The Eagles secondary has been a topic of discussion for the entire offseason thus far, and rightfully so. It has been the obvious weak point of the team since around the time that Sheldon Brown and Brian Dawkins moved on from Philadelphia. Within the past two years, however, Howie Roseman and the Eagles have shown an increased effort in trying to build up the back end of their defense. On top of that, they’ve tried to build it the right way, with a young core of players that can grow together.
Despite their efforts, though, there were still some glaring weaknesses in the skillsets of the young guys on the roster. Players like Jalen Mills and Rasul Douglas are both confident, physical players who fit very well with the personnel this Eagles team already has on defense. Both are competitive and physical enough to win at the line of scrimmage, are quick and athletic enough to stay in phase with their receivers in short areas and have the ball skills to be disruptive at the catch point. This can make a defense at least adequate. An above average pass rush will force quarterbacks into making quicker decisions and a defensive back’s physicality and athletic ability to stay with a receiver in the short areas can forces quarterbacks to be much more precise with their throws.
What happens though, when the quarterback doesn’t falter under pressure and can hold on to the ball just a tad longer and still make that pinpoint accurate throw? Or what about when one of those young corners inevitably makes a mistake but doesn’t have the athletic ability to make up for it? Prior to the trade for former Buffalo Bill’s cornerback Ronald Darby, the Eagles had no answer to these questions. Now they do.
Working the Deep Areas of the Field
When watching Darby’s film, his speed is what stands out right away. Coming out of Florida State, Darby ran a 4.38 at the NFL combine but, more importantly, that speed definitely translates to the field and is evident quite often.
In the first clip below, Darby is in man coverage with a single high safety over the top and does a great job running stride-for-stride with Dolphin’s receiver DeVante Parker who is not lacking in the speed department himself.
Next is a beautiful play, again in man coverage, running right with Patriot’s receiver Chris Hogan while fighting through traffic on the way. To top it off, Darby finds the ball in the air and accelerates, beating Hogan to the ball and almost comes up with the interception.
Lastly, just for good measure, here is Darby keeping up with Steeler’s pro bowler Antonio Brown. Brown ultimately makes the catch here but only because of an absolutely amazing throw by Ben Roethlisberger. And, well, he’s Antonio Brown. The coverage on this play, though, is absolutely fantastic. Aside from the speed to stay with Brown down the field, Darby also does an excellent job staying hip-to-hip with Brown throughout the play while looking back for the ball so that he could be in good position to make a play on the ball. He gets his hands up and makes this about as difficult as it will ever get for Brown. When was the last time an Eagles’ cornerback looked like this getting beat?
Straight line speed is one of the most overrated traits in football, even for the cornerback position, but it does help. Having a player who can match up one-on-one downfield is crucial and something this Eagles team lacked prior to the trade. Speed also allows Darby to be aggressive which is the basis of Schwartz’s entire defense. Having the confidence to be aggressive is one thing but to then have the speed to make up for mistakes or over-aggression takes it to another level.
Winning Early in the Route
Early in the 2016 season, the Eagles defense was solid. They were holding up against the run and issues in the secondary were largely covered up by an effective pass rush. Then teams began to adjust. Teams like the Lions and Packers got smart and decided not to let the pass rush beat them. They got the ball out of their hands on quick three-step drops which took the pass rush right out of the equation, really exposing the defensive backs who struggled the line of scrimmage.
Early disruption is also something that Darby is proficient at. In addition to the disruption he creates with his physical presence and his hands to redirect, he also displays patience not to overcommit on a receiver’s release and shows great synchronization between his feet and hips early in the down. This is crucial for a secondary that was beat early and often right at the line of scrimmage.
In the clip below versus Miami, Darby is in press man coverage on Parker at the top of the screen. Parker releases to the outside before hard-planting and driving back inside on the slant. This exact release is something that plagued the Eagles secondary in 2016. They would overcommit to the outside release and get turned inside out when the receiver drove inside. Watch the patience Darby displays on this play. He takes one step outside with Parker but keeps his inside foot planted. When he feels Parker moving inside, he opens up his inside foot like a swinging gate and is able to stay right on top of the slant.
