As the Eagles seek to return to Super Bowl form following two underwhelming seasons, it’s no secret that massive improvements in the secondary will be necessary. Among the stats that could be used to make the Philadelphia secondary look bad, the Eagles allowed seven passing touchdowns of 50+ yards in 2019 (incl. playoffs), while no other team in the NFL gave up more than three. Phrased most simply by Howie Roseman in March 2020, “It’s hard when you’re watching games and the ball is getting thrown over your head.”
The Eagles’ moves to address their Achilles’ heel have been well-documented. But no matter how well the Darius Slay acquisition pans out, the Eagles will need both starting outside cornerbacks to surpass last season’s level of production to return to title contention. Thus begs the question that fans and media alike in Philadelphia have been asking for years: is there hope for Sidney Jones?
We all remember how instrumental Jones was to the team’s four-game winning streak to end 2019, earning him the nickname of “The Closer.” But even after his surge at the end of the regular season, Jim Schwartz didn’t give him a single defensive snap in a Wild Card loss to the Seahawks, spurring old labels like “bust” and new ones like “the guy who got benched for the biggest game of his career” to become relevant.
Are these Jones-crushing narratives correct, or has he simply been a victim of the high expectations? I watched every Eagles defensive snap from every game that Jones played in 2019, while also using R programming and Pro Football Focus’ data, to finally give an answer.
Big-Picture: What do the Numbers Say?
Disclaimer: If you want to skip the nerd stuff and get right into the film, scroll past this section.
To start with a very basic statistic: how often was Jones responsible for “the big play?” This excellent thread by PhillyVoice’s Jimmy Kempski compiles every passing play of more than 30 yards, TD or not, that the Eagles allowed last season. You can watch Kempski’s thread to make your own judgments, but my count, here is how they played out for the Eagles’ five primary cornerbacks:
Even after we account for the fact that Jones had the fewest coverage snaps of the quintet, he still got burned deep at the lowest rate — the only person with an even comparable rate, Avonte Maddox, primarily played as a slot CB, therefore spending more time guarding underneath routes. Though the film will show that Jones got bailed out at times by inaccurate throws, he still was inarguably the Eagles’ best cornerback at preventing the dreaded long ball.
PFF grades give a similar narrative. Among the five primary CBs, Jones was the Eagles’ highest-graded one during 2019, both in pass coverage grade and overall defensive grade:
However, Jones’ 63.5 overall PFF grade still leaves much to be desired. Out of the NFL’s 157 CBs who played 100+ defensive snaps in 2019, that mark ranked 79th. That is indeed the exact midpoint; there were 78 players ahead of Jones, and 78 behind him, so strictly going on PFF’s metrics, he would be the league’s most average corner. It would not be a stretch to call Jones the worst “best cornerback on a team” in the league, though I’d need more Oakland and Miami tape to make that call.
Digging into some less subjective statistics, Jones begins to shine, even when we compare him to the NFL’s best cornerbacks. Strictly looking at man coverage, Jones had the NFL’s lowest completion percentage allowed according to PFF, among 79 CBs who had 20+ targets in man:
I had a few discrepancies with PFF’s numbers, which I can elaborate on to anyone interested. But regardless, Jones finishing ahead of names like White, Lattimore, and Gilmore is extremely impressive. Among the same 79 CBs, Jones also ranked in 8th place, and led the Eagles, with a “forced incompletion percentage” of 25.0% in man coverage via PFF. Jones ranked 18th out of the 79 CBs with a team-best 70.8 passer rating allowed in man coverage via PFF. However, Jones was the benefactor of some good luck, as the tape will show; according to PFF, 30.0% of his man coverage targets were either dropped or off-target, T-16th highest out of those 79 CBs.
Jones is the green dot here, as he will be on all ensuing graphs. The graph visualizes what we already discussed: not only did Jones have the individual lowest comp pct allowed in man coverage among all CBs, but he also was credited with forcing an incompletion on 25.0% of his man coverage targets, well above average. Jones stands out more compared to his Philadelphia counterparts:
Not many words needed there.
