AS HE STOOD in front of his locker wearing an oversized Randall Cunningham jersey and a pair of acid-washed jeans tucked behind the tongues of the original Reebok Pumps, Rodney McLeod looked like he'd spent the afternoon dancing in the background of a Boyz II Men video rather than serving as the last line of defense against the highest-scoring offense in the NFL.
His nod to the '90s notwithstanding, the 26-year-old safety does not look the part of a throwback. He's listed at 5-10 and 195 pounds, or roughly the size of one of Brian Dawkins' biceps. But when the Eagles signed him away from the Rams last offseason, they were convinced they'd landed a player who would team with Malcolm Jenkins to give them their finest pair of safeties since the days of Weapon X.
On Sunday, in a season-preserving, 24-15 win over the Falcons, that looked to be the case. In previous years, the concussion that knocked starting cornerback Nolan Carroll out of the game in the first half might have been a death blow, as the Eagles were forced to shadow one of the game's most dangerous receivers with a rookie seventh-round draft pick while staffing the other side of the field with an injured veteran who was operating at three-quarters speed. Had Jalen Mills and Leodis McKelvin been alone on their islands, things might have turned out differently. But on an afternoon in which the Eagles held the highest-scoring offense in the NFL to 303 yards and 15 points, McLeod and Jenkins showed how much of a difference an elite safety tandem can make.
It wasn't perfect. But nobody expected it to be. On a few occasions, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan made the most of man coverage deep down the field. He hooked up with all-world receiver Julio Jones on beautiful passes of 29 and 28 yards (first over Carroll, then over Mills) and gave the Falcons a 15-13 lead early in the fourth quarter with an easy 76-yard touchdown pass to Taylor Gabriel, who beat McKelvin on a double move. McKelvin's battle with a hamstring injury has prompted the Eagles to rotate cornerbacks throughout the season. In pregame warmups, the veteran realized the hamstring would hamper his ability to keep pace down the field, prompting coach Doug Pederson to start Mills opposite Carroll. But when Carroll took a shot to the head from teammate Jordan Hicks on a combined tackle late in the second quarter, McKelvin realized it was go time.
"They told me before the game I was going to be an emergency player if anything happened," McKelvin said, "and, God forbid, it did."
McKelvin, who was beaten on a deep ball by Dez Bryant in the Eagles' overtime loss two weeks ago, ended the game with an interception after failing to corral two other opportunities that hit him in the hands. His physical limitations prompted defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to switch up strategies at halftime, assigning Mills to cover Jones on either side of the field rather than keeping him stationed on the right side regardless of formation.
Jones finished with 10 catches for 135 yards, but Ryan targeted him six other times on passes that ended up incomplete. The result was similar to a Week 3 win over the Steelers, when Antonio Brown had 12 catches on 18 targets for 140 yards, but with no touchdowns and a long gain of 20.
"It's just keeping guys in front," McLeod said. "Obviously, they're going to get their catches. They're both great players. It's about how they get them and when they get them."
Jenkins and McLeod deserve much of the credit for preventing those gamebreakers. Jenkins' value lies in his physicality, whether in the run game (his two tackles of Devonta Freeman for 1 yard and minus-2 helped thwart a Falcons drive in the second quarter), or in pass coverage (he was in Jones' face on a fourth-and-5 incompletion with 2:24 remaining and the Falcons nearing midfield. The Eagles are able to take full advantage of that physicality thanks to McLeod's excellent range, which enables him to play the deep middle while also contributing in run support.
"It allows us to play aggressive on the outside," Jenkins said. "It allows our corners to challenge those intermediate routes. He does a great job of tackling in the open field . . . Whether it is a run or a pass down the field, his range has been a weapon for us all year."
With games remaining against the Seahawks' Doug Baldwin and the Bengals' A.J. Green, plus rematches with Bryant's Cowboys and Odell Beckham's Giants, the Eagles' safeties are one reason to think they can make do with their increasingly precarious situation at cornerback. When's the last time anybody could say that?