Billy Davis and the Eagles made a decision going into last year’s playoff game against the Saints: Commit resources to stopping Drew Brees,and force New Orleans to move the ball with its ground game.
In the first half, the gameplan worked well as Sean Payton’s offense managed just six points. But in the second half, the Saints got going, scoring on four of five possessions to secure a victory.
In reality, it was a pick-your-poison situation. Against the Saints' prolific passing attack, Davis wanted Brandon Boykin on the field. But against the Eagles' nickel package, New Orleans ran 13 times for 84 yards (6.5 YPC).
Fast-forward to 2014, and Davis feels like he has more options - specifically because of the addition of Malcolm Jenkins.
"Absolutely," Davis said, when asked if Jenkins' versatility will allow him to stay in base more this season. "I think all of our safeties have the skill set of being able to come down and cover a third wide receiver. I don't have to put nickel on the field.
"A lot of teams will put you in three wide receiver personnel groups and run at you. You're always going to nickel, and you guys have seen... if I go to the nickel package sometimes, Boykin's getting run at. I don't want that. I [can] stay in base, but a safety's gotta be able to cover that third wide receiver now."
The situation Davis describes is one familiar to the Eagles' offense: spread the defense out and run the football. If that's a tact opponents want to use, Davis can now keep Bennie Logan on the field and have Jenkins cover the slot from time to time.
"With the addition of Malcolm Jenkins and his ability to cover the No. 2 receiver on the slot man to man, we’re gonna be able to play a lot more base this year than we did last year," said assistant defensive backs coach Todd Lyght. "Last year some of our biggest letdowns were against our nickel package when the team was able to run the ball on us. So now we’ll be able to keep the regular defense on the field much more and won’t be susceptible to those nickel runs."
An obvious question is: What might that mean for Boykin? Arguably the top nickel corner in the game, he had a combined 23 passes defensed/intercepted last year, fifth in the NFL. It's clear by now that Boykin isn't going to get a shot on the outside, but might he see fewer snaps if the Eagles use more base?
Asked how Jenkins' role could affect his playing time, Boykin said: "It doesn't at all. He's a safety. Our scheme doesn't change. No matter who's the safety, they're gonna do the same thing. I think that just means he has the ability to cover the slot, but when we need a nickel personnel or there's three receivers on the field, they're not gonna stay in base, so my job will be the same."
Boykin played 51.6 percent of the defense's snaps last year, but 22.8 percent of those ended up being run plays, per Pro Football Focus. He noticed that teams sometimes would spread the Eagles out to run it, but as one of the best tacklers on the defense, he doesn't see that as a major issue.
"They started to do that last year a little bit," Boykin said. "But I think whatever personnel you have, your people gotta be able to tackle. So if we think it's a pass and I'm out there and they run the ball, I've gotta be able to take on a block and make a tackle, which I feel confident in myself I can do."
The feeling here is that the Eagles view this option as another tool in the toolbox. Playing Boykin less makes little sense, considering he's one of the most talented, productive playmakers Davis has to work with. But against teams that like to spread the defense out and run the ball, Davis feels like he has the resources to come up with an answer, unlike a year ago.