PHILADELPHIA — New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees will be facing a different Philadelphia Eagles secondary in Sunday’s divisional-round playoff game than the one he embarrassed nearly two months ago.
Oh, it’s still basically the same group of defensive backs — cornerbacks Rasul Douglas, Cre’Von LeBlanc and Avonte Maddox; plus safeties Corey Graham and Malcolm Jenkins — but they are much better equipped to deal with Brees and the Saints’ powerful offense.
“They are coming together at the right time,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “These guys have been playing a lot more minutes together, so they are getting a little more comfortable with the scheme.”
They barely knew one another when they took on the Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Nov. 18, and the lack of chemistry was evident. Brees threw for 363 yards and four touchdowns in the Saints’ 48-7 victory.
Douglas was making his second start of the season as a replacement for Jalen Mills, who suffered a season-ending foot injury. Maddox was playing his second game at cornerback after a four-game stint at safety. LeBlanc was making his Eagles debut after getting claimed off waivers two weeks earlier. Graham was back after missing three of the previous four games with a hamstring injury.
“Coming in as a new guy, not knowing the defense and the terminology, all I could do was put forth my best effort,” LeBlanc said. “You just harp on yourself to just do your best for the team.”
LeBlanc was so new that when the front office told Schwartz they had claimed a defensive back who had just been released by Detroit, Schwartz didn’t know who he was.
The Eagles were desperate for some depth at defensive back after losing Mills, cornerback Ronald Darby and safety Rodney McLeod with season-ending injuries. Vice President of Player Personnel Joe Douglas and Vice President of Football Operations Howie Roseman were scouring the waiver wire and came upon LeBlanc.
“I had never heard of Cre’Von LeBlanc before, and they brought him in and said, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about claiming this guy,’” Schwartz said. “He needed to get up to speed quickly, but he was up for the task. He’s a competitor.”
Douglas, a fourth-round draft pick in 2017, has made his mark as an aggressive pass defender and sure tackler.
He’s registered 56 tackles in the last six games, including eight in last Sunday’s 16-16 playoff win at Chicago.
“I’ve been getting more reps,” Douglas said. “That’s really all it is. The more you play, the better you get.”
Maddox, a rookie fourth-round pick, started training camp as a cornerback, was switched to safety, then went back to corner.
He had his best game in the Eagles’ 30-23 upset at the Los Angeles Rams last month, garnering an interception making six tackles.
An oblique injury slowed him down against the Bears last week. His aggressiveness also backfired when he was beaten on a couple of double moves. But he hung tough and earned seven tackles with three pass defenses.
“I’m really just a DB,” Maddox said. “But no matter where you put me, I take pride in it. I don’t care if I’m inside, outside or whatever. I’ll play wherever they need me.”
LeBlanc has been making steady progress.
He also grabbed an interception against the Rams, has made some nice open-field tackles and has shown himself to be a reliable pass defender.
“I think of Rasul Douglas and how well he’s been playing, and how well he’s been tackling and really being a more physical corner, like we expect him to be, and that’s a bright spot,” Schwartz said. “And then you throw in Maddox, who is a rookie corner who is battling injury right now and he’s playing and playing through it and he’s playing well.
“We always say we have that next-man-up mentality,” Schwartz said. “But this year has always been next, and maybe even second man up. I’m very proud of the guys.”