Philadelphia Eagles DBs are doing something new this year: Picking off passes at a high rate
Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Jalen Mills (31) celebrates after returning an interception for a touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers, Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017, in Philadelphia,. (AP Photo/Michael Perez)
PHILADELPHIA — Soft-spoken Eagles cornerback Patrick Robinson began to answer a question this week about the team’s 11 interceptions, a total tied for fourth in the NFL, when safety Malcolm Jenkins interjected from the next locker stall over.
Robinson had just affirmed that defensive backs are competitive with one another. They often grow more aggressive after watching a teammate nab a pick, he said.
“Hell yeah,” Jenkins shouted, while smiling and looking at Robinson, “and I haven’t gotten one yet.”
It’s true, Jenkins remains without an interception this season, but others in the secondary are picking up his slack, which hasn’t been the case in recent years. Birds defensive backs have more picks through nine games this season (11) than they did all of last year (10), and that 11-interception mark equals the secondary’s total from the entire 2014 and 2015 seasons.
In fact, no defensive backfield in the NFL has accounted for more picks than the Eagles’ in 2017.
It’s an aspect of the team’s resurgence that has gone somewhat overlooked as the Birds prepare for Sunday’s NFC East clash at the Cowboys (5-4). Many analysts laud quarterback Carson Wentz and a fearsome defensive line when explaining the Eagles’ rise to an NFL-best 8-1 record this season, but a newfound tendency for takeaways on the backend of the defense has buoyed the squad along the way.
Cornerback Jalen Mills, whose three picks are tied with Robinson’s for the team lead, said the fiery nature of the secondary has made the difference.
“We just have that competitive edge,” Mills said. “Everybody in this group is always competing with each other, and it’s always good to have friendly competition within your group, you know what I mean?”
That hunger for competition even stretched beyond the defensive backfield. Last year, as the Eagles’ corners and safeties struggled to produce takeaways at a high rate, linebacker Jordan Hicks led the team with five interceptions.
Mills said the team appreciated that and marveled at Hicks, who suffered a season-ending ruptured Achilles on Oct. 23, but his success served to motivate the defensive backs.
“Oh, man, you know as the secondary we got to run it up now,” Mills said, “just because he did that last year.”
Defensive backs have made up for the loss of Hicks’ playmaking ability, and their interceptions have helped the Eagles post a plus-six turnover margin through nine games. And that shouldn’t be discounted when studying the team’s vault to the top of the NFC standings.
No stat reflects the success of NFL squads quite as well as give and take numbers. Of the 12 NFL teams with plus-three turnover margins or better, 11 have winning records; Baltimore (4-5) is the lone outlier.
Motivation doesn’t solely explain the uptick in Eagles interceptions, though. Defensive backs coach Cory Undlin said it’s hard to pinpoint a singular reason for the improved takeaway production, but he gave credit to a ferocious defensive line that features all-pro caliber players like Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox.
“The D-line is playing unbelievable right now,” Undlin said. “Quarterbacks are having a tough time just patting the ball and throwing it to where they want to. So quarterbacks are under pressure a lot and three or four of those interceptions have been a direct result of the quarterback being on his heels and the quarterback making a bad decision, and we’re getting the end result of that.”
As with anything in the NFL, personnel matters, too. Last year, starting cornerbacks Leodis McKelvin and Nolan Carroll struggled throughout the season, and the team reshaped its secondary in the offseason after parting ways with that duo.
Philadelphia signed Robinson, who had 10 career interceptions over his first seven seasons, in March and drafted cornerback Rasul Douglas in the third round after he led the country in interceptions at West Virginia in 2016. Those two have combined for five interceptions this year, and veteran safety Corey Graham nabbed a pick against Washington last month.
So, even with newly acquired Ronald Darby sitting the past eight games with a dislocated ankle, six of the Eagles’ 11 interceptions have come from a player in his first year with the team.
Douglas said the Birds cornerbacks often work on pass-catching drills like receivers would, while Robinson noticed players in the secondary gained confidence as the defense thrived early in the season. That’s emboldened them to try to make plays on the ball in the air.
“Really, we’re just looking for the ball, to be honest,” Robinson said. “I think a lot of times, DBs start to panic, and a lot of times they don’t look for the ball. I think this year we’re looking for it.”
And they’re finishing off those type of plays more often than the team’s defensive backs have in past years. Except for Jenkins, that is.
The Birds’ defensive captain has been a key cog all year, steadying the unit through injuries with his versatility and commanding voice. But while the players around him have been piling up picks, Jenkins sits mired in an unusual takeaway drought.
Robinson told his teammate not to worry about it, though.
“Yeah,” Robinson said, “he’s just saving them for the playoffs.”
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