In August there were plenty of reasons to be excited about the upcoming Eagles season. Few expected the optimism would reach the heights it now occupies. The Eagles sit atop their division, atop their conference, and happily devoid of the glaring weaknesses opponents are exhibiting across the NFC. How did they get here? It wasn’t just the heralded acquisitions. It was the small ones, filling in those weaknesses and providing the depth for any eventuality. Three players, all new to the team, have stepped up big time when their number was called due to injury this season.
Signing Patrick Robinson
The signings that dominated the off-season were Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, LeGarrette Blount and Chris Long. The discussions about the cornerback position centered around the enormous well of talent to tap in the draft and then the timetable for second round pick Sidney Jones’ recovery. When Patrick Robinson was mentioned this Summer, it was as the veteran addition who didn’t seem to be separating himself from the younger players in camp or from the rather poor tradition of cornerback play that had been established in Philadelphia.
That changed midway through the season opener when the latest player to steal the headlines at corner, new acquisition Ronald Darby, took a nasty turn to his ankle and left the game. In came Robinson, and his impressive level of play from that day has yet to drop off. He has interceptions off Eli Manning and Cam Newton, but his most impressive game yet came two weeks ago, when Carson Palmer threw at the veteran again and again and Robinson kept batting it away. He finished with three passes defensed. The Cardinals were unable to get deep behind Robinson and lucky to escape without multiple interceptions.
“He was working through some new techniques that we were asking him to play" Defensive coordinator Schwartz said speaking to the media Tuesday. "Particularly in some of the ball location stuff that he had never done before.”
Robinson is a former first round pick who had yet to make his mark on the league. What the Eagles taught appears to be paying off, and it speaks well for this coaching staff’s ability to impart knowledge to young members of the secondary. So far this season, Robinson is Pro Football Focus’ second ranked corner.
Trading for Timmy Jernigan
In addition to signing Chris Long and drafting Derek Barnett, the Eagles bolstered the defensive line this off-season by swapping third round picks with Baltimore and acquiring Jernigan in the process to replace the outgoing Bennie Logan. While many praised the acquisition, Jernigan was envisioned as the penetrating pass rusher who would complement Fletcher Cox in Schwartz’ rush heavy scheme, and not Logan’s equal as a run stuffer. In actuality, it’s perhaps the latter part of his game where Jernigan has been most impressive this season for a defense that is allowing the fewest rushing yards per game in the NFL at 65.7.
“He's been very disruptive, and that was not an overnight success," Schwartz said. "It took him a long time to sort of have it ingrained in his DNA to attack. For three years, he had been sort of a lateral, at-the-line-of-scrimmage-type player. He's hard to handle now, and a lot of it's because of him attacking. He's an explosive player. He's disruptive.”
Jernigan had a sack-and-a-half in his first two games in Philadelphia before cooling off in the statistical department. Teams were allowed to pay more attention to Jernigan in the absence of Cox for two games, and with Cox returning to the lineup this previous week against the Panthers, Jernigan’s sack numbers may start rising again. Whether they do or not, you can expect to keep seeing a lot of him in opponents’ backfields.
Finding Jake Elliott
It feels like a slight to Caleb Sturgis to heap praise on Elliott, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. The Eagles’ incumbent kicker was a huge part of the success the team had in 2016, making a franchise record 35 field goals on 41 attempts. It was an extremely good decision to go with Sturgis out of camp over their returning-from-injury Pro Bowler Cody Parkey, who struggled in Cleveland.
Sturgis was already three-for-three on field goals, albeit with a missed extra-point, when he injured himself in the season opener against Washington. It forced the Eagles into a two-point conversion attempt in that game and once it became clear it would keep Sturgis off the field going forward, there were a lot of directions the kicking game could go in.
Fortunately for Eagles fans, it went in the direction of Jake Elliott, a fifth round rookie lifted from Cincinnati’s practice squad. Elliott, the rare kicker drafted, missed a kick in each of his first two games with the team, but has been perfect since the final kick of his second game: the 61-yarder as time expired to avoid overtime and send the Giants home with a loss. It was the longest field goal in Eagles history, and an NFL rookie record.
Since signing, Elliott’s kicks have been the difference in three Eagles victories. He sits at 12-of-14 on the season and is a perfect 13-for-13 on point after attempts.