If we expand into all coverages, the numbers still look favorable for Jones. Out of 142 CBs with 100+ coverage snaps, Jones ranked in the top quartile in passer rating allowed (69.9, 17th), completion percentage allowed (55.6%, T-30th), and forced incompletion percentage (16.7%, T-22nd), via PFF. Jones slightly trailed Rasul Douglas in each of the latter two metrics, while leading Philadelphia CBs in passer rating allowed.
Going back to our earlier point about Jones preventing deep completions, the advanced stats tell us why; opponents simply didn’t target Jones deep as often as his Philadelphia counterparts.
To summarize the graph: we know that completions become more difficult as the ball is thrown further away from the line of scrimmage. If a CB’s ADOT is low, his completion percentage allowed should be higher, which means that cornerbacks who managed to be below the NFL average in both metrics were especially impressive. Jones was one of 20 CBs to fall in that ideal bottom-left quadrant, a strong group that includes names like Marlon Humphrey, Richard Sherman, and Tre’Davious White. If we only graph Eagles cornerbacks, Jones stands out even more:
The numbers don’t lie; opponents were more afraid to try to take Jones deep than any of the Eagles’ primary other three outside cornerbacks. Maddox, as a primarily slot CB, had a slightly lower ADOT than Jones did, but also had the team’s highest comp pct allowed as a result. The advanced stats here verify the conclusion we came to earlier; though the Eagles led the NFL in big plays allowed, Jones was by far the cornerback least responsible for it.
The Film: Man Coverage
Now, we’ll get to the reason that you’re here: can Jones man up the guy across from him? By just about any statistical metric, Jones was the Eagles’ best cornerback in 2019, but numbers alone will never reveal everything. With cornerbacks, individual stats are especially volatile; one can play good defense but allow a completion, and one can play atrocious defense but get bailed out by a worse pass.
In 2019, Jones exemplified this as well as anybody in the league. In fact, Jones did so on literally his first target of the season.
That’s not pretty. Before we analyze Jones, we can acknowledge that Ronald Darby (bottom of the screen to start) also screws up big-time. Philadelphia is in Cover 1 with a 5-man rush. Once Paul Richardson (#10) goes in motion, the original safety, Rodney McLeod, picks him up in man coverage. Darby should rotate to become the new high safety, but he stops and hovers around the hashes rather than getting to the deep-middle. Regardless, this is a bad look for Jones (CB, top of screen), as he should have been beaten for a 73-yard TD on his first target of the year. Jones is simply way too slow to flip his hips, not even starting to change direction until Terry McLaurin is already almost past him, and by the time Jones has finished rotating, McLaurin already has a couple of yards of separation. Jones gets especially lucky with the overthrow here, considering that Case Keenum and McLaurin converted on an almost-identical touchdown earlier in the game, when Douglas was in coverage. Jones’ hesitation to flip his hips, both in man and zone coverage, occurs throughout 2019.
Back to our point: cornerback stats are volatile. Washington runs an outside zone RPO while reading Zach Brown, with a pair of slants on the backside. The Eagles are in man coverage, this time Cover 1 Robber. And again, Jones (CB, top of screen) gets bailed out, this time by a drop instead of a bad throw. It’s a very nice route from Paul Richardson, who uses a jab step that fools Jones, before planting inside for the slant. But again, we see Jones struggle with his directional transitions; it’s not his speed, but rather his agility, that’s the problem, as he doesn’t flip his hips until it’s too late. The Redskins should be 2-2 for 83 yards and a TD when targeting Jones, but they’re instead 0-2. Jones obviously doesn’t get quite this lucky on every drive, but this graph demonstrates that he got some good breaks in man coverage:
Jones was among the NFL’s better CBs in terms of passer rating allowed in man coverage, but his 30.0% rate of dropped/off-target throws was also high, showing that his stats got inflated by some good luck. Two side notes: that dot on the top right is Jalen Mills, the NFL’s only CB to have at least one-third of his man targets be dropped/off-target and still have a passer rating allowed of 100+ in man. His move to safety is going to benefit the Eagles a lot. The dot on the top left is Xavier Rhodes, who made the Pro Bowl despite allowing a 95.7% comp pct and 148.5 passer rating in man coverage. This is why we should stop using Pro Bowls to measure skill. Here’s the same chart, just with PHI CBs:
Rough go for Mills. But all digressions aside, we can dig into Jones’ final target of the drive:
This drive sums up the enigma of Sidney Jones as well as any other. Not only can Jones be inconsistent on a game-to-game basis, but he can look like he doesn’t belong on a roster and look like a shutdown CB even within the same series of downs. Here, we see the Sidney Jones that the Eagles drafted. Philadelphia is again in Cover 1 with a 5-man blitz, leaving Jones (slot CB, top of screen) with no help against the bigger Vernon Davis. Jones does not get fooled by the stutter-steps at the start of the route this time, as he keeps his hips parallel to the LOS before making his break inward, and he makes a perfectly timed play on the ball without arriving early enough to be flagged.
