Nate Gerry has become the poster boy for the Eagles' linebacker issues so much that when the defense allows a big play and he’s in the vicinity, the public blame is often pointed in his direction.
Jim Schwartz would never single out one player for a mistake. Football is a team sport, of course, and on any given play 11 players could factor into its success or failure. But there are as many moments when an individual can affect the outcome both good and bad.
Gerry has had more of the latter than the former this season but not as many as some fans think.
“There’s probably a lot of plays that people outside of our building think might be his fault, that he just happens to be the closest guy when someone else made a mistake, and I think they end up blaming him a lot of times,” Schwartz said Tuesday. “He’s sort of the closest guy just from plays, and I mean that’s just sort of the way the ball bounces.”
Case in point: The 49ers dialed up a play-action pass early in Sunday’s game that was clearly designed to take advantage of the Eagles' undisciplined linebackers. Quarterback Nick Mullens faked a handoff to the running back while fullback Kyle Juszczky feigned a lead block and released into a passing route.
No one covered him, but Mullens overthrew him by five yards. Juszczky (No. 44) was so wide open that he might have gone 86 yards for a touchdown. The Eagles dodged a bullet, but because Gerry (No. 47) tried to recover and was the closest to the fullback, many assumed he was at fault.
He was not, specifically. Linebacker T.J. Edwards (No. 57), who had bit hard on the fake, was, and Gerry was simply covering for his teammate’s mistake. It may not explain why Gerry remains Schwartz’s No. 1 linebacker, but it does offer more perspective on the defensive coordinator’s playing time decisions.
“Nate has been a very solid player for us,” Schwartz said, “and has helped us win a lot of games. … We just need to be more efficient overall, and more consistent overall, and he just plays his part in it.”
The Eagles' personnel at linebacker, for whatever reasons, is maybe the worst it’s been in years. Gerry has struggled, but so have Duke Riley and Edwards. Rookies Davion Taylor and Shaun Bradley are still primarily special teams contributors.
The highlight from the position thus far came Sunday when Alex Singleton – pressed into duty after Edwards left with a hamstring strain – returned an interception for a touchdown. As Schwartz noted, Mullens' ill-fated pass was thrown right to him, but Singleton was in the right spot, which can’t always be said of the other linebackers.
Riley (No. 50), on this Jerick McKinnon (No. 28) run, was fooled by Mullens' pump fake and out of position on a 9-yard gain.
Gerry, to his credit, is typically where he needs to be. It’s one reason why Schwartz has given him play-calling responsibilities and has him as the only linebacker on the field on all three downs. But finishing can be a problem. He flowed a little out of his gap on this shovel pass but still should have tackled McKinnon.
Riley was a little late to react to tight end George Kittle (No. 85) off this play-action, but he caught up and could have kept the catch to a relative minimum. But Kittle cut, Riley ran by, and a 9-yard gain became a 17-yard one.
Kittle was a handful. He had one of the best games a tight end has ever had against the Eagles. He caught 15 of 15 targets for 183 yards and a touchdown. Schwartz tried an assortment of zones and players to slow Kittle, but nothing worked.
“He made plays against our quarter’s coverage, against our three, against man-to-man, against blitz,” Schwartz said. “He was just a tough matchup for us, and he got the ball a lot of different ways. But we were still trying to stop him. He’s an outstanding player.”
Kittle beat slot cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc down the field for a 38-yard catch at one point, so linebackers stood little chance to match his speed in man coverage. Riley probably needed additional help on Kittle’s touchdown grab.
It wasn’t all bad. Gerry made a good read on this McKinnon carry, came in unblocked, and notched a tackle for loss.
Edwards, as the middle linebacker in base personnel, continued to display a knack for shedding blocks and flowed to the ball, as he did here on this run stop.
And the Eagles, ultimately, won behind another strong outing from their defensive line. The front four’s performance supported Schwartz’s philosophy and the team’s distribution of resources. But even the coordinator seemingly knows that in some scenarios he’s better off with no linebackers on the field.
Or maybe not. Schwartz employed five lineman and six defensive backs on this first-quarter third down. A screen pass to receiver Brandon Aiyuk (No. 11) turned into a 38-yard touchdown when the Eagles missed several tackle attempts.
The Eagles may have gone light investing in experience at the position, but they did expend two draft picks on linebackers, third rounder Davion Taylor and sixth-rounder Shaun Bradley. Only Bradley has played about a dozen snaps on defense.
And when Edwards went down, Singleton got the call. His road to finally earning NFL snaps on defense has been a long one, and first started with practice squad stints with the Seahawks, Patriots and Vikings in 2015. He left for the CFL a year later and had three strong seasons in Canada.
The Eagles signed him in January 2019, waived him before last season, brought him back to the practice squad and in October he was promoted to the 53-man roster. But he played exclusively on special teams last season and early this season, even though he continually made plays on defense in training camp.
“It’s been a long time to obviously get to the point where I have any defensive snaps,” Singleton said after Sunday’s game. “First time in the league was six years ago. To be able to finally have that come, and to be able to make a play for this team, is what you do it for.”
Schwartz downplayed the pick six but only to highlight his production elsewhere. On this McKinnon rush, Singleton (No. 49) showed the “good instincts” his coach said he had, and knifed into the backfield to drop the tailback.
“He made a couple plays in the run game I thought that were probably better plays for him, and he does have some flexibility as a player,” Schwartz said. “He can play outside. Can also play inside. Took advantage of the time that he had.”
He should get more with Edwards out at least another week, and arguably more ahead of Gerry and Riley.