Whenever Rodney McLeod has been asked about shouldering more responsibility as a leader and as a moving chess piece on defense this season, the safety has pointed out that he was already doing both prior to Malcolm Jenkins' departure.
But Jenkins cast a large shadow in the Eagles' defensive backfield. McLeod was as much a part of the teams that won a Super Bowl and made the playoffs three straight seasons, his subdued personality likely one reason he wasn’t as recognized.
The Eagles thought as much, otherwise they wouldn’t have released Jenkins in March and re-signed McLeod with the understanding that he would be expected to help with the jobs the Pro Bowl safety left vacant.
While there have been some bumps in the transition, McLeod has been one of the Eagles' more consistent performers on defense. Some might say he’s playing better than Jenkins could have been expected to play at this extended stage of his career.
But McLeod knows that leaders often aren’t judged on individual achievement, and the fact remains that when Jenkins was here, the Eagles won more than they lost. And right now, as defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz might say, McLeod is playing like a 2-4-1 safety.
“I would say I’m playing well. I think?" McLeod said Monday when asked to assess his play. “It’s really not up to me, but the biggest thing is my performance doesn’t really matter, I just want to win. And you could have the best performance on Sunday, but if they don’t correlate to wins, then you have to go back to the table and figure out, how can you do more?”
McLeod has done more with each passing week. He’ll likely always play more in the post than in the box, but Schwartz has utilized the 30-year-old safety increasingly in Jenkins' former role as a quasi-linebacker and two weeks ago tasked him with spying Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson.
“I thought Rodney McLeod had an outstanding game again," Schwartz said after the Eagles fell to the Ravens, 30-28, "and has taken another step to fill in some of those multidimensional holes that were there when a guy like Malcolm left. He was responsible for spying [Jackson].
"The only time the quarterback really ran was when we were in zone coverage and we were deep in our zones and even then, we limited his scramble and got some good hits.”
The results, again, haven’t been close to perfect. And McLeod has had his share of mistakes, sometimes in key spots. But often only because he’s had to account for others and for players lost to injury. That’s the price of being a leader.
Jenkins, who didn’t miss a snap in his last two seasons in Philadelphia, was often the glue that kept a battered secondary intact. The Eagles have similarly had many moving parts because of injury this season.
Will Parks, who was slated to be the third safety in nickel and dime personnel, missed the first four games with a hamstring injury. That forced Marcus Epps into the lineup. And when converted safety Jalen Mills had to move back to cornerback following Avonte Maddox’s ankle injury, rookie K’Von Wallace was forced onto the field.
The Eagles could finally have their original projected secondary Sunday against the Cowboys. But McLeod has been the lone constant. He’s been out front with teammates, breaking down the squad pregame like Jenkins previously did, and out front with the media, one of the few regular interviewees on Zoom calls.
“That was understood because I came into a team where Malcolm Jenkins was the leader and I respected that and I played my role accordingly," McLeod said of his larger role. "My role consisted of breaking the [defensive backs] down at some point on game days, but Malcolm was the voice that the team needed to hear.
"And now I’ve taken on that position and everyone’s accepted it and I love it, man, getting my team ready each and every week, take pride in it and having the ‘C’ on my chest.”
But a lot of what McLeod has done this season hasn’t been much different than what he did during his first four seasons with the Eagles. He still spends significant time in center field or deep in zone schemes, while Mills plays closer to the line.
And he’s still among the best at diagnosing plays from that spot. On this play against the Giants, Parks (No. 28) followed tight end Evan Engram (No. 88) pre-snap, giving a man coverage look. But the Eagles were in zone and McLeod (No. 23) read the sweep and beat the pulling guard to run Engram out of bounds for no gain.
A converted corner, McLeod is still explosive. The Eagles have been one of the best run-defending teams in Schwartz’s tenure because of how sound they’ve been in gap discipline. It’s an aggressive scheme and McLeod has often done well cleaning up when left unblocked.
