PHILADELPHIA -- As wounded as the Philadelphia Eagles' defensive secondary was entering Sunday's game in New Orleans, it was former second-round pick Sidney Jones whom Saints coach Sean Payton wanted to target.
“We gotta run right at 22 and we gotta throw at 22," he said during final preparations for the game, via NBC Sports. "We’re gonna make him defend the run on the first play. We’re going after him on three of the first eight plays.”
True to his word, Payton dialed up a Mark Ingram run right at Jones on the Saints' first offensive play. The 215-pound Ingram barrelled through an attempted arm tackle by the 181-pound cornerback en route to a 38-yard gain.
“Our emphasis in this game is to run at 22," Payton said. "He’s coming off a hamstring, and we don’t think he can hold up.”
Sure enough, Jones had to leave early because of a hamstring strain. It is a "new" injury, per Eagles coach Doug Pederson, not the same one that had sidelined him since the second week of October. He is considered "week-to-week," a designation that suggests he's going to miss more time.
The Eagles were in a bad way in the defensive backfield against the Saints. With Jones and Rasul Douglas (knee) going down in-game and fellow corners Jalen Mills (foot) and Ronald Darby (knee) inactive, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was forced to roll with a group that included Chandon Sullivan, Cre'Von LeBlanc and De'Vante Bausby, all of whom have been on the active roster for less than a month. Drew Brees predictably lit them up on the way to a 48-7 New Orleans win.
The team's inability to rely on Jones is becoming a problem. They thought enough of the University of Washington cornerback to select him in the second round of the 2017 draft even after he ruptured his Achilles at his pro day, an injury that cost him all but one game of his rookie season. The long-term investment was worth it to them to draft a talent like Jones, even if it meant forgoing immediate gratification.
This was the season when he was supposed to start contributing, but that hasn't been the case. He has one pass defensed and zero interceptions over parts of seven games and hasn't been able to stay on the field because of hamstring issues.
To be fair, Jones was arguably miscast by being asked to play the nickel corner at the start of the season. His experience is on the outside, and his slim frame seems to fit better out in space as opposed to in traffic, where larger men roam. Sunday was an opportunity to man an outside post and come up big for a defense, and a team, that desperately needed a spark. Instead, he was attacked and forced out of the game.
"I equate it to kind of what we had in Kansas City. [Chiefs offensive tackle] Eric Fisher was a guy we drafted extremely high, first overall, and then I think a lot of times their bodies are getting used to the rigors of the NFL practice and games," Pederson said before Sunday's game. "He had a couple setbacks. He missed some offseason time because he was rehabbing. Missed training camp time because he was rehabbing. Sidney is kind of that young player that still, his body is still developing, tremendous athlete. He's going to be a great player for us in this league and on this football team. It's just unfortunate that early in a player's career, he's had a couple of setbacks due to injury. But, where he's at and what he's done, I really see that once he gets this behind him, he gets stronger, he gets bigger, all those things, he learns how to practice and play, he's going to be a really good player."
The problem is that Jones might remain a projection by season's end. Given this latest injury, nobody knows how much he'll play down the stretch. Does he project to one of the starting spots moving forward? Can he still be a star, as he was in college? With Darby set to become a free agent, these are key pieces of information.
The only thing that's for certain is that Jones has a long climb ahead to go from target to the cornerback that teams try to avoid.
"I think every team goes in attacking certain players and maybe certain coverages or a front or whatever it might be. ... Every team does it, and we know that, we understand it, and our guys need to be prepared for it," Pederson said.
"If that's what they felt was a matchup for them, then I'm sure they were going to go that direction. We would do the same thing offensively, and we'd do that each week. If we can find that matchup, we'll try to exploit it."