In the first preseason game versus the Packers, color analyst Mike Mayock made an example of C.J. Smith for doing the exact opposite. He turned and bit too hard upfield and got beaten badly inside.
Later in the same game, Darby does it again but this time in the opposite direction. Dolphins receiver Kenny Stills stutter steps, then pushes inside before breaking back outside. Darby, again shows great patience not overcommitting early and leaving himself in good position to stay on top of the route. Stills makes the catch here but it looks like he got away with a push off.
Finally, Darby does it again lined up against Chris Hogan in a midseason matchup with the rival Patriots.
Good players make a good defense but a good defense can be great when those players can complement each other’s play. We all know that a good pass rush can make things easier for a secondary by forcing the quarterback to get the ball out quicker than he wants to. A secondary that can be disruptive and patient early in the route, however, can force a quarterback to hold on to the ball just a bit longer. The three-step drop throws that ate up the secondary in 2016 are designed for the quarterback to get the ball out in 1.5 seconds. Adding an additional half or full second to that timing can have a tremendous impact on the pass rush.
It’s no secret that Darby excels in man coverage. He has experience playing various forms of zone as well but most of his experience is in man-to-man as many of the above clips highlight. In an ideal world, man coverage would be Schwartz’s preference but he can’t leave his defense in man coverage if they can’t match up. This is one of the primary reasons that he was more reluctant to blitz than in other years. Darby’s ability in man coverage gets Schwartz one giant step closer to his ideal defense.
Tackling is one of the more underrated aspects of the cornerback position. A corner with the ability to tackle gives a defensive coordinator so many more options in stopping the run. In certain calls and alignments, cornerbacks may be tasked with setting the edge in the run game and funneling the ball back inside to the rest of the defense. Coordinators may be hesitant to make these calls if he cannot trust the corners versus the run game. After watching Darby, it is safe to say, that won’t be an issue.
Darby is an aggressive player but doesn’t play out of control. He is not going to come upfield and make highlight reel hits on a regular basis but he is about as technically sound as a tackler as cornerbacks come. He understands his responsibilities versus the running game and he makes sure he brings the runner down.
In the play below, it appears as if Bills’ safety Robert Blanton has force responsibility but he bites too hard on the zone action and loses contain on the cutback by running back Jay Ajayi leaving Darby as the last line of defense. Darby takes a great angle to the ball, eliminating the opportunity for the cutback for Ajayi, wraps up his leg and brings him down hard.
Here he is again, this time bringing down Le’Veon Bell. It appears as if Darby had force responsibility on the play. Watch as he fights to maintain his outside leverage on the ball and then takes on Bell head-to-head.
How about Rob Gronkowski? Here is Darby again fighting through a block and bringing down Gronkowski for a loss.
Finally, my favorite play. Darby doesn’t make the tackle here but shows excellent toughness and field awareness to save a touchdown. The Patriots throw a screen pass to James White who has a mile of green space and blockers in front of him. Watch as he fights through three blocks to get to the outside and force White to cut back inside towards the rest of the defense.
If Darby doesn’t get outside here, White has a free escort down the sideline and into the endzone.
Darby is not a perfect player. Like some of the other cornerbacks on the roster, he can be very aggressive. Aggression is needed at the cornerback position but, as Eagles fans know all too well, it can sometimes come back to haunt you. He also may not be the perfect CB1 as soon as he steps on the field. It will probably take some time to acclimate to the scheme and players he will be around. Defense is 75% reactionary. It takes time to learn how he is supposed to react to the things he sees in a new defense. It also takes time to understand how the players around him react to those same things. Therefore, it often takes defensive players more time to gel together than it does for their offensive counterparts. Darby may not be an immediate cure-all for the Eagles defense but he is without a doubt a great fit and the piece of the puzzle this defense has been missing.