His instincts and vision from the post have often allowed him to get downfield and blow up plays, as he did on this screen pass to 49ers running back Jerick McKinnon (No. 28).
McLeod has played his share in the slot over the years, as well. He can man cover, but in zone on this play, he recognized the screen pass to the flank and evaded two blockers — the receiver and the pulling tackle — to keep the Bengals to a short gain. McLeod has missed only one tackle in coverage this season, according to Pro Football Focus.
McLeod has been targeted 14 times over 264 snaps in coverage and has allowed only seven catches for 49 yards, per PFF. The Eagles have played more man defense this season than in the previous four. The Steelers took advantage with a bevy of rub route combinations.
But on this play, McLeod patiently avoided the pick by tight end Eric Ebron (No. 85) and broke up the pass to receiver Chase Claypool (No. 11).
McLeod’s best game of the season might have been in the Eagles' 25-20 win over the 49ers. He led the team with eight solo tackles and had an interception. But there was little he or anyone on defense could do to stop tight end George Kittle, who caught 15 of 15 targets for 183 yards and a touchdown.
Kittle (No. 85) was stopped on one pass, however, it just didn’t show up in the offensive stat column because it came on a 2-point conversion. McLeod had the coverage and closed to break up the pass to the tight end after an inside release.
As noted by Schwartz, McLeod has taken on some of Jenkins' defensive roles, and one he used to fill was as a nickel linebacker. His responsibility on this run may not be the “A” gap, but McLeod read the direction so well that he’s able to penetrate and make the stop at the line.
The Eagles have been stout vs. inside runs, but opposing offenses have countered with outside runs that have come off end-arounds and zone reads. On this zone read keep by Giants quarterback Daniel Jones (No. 8), McLeod and defensive end Brandon Graham (No. 55) crashed and left a gaping lane.
It’s unclear which player was ultimately responsible for the gap, but it was so large that both likely failed to account for the quarterback, who ran 80 yards before falling over his own feet.
The Rams were the first team to take advantage of the Eagles with misdirection. There were many examples, but on this Tyler Higbee (No. 89) touchdown catch, McLeod vacated the deep middle when he bit on fake screen off jet motion.
He wasn’t the only one, but linebacker Nate Gerry (No. 47) was beaten by Higbee and needed over-top help.
McLeod received a lot of criticism for his alleged role in the Steelers’ game-clinching touchdown to Claypool. While it appeared as if he left Gerry alone again, Schwartz’s coverage called for him to help Mills (No. 21) with the No. 2 receiver — JuJu Smith-Schuster (No. 19).
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was rightfully praised for recognizing the zone coverage and checking to another play, but that didn’t excuse not calling a timeout there or the Eagles’ poor execution.
Should McLeod have noticed Roethlisberger’s audible and that Gerry was exposed? Cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman did and was seen telling the linebacker to get deeper. Maybe Jenkins would have, as well. But those are only hypotheticals.
McLeod has consistently done what is asked of him, though. And against Baltimore that meant keeping tabs on one of the most dynamic players in the NFL. Jackson was effective, but the Eagles kept him relatively in check.
On this third-down play, McLeod was in the middle of the field as a “Robber” with eyes on Jackson (No. 8). He kept him from either throwing downfield or taking off and defensive tackle Malik Jackson (No., 97) cleaned up for the sack.
“Honestly, I’m just doing what’s asked of me, what’s kind of demanded of me from coaches and players, whatever it takes to win, so if that’s me being in the post 80% of the snaps, I embrace it and do my best," McLeod said. "If that demands me to spy on Lamar Jackson vs. Baltimore or play more of that nickel linebacker role on third downs, then I just do it.
"I’ve played multiple positions throughout my career, nickel, cornerback, and obviously the majority of the time as a free safety, and it’s good just being able to move around in this defense and help us win games and make plays.”