Eagles’ overmatched linebackers exploited by the 49ers for the Birds’ worst defensive showing since 2021
The Eagles' linebacking corps is banged up, and there's no word yet on if Shaq Leonard will join. The 49ers took advantage of this weakness.
Standing in his locker stall after the Eagles’ loss to the 49ers, Christian Elliss wore a sweatshirt that read “Sink or Swim” above photos of the team’s linebackers celebrating big plays.
For much of Sunday evening’s 42-19 drubbing at Lincoln Financial Field, the Eagles linebacking corps led by Nicholas Morrow and Elliss was at rock bottom.
Elliss, 24, was in an unenviable situation, making his first career start against a San Francisco offense notorious for putting middle-field defenders in a bind. That was the case again on Sunday, with 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan eventually finding ways to exploit the Eagles’ apparent weakness en route to six consecutive touchdown drives.
After the game, Elliss explained what shifted from a dominant first quarter into the team’s worst defensive performance in years.
“They were trying to isolate the linebackers and spread the defense out,” said Elliss, who finished with six total tackles. “It tests your run rules and your eyes because as a backside ‘backer, you have to not only play the run, but you have to recognize pass fast.”
“That’s something that I need to do better. I had two digs caught on me because I played the run so fast and I needed to slow down a little bit.”
The Eagles defense started the game off much like it finished the previous meeting between these two teams in last sesaon’s NFC championship game. Eagles defensive tackle Jordan Davis batted 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy’s first pass of the game and Haason Reddick sacked Purdy on the ensuing play. At the end of the first quarter, the 49ers managed minus-6 yards of offense and ran just six plays over two series.
From there, things snowballed until the final whistle. The 49ers scored touchdowns on six straight possessions, essentially taking control of the game with a scoring drive to close out the second quarter and open the third.
Deebo Samuel finished with 138 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns, two of which came on short completions and a third on an end around in the backfield. Each of Samuel’s touchdowns featured shaky tackling and poor angles from the defense, particularly one in which Samuel shed Morrow’s high tackle attempt before a 48-yard run after catch.
“That’s a tough team to tackle,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said. “We take pride in our tackling. I think we’ve been pretty good this year ... but we didn’t do a good enough job today. Again, that’s us putting the guys in positions to be able to tackle and then also doing it. A little bit uncharacteristic day on our part as far as the tackling.
Shanahan tried to isolate the Eagles’ linebackers early on without success when the pass rush was affecting the game, but eventually found the pathway toward exploiting the leaky middle-field defense the Eagles have contended with all season.
He did so by using a heavy dose of pre-snap motion and four-by-one sets that overloaded one side of the field and stressed the Eagles’ coverage assignments on the inside. They got the ball out more quickly after the early-game pressure and gashed the Eagles with run-after-catch opportunities.
“We just got outplayed today,” Eagles safety Reed Blankenship said. “There were a lot of mistakes that we made on our side, tackling, too. It’s just stuff we have to fix this week.”
The running game and play-action game off of it, the foundational piece of San Francisco’s offense, left Elliss and Morrow out of position on several occasions. It was something the Eagles expected going into the game, but still resulted in the highest point total allowed by the Eagles defense since the 2021 season.
“You saw that definitely being the case in certain situations,” said cornerback James Bradberry when asked if the 49ers went after the Eagles’ linebackers and safeties. “I wouldn’t say that was the whole game, but a lot of situations it was like that, key situations. We knew that coming into the game, at the end of the day you have to find a way to make a play. It’s tough having those mismatches and stuff, but you have to make a play whenever your number is called.”
Outside of Samuel, the Eagles also had their hands full with San Francisco running back Christian McCaffrey. The star running back and part-time slot receiver had 93 rushing yards and a touchdown while also catching three passes for 40 yards, proving to be a matchup nightmare for the undermanned Eagles.
“C-Mac coming out of the backfield and being a dynamic runner and also pass catcher definitely helps them come together,” Bradberry said. “It was a combination of them putting together a good scheme but also having good players within the scheme.”
It was a matchup easily identified going into the game considering the circumstances. The Eagles started the season without clear answers at the position and have yet to find them months later. Week-1 starter Nakobe Dean is on injured reserve with a foot injury and Zach Cunningham, who has started nine games this year, was sidelined Sunday with a hamstring injury.
The Eagles hosted free agent linebacker Shaquille Leonard earlier this week for that reason. The 28-year-old is mulling his decision between the Eagles and Cowboys after visits to each team, but the Eagles’ need for the former All-Pro — even if offseason back surgery has rendered him less effective than his accolades might indicate — grows as the season wears on and the stakes ratchet higher.
A playoff rematch with the 49ers looms as a possibility depending on how things shake out. If it does, something will need to change for the much-targeted linebacking corps.
“We’ve got to be more assignment sound,” Elliss said. “When they started getting to the four-by-one and started motioning more, we had to be able to communicate better. I think that’s the biggest lesson. And then just finding the will and want to to make a play. To dominate. To not let them get the extra yards.”