Jim Schwartz Dubs Darius Slay a Traveling Man
In the NFL it's an idiom that compares to Benjamin Franklin's two certainties in life being death and taxes: defense and the running game travel.
You might be able to add a third traveler to that list in Philadelphia this season, three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Darius Slay.
Slay is easily the most accomplished cornerback the Eagles have had in the Doug Pederson/Jim Schwartz era and the veteran’s presence figures to open up new avenues for the defense when it comes to scheme and game-planning.
Schwartz acknowledged that Slay is the type of CB1 who could match up with the opposition's top wideout no matter where they might lineup in the formation.
"When you acquire a player like Slay, who has that skill set, and can match a receiver, it adds a different layer to it," Schwartz explained when talking to reporters via Zoom. "... I don't know that it's going to be a 100 percent, all-the-time thing. Maybe it's a particular game. Maybe it's 50 percent of the games. Maybe it's 75 percent of the games that Slay is matching a particular receiver, but you will see that from our defense."
Philadelphia's defense simply hasn't had that dynamic in recent seasons so it should add a new wrinkle to Schwartz's ability to matchup on game days.
“I love the challenge,” said Slay when asked about shadowing top WRs on a conference call earlier this offseason. “I kind of ask for it a lot because of the fact that I want the game on me and I want to help win the game. If the best route to go about it is me traveling with a guy, then I’ll do it.”
It's also a domino effect.
For instance, if Slay, who will typically line up at the left corner, is traveling with Amari Cooper one week and the Dallas star moves across the formation that means the other staring CBs (penciled in as Avonte Maddox on the outside and Nickell Robey-Coleman in the slot) have to be adept enough to come off their usual roles.
"So now, guys who play nickel, are going to need to play outside corner as well because every time Slay lines up at the nickel position, it’s just too easy a tell if the only time he’s in there is just man-to-man," said Schwartz. "... (all defensive backs have to be multi-dimensional). It’s something that we’ll get ready for in training camp."
In the case of Maddox, who already has experience playing inside and outside at corner and even free safety during his first two seasons, Schwartz seems self-assured.
"Avonte has done about everything in our defense," said the DC. "He’s played outside corner. He’s played safety. And he’s played nickel. And he’s had success at all three of those spots. We like the flexibility of guys that can go both inside and outside. He’s got some of that background."
The goal for Schwartz no matter who is on the field is to disguise coverages.
"Over the last couple of years, we’ve taken a lot of strides to try to avoid the tells on the defense, whether it was man or zone," he said. "It started right after the Super Bowl after the 2018 season. We saw where people were going with man routes and pick routes, and things like that.
"It’s like, 'OK, we’re tired of complaining to the officials that we got picked, or that it was offensive pass interference,' so we need to mitigate it ourselves and combat it in different ways.
"One of the ways we did that, we always have corners go over, and let guys play inside-outside. It helped that we had safeties like Malcolm Jenkins or Rodney McLeod, both of whom were corners in the past. That flexibility went a long way."
Without Jenkins and linebacker Nigel Bradham, the two leaders in the back seven from the 2019 defense, the communication needs to be rebuilt around the strengths of different personnel.
"We’ll have candidates when we go into play. It’ll put a little more on a couple of people’s table," said Schwartz, "but we’re confident that the guys we have will be ready to play multiple different positions within our defense.
"That’s always been a very important thing for us. It’s not something we only did because we had a Malcolm or a Nigel. We did it because they happened to be very good at it. We’ll find other guys that can accomplish that same thing for us."
Slay's potential as a traveler is part of that.
"It won’t be anything new for him," Schwartz said. "I think it’s going to add a different dimension to the secondary.”
John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John every Monday and Friday on SIRIUSXM’s Tony Bruno Show with Harry Mayes, and every Tuesday and Thursday with Eytan Shander on SBNation Radio. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen
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