Eagles' Oft-criticized Cornerbacks Push Back With Strong Red-zone Work

Don't give up on the Eagles' secondary just yet.

Widely regarded as the weak link on an otherwise talented squad, Eagles cornerbacks have often looked the part at training camp - but not Wednesday. Defensive backs rebounded with by far their best practice of the summer while the team did extensive work in the red zone.

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During one such 11-on-11 period, Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz wasn't able to complete a single pass in 10 attempts, failing to move the offense across the goal line in the process. Cornerbacks Jalen Mills, C.J. Smith and Patrick Robinson, and safety Malcolm Jenkins each broke up a pass in the period.

It was a markedly different outcome than one day earlier.

"I liked the way the guys came out today and competed," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "It was a lot of red-zone work, which shrinks the field a little bit, but it's also tough to defend. I thought the guys bounced back from yesterday."

"A lot better," Mills said. "The mental focus was there, and we just completed."

Some players credited a return to fundamentals for the change of fortunes.

"I thought I did a lot better today," Robinson said. "I thought I played calm and relaxed and had fun instead of thinking too hard and trying to do too much. That showed today. I played my technique, I did my assignment, but I didn't think too hard about it."

"When you go in the red zone, especially on the outside, it's all about technique," Mills said. "You can't go out there and freestyle and try to guess on the route. You really have to set your feet in the ground and play technique."

But there was a lot more behind the secondary's improved performance than increased intensity, or better technique and communication. For the first time, the Eagles' defense was practicing situational football.

Jenkins downplayed the unit's prior struggles as if they were to be expected given the circumstances.

"We hadn't had any real special situations yet," Jenkins said. "It's all been kind of a mixed bag. When we do that, we play generic on defense and you're really just trying to match routes.

"It makes it a little bit harder than when you know the situation, you know the tools within the situation, like today."

The trouble with trying to evaluate cornerbacks in camp is many practice periods make no attempt to simulate real, live game situations. The defense doesn't scheme for the offense and tends to stick to a lot of base concepts, which gives a skilled signal caller like Wentz a significant advantage.

Furthermore, Wentz isn't concerned about the pass rush. Even during a live period, nobody is going to hit the quarterback, and if it's 7-on-7, there aren't any bodies around him at all. The passer is free to take all the time and space he needs to scan the field, putting defensive backs in a tough spot.

"It's helping improve those coverage skills," Mills said. "You don't have a pass rush, so you may lock a guy down on his first route, then the next thing you know, Carson is rolling out, and now it turns into a scramble drill."

"This is as hard as it will be," Jenkins said. "There's no rush, and you really have to defend for a whole four seconds. Practice is usually a lot harder than what happens in games.

"We want to get put in the worst possible situations that we can in practice and get comfortable in those situations, so by the time you get to the game - you add a rush, you add a scheme, you add a situation - we're that much faster, we're that much more aggressive to the point of attack."

All of which begs the question: Has the Eagles' secondary been as bad as the analysis might indicate?

The names do not inspire confidence, but is the criticism of the corners in camp entirely fair?

"Sometimes there are periods in practice where you're sort of handcuffing guys," Schwartz said. "The offense knows what the call is. The period is nothing but one coverage, and it might not look like a guy is particularly doing well, but it's hard.

"It's hard to judge how it goes in there."

The answer may lie somewhere in between. Though cornerback is unquestionably the biggest concern on the roster - lacking in experience or so much as one proven, reliable option - there is a reason for optimism.

For starters, the unit is being tested by a superior group of wide receivers compared to 2016.

"It's easy if you look at it on paper and say, ‘They've had this many catches, this many big plays,'" Jenkins said. "But then you go watch the tape, a lot of the times we're in good position, and Alshon Jeffery just out-jumps somebody for a ball.

"Those are the things as a corner - if they're going to beat you, that's how you want them to have to beat you is with some kind of spectacular catch every time, because chances are it's not going to happen."

Wentz is also far more accurate than he was a year ago, especially on deep balls.

"He hasn't underthrown one of them," Jenkins said. "He's definitely got that arm that can stretch the field, we've got guys that can stretch the field and really put stress on our defense when we do leave our corners out to dry.

"Right now, we're trying to feel where that threshold is, how much can we leave them out there on their own, and see if they can hold up. I think that will dictate how we call games."

No matter how good the offense has been, everybody agrees the coverage could be much tighter. However, a few rough practices haven't diminished anybody's resolve.

Robinson along with first-year cornerbacks Rasul Douglas and Mitchell White remained on the field for about 45 minutes after practice ended Wednesday. They were taking instruction from legendary Eagles safety Brian Dawkins.

"We were just talking about some press technique, different things that the receivers like to do, and having a plan before you go out there," Robinson said. "Have a plan before you go out there so you can go out there and relax and play with great technique."

The depth chart at cornerback remains wide open, and Schwartz will flat out admit there is a long way to go before anything is settled. Yet, much like their struggles early in camp, that shouldn't come as a surprise, either.

The competition is just getting underway.

"I'd love to have some continuity there, but we also have to let it play," Schwartz said. "We have to be able to see who can survive the slings and arrows of training camp. There are going to be some situations that are bad."

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