When Malcolm Jenkins was selected by the Saints with the 14th pick in the 2009 draft out of Ohio State, he was hailed as perhaps the Big Ten's most versatile pass defender since Charles Woodson. That held true in the NFL, as Jenkins moved from cornerback to safety in his time with the Saints. When the Eagles swooped in and signed him to a three-year, $15.5 million contract before the 2014 season, that versatility started to show itself in different ways. Jenkins played everywhere from outside corner to slot corner to both safety positions, and that continues today. That's why, when the Eagles jettisoned most of their secondary following an extremely disappointing 2014 season, they held on to Jenkins as the rock around which a new secondary could be built.
Most of the pieces are new, and the results are better through three games in the 2015 season. Last year, the Eagles ranked 18th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics against the pass, and they were giving up big plays all over the place. Now, they rank seventh, and things are looking much better on that side of the ball. Jenkins has been a major key to that. I recently asked him what's been different this year.
“I think it’s twofold,” he said. “One, it was on the players—not understanding what wins and loses in this league. At the end of the day, in the secondary, you just can't have the ball go over your head. You can't give up big plays. We were the worst in the NFL at giving up big plays, so even if we just sat back and let teams complete curls and comebacks against us, you don't lose football games because of that. You lose games because the ball goes over your head, and we just continued to get ourselves in the hole.
“I think the other part of it was that from a coaching standpoint, and in the defensive back room, we just never put the pieces together. This year, we took more responsibility as players for keeping the ball in front of us, and Cory Undlin, our new defensive backs coach, focuses on giving us the tools to actually go and do that on the field. We've seen a huge difference not only in how our secondary plays, but in how much success we have in taking these big plays out of the game."
More and more in today's NFL, secondaries need players who can move around the field and play adequately at multiple positions. Jenkins was a bit ahead of the curve in that regard, and he knows how important it's been to his career.
“I learned early that the more you can do, the longer you'll last in the league,” he told me. “At the rate guys get injured in the NFL, you need somebody who can learn and know and play multiple positions at a high level. It seems like every year, the body types and the skill sets of the positions change. We used to have a lot of small, quick, agile cornerbacks. And all of a sudden, receivers got bigger, so the corners are getting bigger. You need 6'1", 6'2" corners who are 200 pounds, and those small corners are becoming extinct. Safeties used to be big guys who could tackle and hit, almost like a linebacker, and could only play in center field. And then, tight ends became more athletic, almost like receivers, and now you need these more hybrid bodies at the safety position. You've got guys who are forced into coverage more—they're more athletic.
“The versatility of players is at a premium now, because it's all about matchups. You've got Jimmy Graham. You've got Brandon Marshall. You've got Larry Fitzgerald, who's in the slot and is probably too big for a smaller corner, so you need to put a bigger guy in there. There aren't too many teams who have these old traditional body types in the secondary. With our defense, we have four cornerbacks on the field. I was drafted basically as a cornerback. Walter Thurmond, this is his first year playing safety, but he was drafted as a cornerback. And everybody else has either played the nickel position or cornerback position, and it works out well for us.”
Jenkins played well in 2014 even as things were collapsing around him. Last season, he led all safeties in total defensive snaps with 1,201, picking off three passes and deflecting 11 more as he improved as a blitzer and run stopper. Now, he's as much a slot cornerback as anything else. Jenkins played there on 67 of his 239 snaps and allowed eight catches on 13 targets for just 30 yards, no touchdowns and a 65.9 opponent quarterback rating.
From centerfield to the line of scrimmage, Jenkins has made himself into a multi-positional asset, and he recently agreed to review five of his plays from the 2014 and 2015 seasons to reveal the process behind what happens on the field. It's a fascinating insight into just how much thinking happens on the back side of an NFL defense.
1. Week 2 of the 2014 season against the Colts—5:15 left in the game.
Doug Farrar: On this interception, Reggie Wayne is running what looks to be an option drag route on the other side of the field from where you are, while T.Y. Hilton runs an in-curl at the right slot far more in your vicinity. I'm interested in a couple of things here: First, who were you breaking on when you started to jet to where Hilton was? Because it looked like you had a bead on the Wayne route and were timing that to a point. Second, you guys had the right-side outside receiver heading upfield with no safety help. Why was your coverage concept where it was as opposed to moving to that deeper route?