The following week against Atlanta was Jones’ best game of the season as an outside CB in my opinion, but it still wasn’t perfect.
One more time: cornerback stats are volatile. In my opinion, this is an even worse rep from Jones than the should-be McLaurin touchdown. The Eagles start in a 2-high look, but it becomes Cover 1 Robber, with Andrew Sendejo dropping down. Jones (CB, top of screen) angles his hips toward the sideline at the start of Mohamed Sanu’s route, when he should angle them toward the LOS to keep the QB and receiver in his peripheral, like Darby does at the bottom of the screen. But Sanu’s change of direction is when Jones really looks like a fool. As Sanu plants to run a 15-yard dig, Jones should flip his hips counter-clockwise (i.e. toward the hashes), but he instead gets turned the completely wrong direction by going “the long way” and rotating clockwise, allowing Sanu to get into his blind spot. Nobody playing man coverage wants to be in this position:
With this unnecessary rotation, Jones shows an alarming lack of confidence in his hip fluidity. He gets bailed out by a bad throw from Matt Ryan, as this should have been a completion of 15+ yards. Credit Jones with the awareness to come down with the ball after it’s tipped, but that doesn’t change that Jones got bailed out by poor QB play yet again.
However, this was Jones’ worst rep in an otherwise strong game. By my count, Jones was only targeted twice in man coverage all game (the other being a quick out completed to Calvin Ridley), which is impressive given that he spent much of the game over Julio Jones. Though I generally don’t want to focus on clips where Jones isn’t targeted, an inherent truth about the CB position is that if the ball doesn’t head their way often, they’re doing something right:
Philadelphia is in a combo coverage, with Cover 3 to the field side and Sidney Jones (CB, top of screen) manned up on Julio Jones to the boundary. Not an easy task, but Sidney Jones locks Julio Jones up. Sidney Jones rotates his hips toward the LOS as soon as Julio Jones gets an inside release, runs stride for stride with him through some hand-fighting until Julio makes his break, and changes direction quickly enough to stay on his hip through the end of the play. With the tight camera view, we can see that Julio Jones was Matt Ryan’s first read once he recognized man coverage, but he was forced to take the checkdown.
Jones’ speed to cover vertical routes like this contributes to his low ADOT (average depth of target), which shows how the film and analytics support each other. Another demonstration of this comes if we look at yards per coverage snap; the premise of this stat is that stronger CBs aren’t targeted often, and therefore should get recognition for coverage snaps when QBs avoid them:
Rough go for Darby. As the graph shows, Jones was the team’s only CB to be above-average in both yards/coverage snap and yards/target.
While Jones benefitted from some good luck in Weeks 1-2, he did not get much wiggle room in Week 3 against Detroit. (Side note: Matthew Stafford is much better than anybody gives him credit for.) The Eagles heavily played Cover 3, but Jones had a few key man coverage reps in the 4th quarter.
