Concerns about Eagles corners

Posted: August 28, 2013

IF YOU ASKED Eagles fans to select the most alarming defensive moment from Saturday night's preseason game against Jacksonville, most of them probably would point to that 63-yard second-quarter touchdown run by the immortal Jordan Todman.

But that play doesn't bother me nearly as much as Chad Henne's 17-yard touchdown pass to Justin Blackman on the Jaguars' first possession.

The Todman cutback run was, as linebacker DeMeco Ryans pointed out yesterday, primarily the result of a few Eagles defenders who took poor angles to the ball. It is a correctable error.

So, too, is the communications gaffe between safety Patrick Chung and cornerback Bradley Fletcher that led to Blackman's touchdown catch. But after watching the same thing happen time and time again last season when the Eagles allowed a franchise-record 33 touchdown passes, I'm beginning to wonder if maybe it's something in the water at NovaCare.

New defensive coordinator. New scheme. New cornerbacks and safeties.

Same old blown coverages.

On the touchdown play, the Jags lined up three wide receivers - Blackman, Mike Brown and Cecil Shorts - on the right side. After the ball was snapped, there was confusion between Fletcher and Chung over who was responsible for Blackman, who had lined up in the slot. Neither player ended up taking him, and Blackman ended up with an embarrassingly easy touchdown.

"A lot of big [pass] plays happened last year because of miscommunication or people not really knowing what the other guy was going to do," said cornerback Brandon Boykin, one of the few holdovers from last year's mistake-prone secondary. "It's important to gain that trust with one another, and I think we're building that now. But it takes a little time."

The Eagles spent a lot of time and money in the offseason renovating their secondary. Showed the door to both of their underperforming corners - Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Brought in potentially an entirely new secondary via free agency.

One of those potential replacements - safety Kenny Phillips - already has been released. But the other three - Chung, Fletcher and corner Cary Williams - are likely season-opening starters, along with either holdover safety Nate Allen or rookie Earl Wolff.

It's difficult to believe that this secondary could be as bad as last year's, when the Eagles had a wretched 125.9 opponent passer rating in their final 10 games. Gave up 26 touchdown passes and had just one interception in those 10 games.

How much better it's going to be, though, remains to be seen. Williams started 16 games for the Super Bowl-champion Ravens last year, but gave up a team-high six touchdown passes, which was one more than Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie.

Fletcher has started more than seven games just once in four NFL seasons and already has had two major knee injuries. He spent most of last year as the third corner on a middle-of-the-pack defense in St. Louis.

Fletcher has managed to stay healthy so far, but the same can't be said for much of the rest of the Eagles' cornerbacks. Curtis Marsh and Brandon Hughes, both of whom are on the roster bubble, are out with broken bones in their hands, which could seal their roster fates. Eddie Whitley was waived injured Sunday after hurting his knee in the Jacksonville game.

At the moment, the Eagles' only healthy corners after Williams, Fletcher and Boykin are seventh-round rookie Jordan Poyer and Trevard Lindley, who spent last year out of football and hasn't played in an NFL game since 2010.

So, Chip. What do you think of your depth at corner?

"We are very concerned, with three of those guys being out," the Eagles' head coach said. "That's where postgame on Thursday [after teams trim their rosters to 53 players] becomes a big day in terms of what becomes available. But our whole thought right now is we've got to play with what we've got."

Kelly plans to rest his starters Thursday when the Eagles face the Jets in the Meadowlands in their final preseason tuneup. But that might not be possible at corner because of the lack of bodies.

At the very least, Boykin, whose 48 snaps against the Jags were the most by any defensive player, is going to have to play.

"On Saturday, with so many guys injured, I had to go outside and inside and then back outside again," Boykin said. "I'm not complaining. I got a lot of good, quality reps."

This week?

"I don't know yet," he said. "They'll probably tell us [today] or [tomorrow]. Whatever reps I get I'll take them, as if they're the No. 1 reps and we're in that first game against Washington."

Boykin, who played 53 percent of the defensive snaps last year as the team's nickel corner and was the one bright spot in the secondary, has told anybody who will listen that he wants an opportunity to start outside.

But defensive coordinator Bill Davis seems reluctant to do that for two reasons: a) Boykin is only 5-9 1/2, and despite possessing a 40-inch vertical leap, would be at a disadvantage against many of the league's behemoth wideouts; and b) they don't have an adequate replacement for him inside if they moved him outside. Though, he could play outside in their base package and then move inside in their nickel and dime packages.

"It's still the preseason; we still have one game left," Boykin said. "The coaches haven't said anything to me to [make him] think otherwise [that he's not in contention for a starting job].

"Regardless of whether I do start or play nickel, it doesn't matter. My game's not going to change. My preparation is not going to change. I'm still going to attack every game the same way I do now."

Poyer has the physical skill set to play inside. But it's still not even certain he's going to make the team.

"Not being able to go to OTAs [because of an NFL rule that prevents players from participating in them until after their school has finished final exams], now that I sit back and look at it, it was kind of a big part of it that I missed," Poyer said.

"It's taken me a little while to get the speed part of the game down. But I'm feeling a lot more comfortable within the defense now, and am able to just play like I did in college [at Oregon State]."

Boykin has outplayed both Williams and Fletcher in the preseason. Pro Football Focus, which factors in quality of play against both the pass and the run, gave him a grade of +2.2 for the first three games, compared to -0.5 for Williams and -1.7 for Fletcher.

Boykin has given up just seven completions in 15 passes thrown in his direction. Fletcher has allowed nine completions on 10 attempts. Williams is 5-for-10.

Opposing starting quarterbacks have a 93.4 passer rating against the Eagles in the preseason. The only starter they really shut down was Carolina's Cam Newton (8-for-17, 112 yards, no touchdowns).

The Jags' Chad Henne completed 11 of 18 passes and threw two TD passes. The Patriots' Tom Brady was 7-for-8 with a touchdown pass.

"I think the one thing that's helped us the most is the music that the coaches have been playing at practice," Boykin said. "It's helped us communicate louder than we would on a normal basis.

"Once we get on the field, it's just clicking. Normally, that takes a lot of time to come. It kind of takes a couple of games in the regular season, at least. But we have that now. I feel like if we can get some turnovers, we'll be pretty good."

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On Twitter: @Pdomo


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