Divisional Round Evaluations: Defensive Backs

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By Paul Bowman, Sports Talk Philly Editor

Leading up to the Eagles matchup with the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, Sports Talk Philly and Eagledelphia will compare the personnel of the two teams each day until gameday is here.

In this edition of our week-long comparison, we will look at the defensive backs that the Saints and Eagles will field on Sunday.

New Orleans DBs | Eli Apple, Kurt Coleman, Marshon Lattimore, Marcus Williams, Vonn Bell, PJ Williams

A first-round pick of the Giants in 2016, Apple was acquired by the Saints mid-season. He instantly became the top cornerback on the roster. Since joining the team, Apple has recorded two interceptions and a fumble recovery to go with 52 tackles in 10 games. He is a cover corner and there is little to no risk of him blitzing or successfully stopping a run behind the line.

Passers instead target Marshon Lattimore when targeting the outside as he has not had a season to match the outstanding rookie season he had last year. After be selected as the Defensive Rookie of the Year, to the 2017 Pro Bowl and 2017 All-Rookie team and making the NFL’s Top 100 players list this past offseason, he has not been as good in coverage this season. He has managed two interceptions and four forced fumbles with three recoveries, but compared to last season when he managed five interceptions, he has had to make far more plays after the catch is made than he had to last year and has not been able to simply prevent the pass from being completed at the same rate.

The biggest factors in this game will likely be in the slot. Super Bowl LII Champion Patrick Robinson landed on IR early in the season and PJ Williams had to take over for him. He has been decent, but is the weakest link in the cornerback group. He has one interception, two forced fumbles, a sack and 53 tackles on the season.

Marcus Williams, another 2017 All-Rookie team selection, has also seen a decrease in production. He managed only two interceptions and a forced fumble to go along with just 59 tackles and a sack. By no means has he been bad, but he has by no means taken a step forward as both his interceptions and tackles fell.

Eagles seveth-round pick Kurt Coleman and third-year man Vonn Bell split the second safety spot. Coleman is listed as the second safety on the depth chart, but his season has not been as good as his second and third seasons in Philadelphia. He played in all 16 games, but registered only one forced fumbles and a very weak 32 tackles. Bell managed more tackles (88) in a larger amount of snaps, but also only has one forced fumble to go with a sack. The Eagles will look to take advantage of either of the two as neither has particularly great coverage skills.

Philadelphia DBs | Malcolm Jenkins, Corey Graham, Tre Sullivan, Rasul Douglas, Avonte Maddox, Cre’Von LeBlanc

The Eagles are led by a safety of their own. He is the only one of the five starters that is still active in this game with three of the five now on IR. The two-time Pro Bowler has found himself in the NFL top 100 in both of the previous offseasons. He is inarguably one of the best free agent signings the Eagles have ever made and has provided a rare level of stability as one of only three defensive players around the league to play every snap this season. He has also played 5,643 of 5,733 (98.4%) defensive snaps since 2014. Despite rarely being thrown at due to the injuries everywhere else in the secondary, Jenkins lead the team with 97 tackles, proving he is there to clean up messes and support the run game.

The second biggest player for the Birds is fourth-round pick Avonte Maddox. Maddox is a corner, but spent half the season as a safety after injuries forced him to play out of position. He is still ranked as the fifth best rookie safety, according to PFF, and has not played there for weeks as he was moved back to corner. He has allowed the fourth lowest quarterback rating when targeted (minimum 300 snaps) with a 59.9 rating. He also allowed a league low .56 yards per coverage snap during the regular season (minimum 300 coverage snaps), though Patrick Peterson is just behind him and played far more coverage snaps. His development from a rookie picked mid-draft into one of the most versatile players in the league has been amazing. He needs to work on his hands, however. While his two interceptions are nothing to sneeze at considering his situation, he could easily be at five already with the amount of passes he has gotten his hands on and simply dropped. He had that chance at least twice in the wild card game and dropped the ball both times. One of those two was an easy pick-six and the Eagles could have blown out the Bears. He needs to make those plays going forward.

Corey Graham will start as the safety opposite Jenkins and has been a fairly reliable veteran when he is rotated out every once and a while to take a break and allowing Tre Sullivan to see the field. Neither is a huge player, but Graham does have a bit of a nose for the ball while Sullivan has quietly developed since his return to the active roster. In the first round of the playoffs, Sullivan was rated by Pro Football Focus as the second-best defensive player to see the field behind a linebacker from Baltimore. He dropped an interception in the end zone that would have prevented points and kept the game tied at three at halftime in Chicago, so there is still room for improvement.

Rasul Douglas came in due to injuries at corner and was simply awful. There is nothing else to say about how he played when he started against the Cowboys and Saints. He was burnt play after play. A good corner has a short memory, however and Douglas has steadily improved. He seems more fit for a safety/slot corner/linebacker role (much like Malcolm Jenkins provides) in the future with his ball skills and tackling ability, but for now, he is needed at corner and his coverage has been steadily improving. While he did give up the touchdown to lose the second Cowboys game, that should not be held against him as he made a fantastic play. He jumped the route and knocked the ball off course, it just took a bad bounce up off his hand and Amari Cooper was able to make a play. It is unfortunate that such a well-played ball ended up like that. In the wild card round, Douglas lead the Eagles in tackles with seven.

The Eagles slot corner is Cre’Von LeBlanc, who spent the previous two seasons with the Bears and was let go by the Lions just when the Eagles needed corners. It turned out to be good timing as LeBlanc has taken to the team and performed well since learning the system. Despite playing with a broken finger and a cast on his hand, LeBlanc was able to register 24 tackles despite starting only four games for the Birds.


A note that surprised me and may surprise many other readers is that Pro Football Focus ranked the Eagles secondary as the 23rd best unit in the league. The Saints were ranked 28th. Consider that the Eagles will start five guys who have played 56 games and made seven interceptions. Those 56 games exclude games where Maddox or Douglas played only special teams or fewer than five defensive snaps, but include when Maddox was playing out of position at safety. The Saints starters have managed the same amount of interceptions in 78 games. That is an interception every eight games for the Eagles and one every more than 11 games for the Saints. New Orleans did come out better in defensed passes (38, once every 1.9 games) than the Eagles (22, one every 2.51 games), but not by much.

While the Eagles overall group may actually be stronger, I would have to be a fool to ignore the recent issues that the young Eagles secondary has shown being too aggressive and biting on double-moves. The wild card showed just how good and bad the Eagles unit can be. It was the tale of two halves. It would be hard to argue that the Eagles corners are better than those of the Saints, but their safeties clearly have been. Without a clear option, these two units come out in a draw.



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