On 2nd and 10, Philadelphia dials up an all-out Cover 0 blitz, with Jones (CB, top of screen), Douglas, and Maddox all in no-help man. We have to commend Detroit’s offensive line on a tremendous job. Facing an 8-man rush, the Lions counter it in protection with a half-slide right and man blocking backside, relying on RB Kerryon Johnson to handle Malcolm Jenkins with no help. But all blitz issues aside, Jones does still get beat. Sidney Jones is stride for stride with Marvin Jones to start the play, but a slight push-off by the receiver is enough to get the separation he needs:
For a smaller corner like the 181-pound Jones, his lack of bulk can get exposed like this, and that won’t be going away soon. But all things considered, this wasn’t a disastrous rep. Sidney Jones shouldn’t have had to cover Marvin Jones for as long as he did given the blitz that was called, it took an absolutely perfect throw from Stafford with at least 25 yards of air distance for the ball to be caught, and Stafford very easily could’ve chosen to target the other crossing route by Kenny Golladay, who had even more separation than Marvin Jones did. It’s not a good rep from Jones — excuses be damned, he got beat for a TD — but it’s far from the worst we saw from PHI CBs, Jones included, in 2019.
Jones almost gets victimized by another perfect Stafford ball on his next man coverage target, but gets bailed out by the officials:
The Eagles begin in a 2-high look, but it again becomes Cover 1 Robber with McLeod dropping. Golladay gets a step of separation from Jones (CB, top of screen) on a crisp comeback right at the sticks, and Stafford has incredible timing and placement with this pass. Jones’ defense isn’t bad at all here; he’s stride for stride with Golladay until he makes his break, and after Golladay re-directs toward the sideline, Jones changes direction quickly to minimize the window that Stafford’s pass can fit into. Did Golladay get the feet down? Even the TV broadcast doesn’t give a definitive answer:
The refs ruled it out of bounds. I consider this a “should-be” completion when I tally what Jones’ statistics should have looked like, since Marvin Jones should’ve been able to get the feet in bounds (if he didn’t already). But it’s decent coverage from Sidney Jones, and if the pass was completed, it would’ve been more because of a perfect throw and route than any shortcomings by Jones.
These next two reps from Jones — one coming late in the Detroit game, and the other being his only man coverage target of the Packers game — are a microcosm of both the flashes of talent and the frustrating mishaps that Jones displays.
If Detroit converts this after the two-minute warning, the game is over. The Eagles are again in a Cover 0 blitz, with Jones (CB, top of screen) in no-help man coverage on Golladay. At first, Jones gets beat by Golladay’s fade. Like the first Redskins clip, Jones is way too slow to flip his hips, allowing Golladay to get a yard of separation. This is especially troublesome here because of Jones’ lack of route anticipation; Golladay isn’t going to run a 5-yard out on 3rd and 10, so Jones should be more prepared for a deep route. Fortunately for Sidney Jones, the Eagles’ blitz is more effective than it was during the Marvin Jones TD, and Stafford slightly underthrows the ball off of his back foot.
Once the ball is in the air, we see the good Sidney Jones again. He shows off his closing speed, allowing him to get within arms’ reach by the time the ball arrives to Golladay. But his ball skills shine the most here.
Because Jones’ eyes are on Golladay, he doesn’t see the ball in flight. But, seeing Golladay’s eyes and hands moving up toward the ball, he’s able to decipher that the ball is about to arrive and perfectly time his jump to get the pass breakup. Incredibly, Jones comes down with the ball (albeit, out of bounds) despite not seeing it at all before he makes contact with it. (I don’t consider this one a “should-be” completion, since it would have taken an outrageous throw from Stafford to hit Golladay in stride.) Malcolm Jenkins went on to block Detroit’s field goal attempt, but the ensuing Philadelphia drive was a disaster, including two dropped passes and one 4th-down conversion negated by offensive pass interference. Had the Eagles’ offense not imploded, this might have gone down as another one of Jones’ signature game-saving plays, like those in the Week 14 and Week 16 games.
Jones’ first man coverage target of the Week 4 Packers game is the exact opposite; everything Jones does before the ball is thrown goes right, but he fails to make the play when the ball arrives:
The Eagles go with a Cover 1 5-man blitz here, leaving Jones in man coverage on Davante Adams. Jones starts this play off perfectly; unlike the last rep, he flips his hips smoothly, allowing him to run stride for stride with Adams. This is especially encouraging because 2nd and 1 isn’t an obvious deep passing down, the way the 3rd and 10 was against the Lions. Jones shows off his speed on this rep — he reached 21.21 MPH, via Next Gen Stats, the fastest by any Eagles defender all season until Darby surpassed him in Week 8 — which prevents Adams from creating much separation.