Malcolm Jenkins: We were in kind of a bracket coverage where it's really confusing for the quarterback, because guys match routes based on leverage [establishing angles with body positioning]. So, it's really me and Brandon Boykin working on T.Y. Hilton. Cary Williams has Reggie Wayne on the backside by himself, and as Hilton comes inside, Boykin gets ready to match him. I saw him [Hilton] sit down on the route, and I realized he was probably going to whip back on Boykin's leverage. So, I started to drive on the route there, knowing that the quarterback would probably feel like that's open. I'm really sitting high—when you see the start of the play, I don't backpedal at all. I want the quarterback to feel that I'm a deep defender, but really, I'm a low defender. It was thrown out in front, just one yard too far, and I was able to get the ball.
Sometimes you don't have safety help, and if you watch Bradley Fletcher, he's by himself in this look. But my alignment might tell the quarterback otherwise. It looks like I'm lining up a little deeper and helping out the corner a little bit, but really, I'm in the slot. Sometimes, when cornerbacks are by themselves, there are ways you can hide that based on your alignment and your depth.
Farrar: When you talk about matching, you're referring to pattern matching, where you start out in zone and then you man up as the receiver goes through his route?
Jenkins: Yeah. We started off in a zone, but as the routes declare, it turns into man.
2. Week 3 of the 2014 season against the Redskins—7:34 left in the game.
Farrar: Here's another interception where you seemed to read it right off the bat. This was an interesting look because you were at linebacker depth to start and then moved back to deep centerfield in man coverage against four receivers. What was the call there, and what did you see that led you to the left side of the field for an interception where there wasn't a receiver in your vicinity? Niles Paul was yards away from you, but it looked as if you were making a beeline for where you believed the ball would go. Had you seen a tendency there?
Jenkins: We were actually lined up wrong, and I recognized it late in the down. I was actually the deep defender, so I got back to my landmark in the middle of the field. And then, we were in man-to-man. [Linebacker] DeMeco Ryans had the tight end, and I'm really just reading the quarterback. I know I'm probably going to lean to DeMeco's side because he's got the tougher matchup, but I'm really in the middle of the field, keying on the quarterback's intentions and breaking on the ball. He overthrew it because DeMeco was in a really good position where he had to throw it up and over DeMeco, and I was able to come away with the ball.
I'm looking at [Kirk Cousins's] front shoulder, because that's what quarterbacks do when they throw—wherever the front shoulder is pointing is where they're throwing the ball, and you can tell what level the route is going to be based on if his shoulder is high or if it's pointed down. And I can see the routes peripherally as I'm watching the quarterback. So, I set my angle based on what the quarterback's shoulder is telling me, and I'm seeing the ball the whole time. I could see right away that this was going to be an overthrown ball, so I disregarded the receiver and went straight to where the ball is going.
Farrar: How did you know that it was going to be underthrown?
Jenkins: You can just tell by the trajectory of the ball and where the receiver is. For him to complete that pass in front of me, it's got to be a low line drive. But the fact that DeMeco is in such a good position, he doesn't have that throw. It has to be over the top.
3. Week 4 of the 2014 season against the 49ers—12:16 left in the first half
Farrar: On this pick, you start out in the left slot covering Anquan Boldin, whom you force into an inside release on a handoff to DeMeco Ryans (Or, at least that's what it looks like). You then jump the pass from Colin Kaepernick to Brandon Lloyd, who had been covered outside by Bradley Fletcher.
Jenkins: We're in man coverage. This is a very popular defense that teams all around the league run. You have man-to-man with a low hole player [Ryans, in this case]. What he's taught to do is cut the first shallow route, and my guy is coming down with the slant. DeMeco takes him, which frees me up. And from a route concept perspective, I know that usually when the No. 2 receiver runs a slant, the No. 2 receiver is running a slant, as well. Once my guy got cut, I just sat back in that slant window. The quarterback read it correctly because it is man-to-man, and he wants to throw the slant to the No. 1 receiver. But he wasn't expecting me to just fall off of my guy. That's how you sometimes trick quarterbacks into throwing you the ball.
