October 14, 2017
After a 7-9 finish in 2016, the Eagles spent much of the offseason systematically upgrading their roster at the positions that needed it the most, including cornerback, wide receiver and running back.
It wasn't rocket science. The holes on the depth chart were glaring.
Still, you never know how those newly acquired pieces are going to fit in with the players already on the roster, both in the locker room and on the field. Heading into the 2017 season, it was one of the major questions head coach Doug Pederson was hoping to have answered.
And with six games in the books, the early returns are in.
See, there's a lot that can go wrong following an offseason with major roster overhaul – just ask the Eagles "Dream Team" of 2011 – but so far this year, we've seen none of that. In fact, it's been quite the opposite, as many of those recent additions have played a big role in the Birds getting off to an NFC-best 5-1 start.
"I think, one, it’s how well that new piece just embraces [his] role on the team," Pederson said when asked about their stellar play to this point. "Then, how we, as coaches, see these pieces being used in the offense or defensive plan. I can tell you that on offense with LeGarrette [Blount] and with Alshon and Torrey, these guys that have come in, even Kenjon [Barner] now, just they don't feel like they need the ball every time. This is such a great – this is a team sport, and [when] everybody does their job, the success rate goes up."
With so much of the (well-deserved) credit going to Carson Wentz and the offense have been getting, the Eagles defense has been playing second fiddle to the second-year quarterback.
But with how well they're playing despite several key injuries, that may be where the Birds are getting the most out of their new players.
"[It's been the] same way on defense," Pederson continued. "You're seeing [DT] Tim Jernigan; you're seeing [CB] Patrick Robinson, who has played extremely well the last couple of games. You're seeing these guys step up and just build on what was already here, and that's the important thing. Any time you get new guys on your roster, it's the veteran presence around them, it's the guys that are already here, and how they embrace them and say, ‘Hey, this is how we do things around here.’
"It's just been a pleasant surprise to have all those pieces working and jelling all at the same time."
Both players have also been asked to step up due to injuries at their respective positions. For Jernigan, that meant playing without Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fletcher Cox lined up next to him. But in the case of Robinson, it's meant taking on an increased role due to a secondary that has been without fellow offseason acquisition Ronald Darby and rookie Sidney Jones, as well as Jaylen Watkins in recent weeks.
After a rough start to his Eagles career that led to training camp headlines like, "Confirmed: The Eagles need better cornerbacks," and even earned him a shoutout in Jimmy Kempski's "10 reasons why the Eagles will be a dumpster fire this season."
In the months since, however, Robinson has proved many wrong, myself included – all while doing something he's never been asked to do before, playing outside in the Eagles base defense and moving to the slot when they go nickel.
"Like I said, he's played extremely well these last couple of games," Pederson said when asked specifically about Robinson. "It's just another veteran player. As you know, corner was an issue for us coming out of last season. He's really embraced the position, playing inside and outside. He's never really done that before, and we've asked him to play both spots. He's playing at an extremely high level. He's playing with a lot of confidence right now."
On Thursday night against the Panthers, the veteran cornerback had arguably his best game of the season, making two huge plays that played a crucial role in the Birds' win.
First, there was the fumble recovery on Barner's muffed punt. He wasn't the closest player to the ball initially, but Robinson came in like a torpedo to make the grab.
Then, in the third quarter, he made this absolutely ridiculous interception, setting up a Zach Ertz touchdown two plays later.
Even Robinson looked surprised he made that play.
While the lion's share of the credit belongs to Robinson and the other new players who have stepped up in recent weeks, some needs to make its way to Howie Roseman, who in addition to Pederson, is one of the main reasons these guys are in Philly to begin with.
And then there's defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who has his unit playing as well as nearly any other in football. When talking specifically about the defense, there's no doubt several off those offseason acquisitions have his fingerprints all over them.
Still, the pieces need to fit and play well together. They need to perform. As they say, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't force it to drink.
Well, unless you're Jim Schwartz.
"The other thing, too is, schematically, it's Jim's philosophy, too, it's not a very complicated or overly complicated scheme," Pederson said in reference to why the defense has jelled so quickly. "So what I mean by that is, it just allows the guys to play fast, and play clearheaded and clear-minded and just make plays. He's done that, and done a nice job these first six weeks."
Cleary, he deserves a good chunk of the credit too. I guess it's a good thing there's plenty to go around.
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