BALTIMORE - Will Jim Schwartz "put his name on" this one?
Schwartz, the Eagles' slick defensive coordinator, loves the way scrappy safety Rodney McLeod plays football. Indeed, from goal line to goal line, McLeod plays good football. He looks like he's worth every free-agent penny the Eagles paid him to be a run-stopping safety. For the most part, he's been a $35 Million Man in the 100 yards of green in between.
Apparently, end-zone paint is his kryptonite.
Something about the 10 yards of pay dirt in front of the goal posts saps McLeod's energy and short-circuits his brain. It turns an aggressive alpha dog into a passive little kitty.
Sunday, for the second time in three games, McLeod failed to attack a runner near the goal line. This time, it might have cost the Eagles a win. They lost, 27-26. It was their fifth straight loss. They are a team that cannot afford even one passive play.
That's what this was: passivity.
One-on-one, mano a mano, McLeod had a chance to make a hit and he quailed. He cowed. He shrank from contact like the lilac leaves of a delicate touch-me-not plant, or Deion Sanders.
Two weeks ago at Cincinnati, McLeod stood in the end zone and declined to hit running back Jeremy Hill as Hill plunged in for a touchdown. He went forward and slightly left as a hole clearly opened to his right, and then he froze. He could have hit Hill even as the runner dived over the goal line - who knows, the ball might have been loose, or the runner might have been slowed at the last second - but he didn't. He just didn't.
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz defended McLeod, saying, "I'll put my name on Rodney McLeod any day."
Will he today?
After all, Sunday in Baltimore provided an even more galling image than the embarrassment in Cincinnati.
Early in the fourth quarter, with the Ravens threatening to expand their three-point lead on first-and-10 at the Eagles' 16, running back Kenneth Dixon caught a pitch at the Eagles' 24, ran left around Brandon Graham and cut upfield. McLeod, at the 4-yard line, tracked him all the way. McLeod sprinted to the 9-yard line . . . then, inexplicably, he began running backward.
As if drawn by some contact-averse magnet, McLeod, incredibly, retreated to the 5; then, pathetically, to the 3; then, finally, made contact at the 2. By then Dixon was at full steam. He chugged right through McLeod's weak, high tackle and shrugged off McLeod like a raggedy old coat.
McLeod could have hit him at the 10. A clean tackle would have left a second-and-4; a failed tackle would have allowed help to come. Even with a clean tackle, the Ravens might have scored a touchdown anyway. They have a world-class kicker, so the lead likely would have grown to six.
They also have a second-tier quarterback. On the next Ravens possession, Joe Flacco threw an interception at the Eagles' 6.
As it was, Dixon's touchdown run - or, McLeod's touchdown retreat - gave the Ravens a 27-17 lead with 11 minutes, 6 seconds to play. Many other events unfolded as the game progressed. A McLeod tackle certainly does not ensure an Eagles win.
But it went a long way toward ensuring an Eagles loss.
Afterward, Eagles coach Doug Pederson said he hadn't seen the play yet.
McLeod had. He knows he blew it. Again.
Having failed to save the touchdown, he tried to save face.
"I felt like I had more space," McLeod said. "There was so much space. I didn't want him to cut back and end up in the end zone."
McLeod could see Graham pursuing the play. McLeod knew linebacker Nigel Bradham would be coming in hot from the middle of the field. The correct play was to force a cutback toward the other defenders.
"I wanted to wait," McLeod continued. "Take my time. Make my shot."
Wait? Take my time?
The end zone was two strides away. There was no time to waste.
"I saw it on replay. If I could change it, I probably would have taken my shot a little sooner than I did," McLeod admitted. "I've just got to be more aware of where I am on the field."
Aware of his place on the field? He's a safety, for Pete's sake.
Or, in this case, for Jim's sake. Jim's got to Put His Name On this sad and soft exhibition.
For Jim's sake, Jim had better come up with a plausible explanation for the hastiest retreat since Gen. Lee at Antietam.
For McLeod's sake, it had better be the last time he mimics that shy and lovely Mimosa pudica while he's wearing Eagle green.
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