Farrar: It's a big part of any slot cornerback's responsibility to jump from one receiver to another. What was the concept here, and how often in your 179 slot snaps and 35 slot targets last season (numbers per Pro Football Focus) were you doing that? In a larger sense, what makes the slot position so tough?
Jenkins: When you play out on the island, you're out there by yourself, but you have the sideline as another defender. You have a little bit of a boundary to protect you. When you're in that slot, [opposing receivers] have a two-way go. They can go outside with plenty of space, and they've got the whole inside of the field they can work. So, they've got so much more space to run pretty much any route. Whereas on the outside, you can pretty much chop down different routes, based on how wide they are, how tight they are. But on the inside, they have every route at their disposal.
The key to lining up in the slot is that you're not going to take away everything. That just doesn't happen. You need to be very mindful of where your help on the defense is. This play doesn't work if I play with inside leverage. If I go with inside leverage, I will basically take DeMeco out of the play, because I just don't use his help. And if they run any kind of outside route, I'm on my own playing inside leverage. In this defense, it's imperative when you have a hole defender next to you, you have to play outside leverage. That way, he can take your guy if your guy comes in, and all I have to do now is defend the outside breaking routes and challenge the inside breaking routes. It just makes it a lot easier. A lot of guys don't understand leverage and help, because it changes in every single defense you run, and that's what I think makes the slot a lot more difficult.
4. Week 1 of the 2015 season against the Falcons—11:05 left in the first quarter
Farrar: Here's a near-pick with you in the slot, covering Julio Jones on a quick out-and-back route and showing your recovery speed. What's your read here?
Jenkins: I'm man-to-man right here, and I'm in the slot. I'm pressed, so I want to get my hands on him. His fast release was to the outside, which is something I hadn't really seen him do. So, I'm trying to stay as square as possible, but he does a good job of stretching me, and as I see him stop, now it's just a race to see who can get his feet in the ground faster. I think he slipped a little bit, and that one misstep by him was enough to allow me to get back in front of him. Even if he didn't slip, I think I would have been in good enough position to challenge the route. But with that slip, it put me in a spot where I could try to get an interception.
Farrar: Jones is on a historic pace this season. What makes covering him so difficult?
Jenkins: [Jones] is that rare combination of ... he's big, fast, explosive, and he's got a gear that's pretty sneaky. When he turns it on, he's very sudden, and he's covering a lot of ground. He catches the ball really, really well, and he's great running after the catch. He's a rare combination right now—there aren't too many other guys who possess what he has. That's why you see it week in and week out. He's just producing. He's getting better every year, too.
5. Week 3 of the 2015 season against the Jets -- 1:28 left in the first quarter
Farrar: This Brandon Marshall fumble was not the fumble later on when he tried that weird lateral, but it was a fumble you caused by peeling off the slot on a little receiver screen. What were you watching here?
Jenkins: For me, this is an instinctive play. We're playing a little bit of zone, and I'm what you call a curl/flat defender. All I have to do is re-route that No. 2 receiver, and then I'm playing the one. So, I get my entire read within the first two steps of this down. I can tell whether this guy is trying to block me, or trying to run a route. With his release, I felt he was trying to block me, and I knew that Brandon Marshall was lined up inside of me. So, as soon as I felt him trying to get that leverage, I got really aggressive—put my hands on him and slip to the inside. I don't look back for the ball, because I know it's probably coming right now, so I just go right for the tackle.
Farrar: When you're facing a quarterback like Ryan Fitzpatrick, who doesn't complete deep balls as often as some other quarterbacks might, does that affect your defensive game plan at all?
Jenkins: We knew Fitzpatrick was going to throw the ball deep at least five times in the game—he's really been airing it out this season.
So, we know there were going to be some shots, and we were going to have to be on top of them. We knew he was doing a good job of getting the ball out quickly, but that doesn't mean he wasn't taking shots downfield. Nobody likes to dink and dunk all the way. Eventually, offensive coordinators and quarterbacks, they want to take shots down the field.