But unfortunately, Jones simply doesn’t turn his head around or put his arm up to contest the pass until it’s too late, allowing Adams to come down with a 58-yard catch. (Side note: horrible pursuit angle by Rodney McLeod, who had no shot of making this tackle if Jones didn’t trip Adams up).
It’s a more difficult play than the Golladay target; because the throw is absolutely perfect from Rodgers, Adams doesn’t need to jump, or even noticeably raise his hands, to catch the ball, which gives Jones less of an indication that the pass is coming. But Jones still should have turned his head to see if the pass was in flight, because his lack of a play on the ball spoils an otherwise strong defensive rep.
After injuring his hamstring in the 1st quarter of the Packers game, Jones came back for a Week 6 showdown in Minnesota despite being less than 100 percent. Similarly to Stafford in Week 3, Kirk Cousins was leaving Eagles CBs no room for error:
The Eagles are in Cover 1 Robber here, which leaves Jones (CB, bottom of screen) manned up on Adam Thielen. It doesn’t go well. Jones gets fooled by the double-move from Thielen, who sells the quick out remarkably well before re-directing toward the back pylon. Though Jones’ transition to change direction is sub-par here, he does demonstrate strong closing speed again, and his jump to contest the pass is decently timed. But a perfect ball from Cousins sneaks in to the only place where it can simultaneously be out of Jones’ reach and still in bounds. Similar to the Marvin Jones TD against Detroit, this is not a good rep at all, but it’s better than some targets that ended up incomplete or intercepted.
After not appearing in Week 7, Jones had a strong performance as a slot corner in Week 8 at Buffalo. Some of his best work came when he wasn’t targeted; despite the Bills trailing for the entire second half, Jones was only targeted four times by my count (all in man coverage), allowing one completion for 21 yards. His only slip-up came on that 21-yard completion:
The Eagles are in Cover 1 Robber. Jones is the inside slot CB to the top of the screen, and the small but shifty Beasley gets the best of him right off the LOS. Beasley uses his quickness to fool Jones with a jab step inside, before releasing for another one of his signature 3rd-down catches. Though Beasley is not an easy player to guard in man coverage due to his agility, it’s a rough rep for Jones, as he gets punished for having his weight too far forward.
However, Jones does get the best of Beasley in the 4th quarter:
The game is over at this point; Philadelphia leads by 18 with 2:14 remaining. But it’s still a good rep from Jones (slot CB, bottom of screen) as the Eagles line up in Cover 1 Robber again. The Robber, McLeod, is initially in good position to help on Beasley’s route, but gets fooled by Josh Allen’s pump-fake, leaving Jones with no help. But Jones does a good job fighting through the traffic of the trips bunch formation, keeping his weight balanced to not fall for Beasley’s initial move outside, and then perfectly timing his jump to disrupt the throw. Even though Jones doesn’t get a PBU here, there was no window for this ball to fit in:
With Maddox back in the fold starting in Week 9, Jones was sent back to the bench, not playing another snap until Week 14. And we all remember how that one went:
The Eagles are in a variation of Cover 1, with Malcolm Jenkins and Nigel Bradham bracketing Saquon Barkley. Jones (CB, bottom of screen) is matched up on Darius Slayton, who had torched the Eagles for 154 yards and 2 TDs already, and he locks him up to earn the PBU. Jones doesn’t get fooled by Slayton’s initial steps outward, instead keeping his hips roughly parallel to the LOS until he makes a break toward the pass and shows off his ball skills yet again. In my opinion, this surpasses the Vernon Davis PBU as Jones’ top man coverage rep of the season so far. As Schwartz himself said, “I don’t know if we win that game if he doesn’t make that PBU.”
