Philadelphia Eagles: Steven Nelson has been a godsend for Darius Slay

(Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)
(Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images) /

2020 was not a banner year for Darius Slay.

A long-time target of the Philadelphia Eagles dating back to the fall of 2019, Howie Roseman traded a 2020 third-round pick and a 2020 fifth-round pick to the Detroit Lions to finally land the sort of number one cornerback the Eagles thought they acquired in 2017.

And for Slay, having an opportunity to leave a near-perennial loser like Detroit for a team that just won a Super Bowl the previous calendar year must have felt like a dream come true… at least until the season actually got underway and the losses started to pile up.

Playing opposite Avonte Maddox in a defensive scheme that wasn’t particularly forgiving to cornerbacks, Slay turned in his worst season since, well, probably since his rookie season in Detroit.

Hmm… who was Slay’s head coach that season? Jim Schwartz? You don’t say.

Well, in a very welcomed twist of fate, Slay has a new defensive coordinator, a new defensive backs coach, and a new outside cornerback partner in crime by the name of Steven Nelson, and if Week 1 is of any indication, it looks like his life just got a whole heck of a lot easier, much to the chagrin of the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Philadelphia Eagles finally have two good outside cornerbacks.

It’s hard to honestly critique Philadelphia Eagles’ new-look defense based on Week 1 alone because the team really didn’t have to show all too many of their tricks.

After pulling out to an early four-point lead that ballooned up to nine at the end of the half, the Eagles’ defense stifled Matt Ryan all game long with a dominant pass-rushing rotation and slowly watched their sack total rise by the end of the outing.

Could much of that success be placed on the shoulders of rushers like Fletcher Cox, Javon Hargrave, and, um, Hassan Ridgeway? Yes. How about Jonathan Gannon‘s game plan, which got better as the game went on and didn’t require many exotic blitzing packages to get in Ryan’s head? That certainly helps too.

But do you want to know who was just as instrumental in the win but received far less credit for it? Yeah, that’d be Darius Slay, Steven Nelson, and the rest of the Eagles’ defensive backfield.

Despite having an unquestionably talented wide receiver on the outside in Calvin Ridley and the top pass catcher selected in the 2021 NFL Draft, Kyle Pitts, on the inside, the Falcons’ offense was limited to 164 yards through the air, which is the fewest receiving yards Atlanta has recorded in a game since December 2nd, 2018.

Could that be on head coach Arthur Smith, who was always more of a power run guy in Tennessee? Or how about the absence of Julio Jones for the first time since 2010?

All of that may have been true, but the Eagles’ sure-handed secondary sans any obvious weak links certainly helped too.

Despite being targeted 18 combined times on the afternoon, the Eagles’ trio of cornerbacks only allowed 12 catches for 86 yards and no touchdowns. While that catch percentage left a bit to be desired, as teams aren’t typically only picking up 164 yards when they complete 66.67 percent of their passes when targeting cornerbacks, but with a dominant defensive line capable of disrupting deep passing concepts, holding opposing teams to a check-down-heavy offense may be the Eagles’ defensive formula on 2021.

After watching the Birds rush four on seemingly every play while giving up huge plays on the outside over the past few years, that defensive identity would be a very welcomed change.

Next. Davion Taylor is finally good to go. dark

Where the Philadelphia Eagles would once be forced to decide between shadowing Darius Slay on an opposing team’s top receiver or watch helplessly as Avonte Maddox got brutalized on the outside by even average-sized outside options, Jonathan Gannon no longer had to make that Devils bargain snap after snap. No, with Steven Nelson now locked in on the opposite side of the field, the lives of Slay, and the rest of the Eagles secondary,  just got a whole lot easier.