Smack dab in the middle of a difficult schematic transition and dealing with a secondary that has been a revolving door of late, the Philadelphia Eagles defense has not performed well thus far in 2013.
Only the New York Giants and Jacksonville Jaguars—who are a combined 0-11—have given up more points than Philly. Nobody has given up more yards. In fact, in the last 35 years, only three defenses have surrendered more total yards over the first five weeks of a season than the Eagles have in 2013.
They've registered only 11 sacks, which ranks them in the bottom 10 in that area, and they had only five takeaways in the first four-and-a-half games of the season.
Notice I used the past tense there. That's because if there's a sign the Eagles are about to turn things around on defense, it came when they intercepted Eli Manning on three consecutive fourth-quarter possessions to all but clinch the second victory of the Chip Kelly era last Sunday in New Jersey.
The most impressive of those picks came from second-year cornerback Brandon Boykin, who robbed Victor Cruz of what should have been a first-down catch in a one-score game with an incredible diving grab. Look at how he leaps to wrestle it away from a Pro Bowl receiver:
That was a highlight, of course, but good cornerback play actually has little to do with interceptions and almost everything to do with consistent coverage and flawless technique. You know, the boring stuff.
In that area, Boykin has quietly emerged this season as not only the most reliable cover man on this team, but quite possibly the most versatile player on the roster. Considering that he started only four games as a rookie fourth-round pick out of Georgia in 2012, that's incredibly promising for a fanbase that hasn't had a ton to smile about of late.
Boykin, who, for what it's worth, hasn't missed a single tackle on 270 defensive snaps, allowed zero catches against the Kansas City Chiefs two weeks ago and was beaten zero times on four targets versus New York in Week 5. Opposing quarterbacks are completing only 54.8 percent of their passes against him, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and there's already evidence that they're looking elsewhere when he's present underneath and in the slot.
After being targeted 20 times in the first two weeks, Boykin has had only 11 passes thrown in his direction in the last three games, surrendering only four catches for 37 yards. Considering that Peyton Manning and the red-hot Denver Broncos were one of those opponents, that's impressive.
He's been a stud in the slot, which is a good thing when you're in a division with guys like Cruz and Miles Austin. In fact, according to PFF, opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of just 30.8 when throwing his way in slot coverage, which is the lowest mark in the NFL. Both of his picks have also come in the slot.
The Eagles prefer to have him in the slot for a multitude of reasons. He's short and inexperienced, he can show off his versatility better there and they already have veterans Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher, although neither has been particularly good this season.
Inside, it's easier to utilize him as a "will he or won't he?" blitzer. He's contributed a lot in that capacity, especially when the numbers were in Philly's favor. And the team really seems to trust him. When's the last time you consistently saw a cornerback line up like this?
“It really is like an outside linebacker,” Boykin said recently of his unique role, per PhillyMag.com. “A guy that can cover and blitz and do all those types of things. For a defense, it really gives us an added rusher or added pressure as well as somebody that can fake a rush and get back in coverage and be effective as well. Kind of doing both positions at the same time, like a slot and an outside linebacker. I’m still learning and kind of honing in my skills at both.”
The pick and his coverage on Cruz got a lot of attention last week, but it was Boykin's pressure as a pass-rusher that played a key role, as he helped force an Eli Manning interception earlier in the fourth quarter.
When Boykin has been bounced outside, he's been solid. An example from Week 2, where Philip Rivers probably thought he had a nice matchup to exploit with Vincent Brown lined up one-on-one against a sophomore corner:
Later in the same game, perfect coverage again on Brown...and almost a pick:
And watch as he breaks perfectly with Santana Moss in the first quarter of the season opener:
Boykin gave up a touchdown to Wes Welker in Week 4, but he held the league's most dangerous slot receiver to just two catches for a total of 11 yards on the four other throws that came from Peyton Manning or Brock Osweiler.
Against the Giants, Fletcher and Williams were rocked by Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, but Boykin pitched a perfect game on 32 slot snaps and 14 elsewhere.
He was flagged for pass interference on Cruz in the third quarter, but that was the only penalty he's drawn all season while in coverage, and the contact was so scant that it wouldn't have been a crime had no flag been thrown.
Did I mention that tackling efficiency? Boykin's 14-of-14 on tackle attempts, which probably isn't worthy of headlines but is undoubtedly a breath of fresh air for an Eagles fanbase that had to watch Kurt Coleman, Nate Allen, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha combine for 46 missed tackles in the secondary last season.
The point is that he's a solid all-around player. He can cover, tackle, rush the quarterback and return kicks, and he's also forced two fumbles early in his NFL career. The most recent was a touchdown-saving tomahawk-style strip of future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates in Week 2:
It takes cornerbacks time to get acclimated to NFL offenses. In fact, they usually require more time than most, if not all, of their peers. It was a good indication of things to come when Boykin was solid as a rookie nickel corner, but now it appears he's beginning to take off as a defensive Swiss army knife in his sophomore season.
And as Kelly and defensive coordinator Bill Davis start taking note of who they'd be smart to build around as a miniature rebuild continues, it's starting to look as though Boykin's name should be on the list of keepers.