Jones next became relevant in the all-or-nothing Week 16 Cowboys game. Most Eagles fans remember his epic 4th down PBU, but Jones was also instrumental on the play right before that:
Philadelphia goes with Cover 1 Robber, and once Dak Prescott recognizes Jones (CB, top of screen) manned up on Amari Cooper, he wants to target that right away. But Jones gives him nothing to work with. Jones flips his hips smoothly once he recognizes a vertical route, and runs stride for stride with Cooper downfield, smartly using an arm to help keep Cooper within reach without drawing a flag. Prescott’s throw was absolute trash (common theme of Week 16), and Marcus Epps was in good position to help even if it wasn’t, but those factors don’t take away from the quality of Jones’ rep here, which was almost as important as the next play even though it isn’t remembered as such.
Speaking of that next play:
This is the defining play of Jones’ career to date. The Eagles are in Cover 1 Robber again, with Jones (CB, top of screen) on Michael Gallup. Because Gallup runs his route with an outside release, Epps is not in a position to help this time, but it ends up not mattering. Like the prior clip with Cooper, Jones is fast enough and physical enough to keep up with Gallup without drawing a flag, and he does an excellent job to turn his head and find the ball in the air, in contrast to the Davante Adams clip. Because he tracks the ball so well, he can use his free arm to deflect the ball, coming up with the Eagles’ most important PBU of the season.
After three weeks of being an end-of-game mercenary, Jones returned to the spotlight in Week 17 when Maddox, who started at outside CB, left with an injury. And in Jones’ first target, he picked up right where he left off against Dallas:
Philadelphia is in a combo coverage here, with Cover 3 to the field side and man to the boundary. Jones (CB, bottom of screen) is manned up on Darius Slayton, and gets the best of the talented rookie again. The Giants run a slant-flat combo, but Jones plays the slant perfectly, with an even more impressive play than the one to end Week 14 in my opinion. Jones re-directs promptly once he sees Slayton break inside, and he takes a calculated risk to undercut the route by going behind Slayton. But this risk pays off, as Jones contests the pass with perfect timing to rack up another PBU.
However, Jones does get bailed out by a couple of NYG mistakes later, like this:
The Eagles are in a variation of Cover 1 again, but this time they are in what some teams refer to as “banjo” coverage, meaning the defensive backs’ man coverage assignments are based on which direction the receivers release. Because Sterling Shepard’s release is closest to the sideline, he becomes Jones’ man, and he cooks Jones (CB, top of screen) on a fade route. Similar to the final target of the Lions game, Jones simply begins the process of flipping his hips too late, and the speedy Shepard is able to create 2.5 to 3 yards of separation. This is a throw that Daniel Jones should make for a 38-yard score, but Sidney Jones gets bailed out (and even gets a PBU) due to the underthrow.
By my count, opponents were 7-23 for 132 yards, 2 TD, INT, and 6 PBU when targeting Jones in man coverage for a 62.2 passer rating; pretty elite stuff. But if we account for six “should-be” incompletions that came Jones’ way (a very subjective metric, admittedly), those opponents should be 13-23 for approx. 292 yards, 4 TD, 0 INT, 5 PBU, and a 140.9 passer rating. So while Jones showed glimpses of excellence in man coverage, the film shows that he had some unsustainably good luck.
The Film: Zone Coverage
It might not be as sexy — like Urban Meyer claimed, “the NFL never comes and says, ‘we want a zone corner’” — but being able to play zone is still an important part of football games. We’ll start out with some Jones’ reps as an underneath zone defender, a role in which Jones was superb:
The coverage is difficult to diagnose here because play-action sends Philadelphia into mayhem, but it looks to be Cover 4 to the boundary and Cover 2 to the field, AKA Cover 6. If this is the case, that means Jones (CB, top of screen) is the flat defender while McLeod is the deep safety for that half of the field, and Jones does a stellar job. He jams Kenny Golladay to slow him down, but doesn’t get baited into following Golladay’s route and vacating his zone, instead passing him off while getting his eyes to the backfield to see if either RB Ty Johnson or FB Nick Bawden leaks out. This field awareness pays off, as Jones picks up Johnson on what amounts to a “scramble drill.” Even if Stafford’s throw had been caught, it still would’ve only been a gain of five yards.
