The missing piece of the puzzle for the Philadelphia Eagles’ defense is ready to return.
And then what for a team that’s 8-1 anyway?
Top cornerback Ronald Darby, who’s been out since the opener after dislocating his ankle, practiced fully Monday as the team reconvened from the bye week and started preparing for its Sunday night road showdown against the rival Dallas Cowboys.
Darby returned to practice two weeks before the bye but was limited as the coaches worked him back into shape. He spent Weeks 2 through 6 off the practice field altogether.
Amazingly, the Eagles didn’t skip a beat without him, even after losing Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fletcher Cox for two starts, safety Rodney McLeod for one and after losing middle linebacker Jordan Hicks for the rest of the season on Oct. 23 against the Redskins with an Achilles tear.
The Eagles have emerged as the league’s No. 1-ranked run defense and have maintained their No. 3 ranking on third down, which they’ve held for most of the season.
Still, Darby’s return stands to help the Eagles improve in some critical areas that should come in extra handy as they face some elite quarterbacks and high-powered offenses over the second half of their season.
With Darby out, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has started Jalen Mills at left cornerback and Partick Robinson at right cornerback for base formations and rotated rookie Rasul Douglas with Jaylen Watkins at right corner while moving Robinson inside in frequently used nickel and dime packages.
Schwartz has also leaned heavily on his corners playing off coverage, capitalizing on a dominant pass rush that’s forced quarterbacks to get rid of the ball quickly or pay the price. This style of defense has allowed quarterbacks to work the middle of the field, but the Eagles have swarmed and tackled well, limiting big plays and keeping opponents from long marches.
Darby is the team’s only true man-press corner, which is the kind of corner Schwartz typically prefers. He has 4.3 speed and is dangerous when he gets his hands on the ball, which is why the Eagles paid a decent price – a third-round pick and productive receiver Jordan Matthews – when they dealt for him in the middle of training camp.
With Darby’s speed and press coverage on one half of the field, hurried quarterbacks shouldn’t be able to unload quickly to his side in the face of pressure. Darby’s presence should help linemen reach higher sack totals, especially if they’re holding onto the ball an extra second or so, and help the overall defense continue to win the turnover battle and stiffen up between the 20s.
For all the pressure the Eagles have generated, they rank just 18th in sacks per pass attempt and 13th in yards per pass against them. Quarterbacks have completed about 61 percent of their passes against them, which ranks 13th, and have an 81.2 passer rating against them, good for ninth.
Being a bend-don’t-break defense without Darby hasn’t hurt the Eagles, but they’ve also faced some lousy offenses in their past two games, starting with the C.J. Beathard-led 49ers and continuing with the Brock Osweiler-quarterbacked Broncos.
Darby wasn’t sure Monday how much he’ll play against the Cowboys, but didn’t rule out playing the whole game. Having him matched against Pro Bowl wideout Dez Bryant presents another obstacle for the Cowboys, who looked terrible Sunday in their first game without suspended running back Ezekiel Elliott, although they also missed Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith.
The Cowboys will lean heavier on quarterback Dak Prescott while Elliott serves the rest of his six-game suspension, and his rapport with Bryant over is crucial.
But the Eagles also face Russell Wilson, Jared Goff and Derek Carr over the next six weeks as they come down the home stretch fighting to lock down the conference’s top seed and home-field advantage up to the Super Bowl.
The Eagles beat the odds just by flourishing without their best cornerback, but Darby’s presence can lift them from very good to elite.
— Geoff Mosher, a longtime Philadelphia sports reporter, is also a host on @975TheFanatic in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffMosherNFL.
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