Eagles cornerbacks vow to stay physical

Bradley Fletcher defends bigger receivers well.
Bradley Fletcher defends bigger receivers well. (YONG KIM / Staff)
Posted: August 13, 2014

The Eagles are specific about how they want cornerbacks to play. If you don't like contact, you need not apply. When they signed Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher last offseason, it was because they're both rangy and physical. The signing of Nolan Carroll in March began with the same premise.

The league's emphasis on limiting contact by defensive backs this season especially affects players who rely on using a physical presence against wide receivers. Although neither Williams nor Fletcher was flagged in Friday's preseason loss to Chicago, the Eagles committed three defensive holding penalties.

"We grabbed cloth, they called it. Everything they told us they were going to call, they called," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "We made the mistake, we put our hands on someone past 5 [yards], they called it. It's a matter of us adjusting."

Adjusting does not mean eliminating what the Eagles want to do - although with the worst pass defense in the NFL last season, improvement in any form would be welcome. The Eagles must learn to operate within the league's new parameters.

"So we can still be aggressive, we can still attack, we can still press," Davis said. "We just have to do it a little tighter than we did a year ago."

Some adapt more easily than others. Williams, whose boldness has helped him develop from a seventh-round draft pick to a starter in the Super Bowl, did not sound as if he would change. He said he'll push the limits until he sees what the officials call.

"It's not going to change the way I play, it's not going to change the way [Fletcher] plays, or anybody in an Eagles uniform plays, for that matter," Williams said. "We already discussed that in our meetings - about being physical, being relentless. We're going to continue to apply pressure on those receivers as best as possible and try to disrupt timing between them and the quarterback. It's part of the game."

Fletcher said he understands there will be more flags this season, and the cornerbacks must watch their hands downfield and cannot try "any little tug, anything along those lines." Fletcher has become a starter in the NFL because of the way he defends bigger receivers, when his physicality is required.

"I've got to adjust the way I play so we can make plays and get off the field on third downs," Fletcher said. "Just a quicker punch [within 5 yards], maybe don't lag it on there for too long."

The performance of the outside cornerbacks will be significant if the defense expects to improve. The team's best cornerback might be Brandon Boykin, but the staff remains resolute about keeping Boykin at slot cornerback, where he played only 51 percent of the defense's plays last season.

The Eagles were aggressive in trying to upgrade the depth at the outside spots. That's why they signed Carroll, who can push for playing time. They also drafted Jaylen Watkins in the fourth round and have tried Watkins on the outside and in the slot.

Carroll impressed during the first week of camp before a hamstring injury slowed his momentum. Carroll missed the first preseason game and remained out Monday, although the coaching staff is confident that his previous work has provided an idea of how he can fit.

Watkins has a learning curve, which was witnessed in the preseason opener. He was beaten for a 73-yard touchdown before coming back later in the game with an interception. His coaches and teammates were impressed with the "mental toughness," as Davis called it, to rebound from the poor start.

Unless a major injury besets the group, the two starters, Boykin, Carroll, and Watkins will be the team's cornerbacks. Roc Carmichael and Curtis Marsh, who were both on the roster last season, might be on the outside looking in if the Eagles keep five at the position.

"The competition is higher," Davis said, "and the play should elevate."


zberman@phillynews.com

@ZBerm

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