The Eagles are in Cover 2 on 1st and 20, with Jones (CB, bottom of screen) responsible for the flat area. Jones runs with the vertical route by Davante Adams for around 8-9 yards, but makes a heads-up play to spot the drag coming from the backside #1 WR, Marques Valdes-Scantling, making the tackle for a mere four-yard gain. The tackle in space is good, but what stands out again is Jones’ field awareness, realizing that even though Adams and TE Marcedes Lewis ran vertical routes, there was still another route entering his flat area.
Philadelphia is in a soft Cover 2 here, given that it leads 34-17 in the 4th quarter, with Jones (CB, bottom of screen) being the flat defender. The Giants run four verticals, but it’s played perfectly by both Jones and Epps, the former of whom comes down with a well-earned INT. (Side note: even with the score deficit, Daniel Jones should’ve taken the free yards that Saquon Barkley had.) Sidney Jones backpedals to stay within range of Slayton while still keeping his eyes on the backfield in case a different route enters his flat zone, so that once the ball is thrown, he’s close enough to use his ball skills to make a play on it.
However, Jones struggled a lot as the deep zone defender in Cover 3. By my count, opponents only had one incompletion when Jones was targeted in Cover 3, and even that was simply an inaccurate Prescott pass.
Jones (CB, bottom of screen) is responsible for the deep third in Cover 3 and plays it horribly, but gets bailed out by a tremendous play from Jenkins. Jenkins is the flat defender, but because he can see that nothing leaks out of the backfield into his zone, he wisely drops deeper than a Cover 3 flat defender typically would. Consequently, he is deep enough to deflect a ball that would have been completed around 24 yards past the LOS, clearly not his responsibility as an underneath player. As for Sidney Jones, he bails way too far away from the sideline as the deep-third defender; there’s no reason he should be crossing the numbers when Marvin Jones doesn’t do so. Jones is responsible for any deep pass between the sideline and roughly the midpoint between the numbers and hashes;, he doesn’t play like it here. And Detroit exploited this tendency again.
With the Eagles in Cover 3 again here, it’s a similar deep corner route from Marvin Jones, but there’s one key difference; because Kerryon Johnson runs a flat out of the backfield instead of pass blocking, Jenkins (flat defender) has to keep eyes on him, meaning he’s not there to bail out Sidney Jones (CB, top of screen) again. Jones makes the exact same mistake of drifting too far from the sideline. Theoretically, if Sidney Jones played with outside leverage and Marvin Jones broke inward, he would have deep safety help from McLeod. But when the opposite happens — Sidney Jones plays with inside leverage and Marvin Jones breaks outward — it’s a free 18 yards for Detroit. This rep is actually even worse than the last one, because Sidney Jones also lets Marvin Jones into his blind spot by rotating clockwise after Marvin Jones’ break, instead of flipping his hips to keep the receiver in sight.
The Eagles are in Cover 3 again, with Jones (CB, top of screen) as the deep-third defender. This time, not only does Jones bail too far from the sideline to keep his eyes on the player he should be guarding — he picks up the wrong man altogether. As Jones yet again crosses the numbers for no reason while the #1 WR (Cooper, in this case) hugs the sideline, Jones picks up the seam by the #2 (Blake Jarwin), even though that should clearly be the deep-middle safety’s (Marcus Epps) responsibility. Jones commits to Jarwin even before Cooper makes his break inward; if Cooper’s route happened to be a go instead of a dig, he’d still be running. Because of Jones’ poor position, Cooper is wide open on an 18-yard dig, which is too far downfield to be the underneath flat defender’s job. A bad throw from Prescott doesn’t negate that Jones was almost responsible for a huge play.
However, as was the case in man coverage, some of Jones’ best work came when he wasn’t targeted. This specific play highlights his football intelligence:
For context here: on the fourth play of the game, Stefon Diggs ran a double-reverse for 10 yards, as the Eagles were in Cover 1 with Jones manned up on Diggs, and Jones couldn’t weave through all of the traffic to catch Diggs. Based on how far downfield the offensive linemen went, that play was a designed run the whole way. But on this 3rd quarter play, the chess match of football is exposed. Anticipating that the Eagles will over-correct from the 1st quarter play and have the opposite side’s corner come up for the run once he sees Diggs coming toward him, the Vikings designed this play to be a pass, with RB Alex Mattison running a wheel after blocking briefly. But Jones (CB, bottom of screen), as the deep-third defender in Cover 3, sniffs out Mattison’s route and runs stride-for-stride with him, ruining the play. Very rough tackling efforts from Jenkins and Fletcher Cox here turn what should be a TFL into an 8-yard gain, but Jones still nixed what Minnesota thought would be a walk-in TD.
