Eagles traded Brandon Boykin to the Steelers. But Shepherd tore his ACL during training camp, and none of the remaining players won the job. As a result, the Eagles rotated safeties in the slot.
When asked why he used safeties instead of letting someone like EJ Biggers or Eric Rowe handle it, Kelly said it was "because of who our safeties are."
"Both of those guys have corner backgrounds, have been nickels and they have the most experience at playing nickel is Malcolm [Jenkins] and Walt [Thurmond]," Kelly said. "Those are the two best guys. There were times when Walt was down, so you can kind of see how it works too."
The Eagles secondary is a work in progress, but it would appear that the coaching staff believes there will be improvement. Eagles fans will certainly hope that improvement comes quickly.