It was a touchdown that was made on the practice field and in the film room, two places where Nate Gerry has logged hundreds of hours over the past three years attempting to establish himself as a player the Eagles can count on in situations like the one they faced with about five minutes remaining in the first quarter Sunday afternoon. All week, the third-year linebacker had visualized a moment such as this: fourth-and-1, the Jets driving across midfield, the Eagles needing a stop to preserve the 7-0 lead they’d taken just minutes before. Time after time, he saw it on tape: the wide receiver motioning across the formation, the quarterback reversing his drop step as if to hand the ball off, the running back sprinting out toward the flat.
“Once I saw him take off, I knew that’s where the ball was going,” Gerry said.
The quick diagnosis enabled him to arrive at the flat with more than enough time to dart underneath Le’Veon Bell’s route and cut off Luke Falk’s throw before it had a chance to arrive in the running back’s hands. From there, he was off. Turning upfield, he took a quick glance to his right and saw 51 yards of green space and a quarterback sealed off by a blocker.
For the Eagles, the result of the play was a defensive touchdown and a 14-0 lead over a team that had scored just one offensive touchdown on the season. For Gerry, it was the culmination of a two-year battle that has seen him fight his way from the practice squad to the top of the depth chart.
The faith of one’s coaches is a fleeting commodity for any young player, but especially so for a fifth-round draft pick who weighed in at just 218 pounds at the NFL scouting combine in 2017. When the Eagles selected him out of the University of Nebraska that spring, there were plenty of reasons to wonder whether he would ever amount to anything more than a special teams player. He had entered college as a linebacker, but transitioned to safety soon after and starred at the position for three years. Pro scouts saw him as a tweener who lacked the foot speed and quick-twitch athleticism to stick at safety and the size that would warrant an early-round pick at linebacker.
Still, the Eagles saw a football player. A bearded South Dakotan with little evident body fat, Gerry had always found a way to maximize his physical attributes with the sort of instincts and nose for the ball that are difficult to teach. Simply put, he made plays, finishing his career at Nebraska with 13 interceptions and 19 tackles for loss.
Gerry’s first training camp ended with him buried on a linebacker depth chart that included veterans Nigel Bradham, Mychal Kendricks, Jordan Hicks, and Najee Goode. The Eagles released him in the final round of cuts, then happily signed him to the practice squad with the hope that he would spend his first year in the league putting weight on his frame. By the end of October, he was on the active roster and playing an important role on special teams, a role that he maintained through the Eagles’ Super Bowl run.
“Nate’s a guy who just comes to work, does what he’s asked, embraces his role, whether it’s special teams or getting 10 snaps a game on defense," safety Rodney McLeod said. “Whatever he’s asked, he does it to the fullest, and it shows.”
Gerry’s first significant opportunity at linebacker arrived late last season, when starting middle linebacker Hicks suffered a calf injury that would sideline him for four games. With Gerry thrust into a role as the third linebacker in Jim Schwartz’s base defense, the Eagles won three of four games to climb back into the playoff hunt. This year, a training-camp injury to Kamu Grugier-Hill has opened the door for Gerry to reprise that role, and he has held his own.
“I feel like I’ve kind of figured out my role on the team, so I’m just trying to play my best football in that role every week,” Gerry said.
That’s been a defining characteristic of this Eagles defense over the last year as a rotating cast of characters has been called upon to fill in for a long list of injured starters. In addition to Gerry’s 52-yard touchdown return on Sunday, the Eagles got a strip-sack and fumble return for a touchdown by newly signed cornerback Orlando Scandrick, and sacks by reserve defensive linemen Vinny Curry, Josh Sweat, Daeshon Hall, and Hassan Ridgeway.
“Everybody brought the energy today and everybody was excited to have an opportunity,” defensive end Brandon Graham said. “We have a lot of people that were new. We need everybody.”