The Film: Run Game/Tackling
Run defense was not the reason the Eagles struggled last season, just like it’s not the reason that you’re reading this story. But since Jim Schwartz’s defense is predicated on stopping the run, it’s still worth addressing.
Jones has a reputation as a weak tackler, especially when juxtaposed with renowned tackling CBs Jalen Mills and Rasul Douglas. But while Jones will never lay down huge hits like those two guys, he is a far more sure tackler than the common fan realizes. According to PFF, Jones only missed one tackle all season out of 22 opportunities. I also had Jones missing one tackle, though on a different play than PFF determined. Jones’ missed tackle rate of 4.5% ranked T-15th out of the 157 CBs with 100+ defensive snaps, and it was by far the best among Eagles CBs, with Mills’ 12.2% in 2nd place. We can spare the analysis here to save space, but here were some of my favorite reps:
The only missed tackle I had for Jones was here (note: I considered this Aaron Jones TD a missed tackle for McLeod, not Jones):
Jones’ stats alone in 2019 suggested that he was already among the NFL’s elite CBs, but the film showed that he was the benefactor of some very good luck, particularly in man coverage. He was still the Eagles’ best option at the position, particularly at preventing the deep touchdowns that plagued the team all season, but his inconsistency shows that he has a long way to go to become the player the Eagles thought he would be in 2017.
On Jones’ best reps, he displays his combination of speed, length, and elite ball skills that haven’t been seen in any Eagles cornerback since the Andy Reid era (prior to the Slay trade, at least). He is very aggressive to make plays when the ball is in the air, which leads to his high number of pass breakups, and he also is adept at using enough physicality to slow down opposing receivers without drawing penalties. Jones is a very smart football player, prominently on display when he’s an underneath defender in zone coverage, and he is a much better tackler than commonly given credit for.
On the flip side, Jones’ sub-par hip fluidity and agility can be major problems, as he occasionally cedes separation by starting too flat-footed and then being too slow to react to his opponent’s route. He has an alarming tendency to allow receivers into his blind spot, as he displays a lack of confidence in his ability to flip his hips by instead turning his full body and leaving receivers out of his sight. Jones’ lack of strength also can be a problem against more physical receivers. In Cover 3, Jones especially struggled, commonly falling into a trap of drifting too far from the sideline and leaving his zone susceptible to big plays. Then, of course, there are the durability concerns for Jones, who has still never appeared in more than six consecutive NFL games. For all of the talk about how Carson Wentz has never finished a playoff game, Jones has not even played a defensive snap in the Eagles’ six playoff games since he was drafted.
Where will he go from here? The ceiling is still very high for Jones; people often forget that he just turned 24 years old, younger than a few players in the 2020 NFL Draft (even including one of the corners, Houston’s John Reid). Beyond that, he is also entering his first offseason without coming off of a season-ending injury, which will allow him to focus on the nuances of the position rather than devoting his energy to rehabbing his Achilles tendon or hamstring.
Reports are that Maddox is likely to start over Jones on the outside in 2020, but I would guess the Eagles want Jones to earn that starting spot. Maddox’s 5’9’’ frame is best suited for the slot, and he struggled in his few appearances on the outside in 2019; by my count, the Packers were 9-14 for 138 yards (plus a DPI penalty) when targeting Maddox at outside CB in Week 4, and we all remember how the Wild Card game went. But no matter what the team wants behind closed doors, it’s as simple as Howie Roseman phrased it: “it’s time for him to go prove it.”
Cole Jacobson is an Editorial Researcher at the NFL Media office in Los Angeles. He played varsity sprint football as a defensive lineman at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a 2019 graduate as a mathematics major and statistics minor. With any questions, comments, or ideas, he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and @ColeJacobson32 on Twitter.