SEATTLE — Shaq Leonard is ready for a bigger role with the Eagles.
Not that he really has a choice.
The Eagles will be without Zach Cunningham against the Seahawks after Cunningham missed the entire week of practice with a knee injury. That means the only healthy off-ball linebackers on the Eagles’ roster are Nicholas Morrow, Ben VanSumeren and Leonard.
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So after he played just 14 snaps in his Eagles debut last week against the Cowboys, the former All-Pro is gearing up for a bigger role this week.
“I’m pretty comfortable and confident in my ability,” Leonard said this week. “Just taking it day by day and learning more each day and try to go from there.”
Leonard, 28, said his body felt pretty good after his limited workload against the Cowboys in Week 14. He hadn’t played before then since his last game with the Colts on Nov. 12.
It’s unfair to expect Leonard to regain his form from earlier in his career when he was a three-time All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowler with the Colts. But linebacker was a clear weakness for the Eagles and they’re just hoping he’ll be able to help down the stretch.
How tough was it for Leonard to come in and learn the Eagles’ defense?
“Not too much of an adjustment. Football is football,” he said. “Just kind of learning the terminology and learning the style of the way the coaches want you to play. I think that was the main different between teams. But besides that, attack the guy with the football.”
From 2018-2021, Leonard had well over 100 tackles in each season, earning the nickname Maniac. But Leonard was limited to just three games last year and after a couple of back surgeries wasn’t the same guy in Indy in 2023 before the Colts cut him.
When Leonard arrived to Philly, he talked about wanting to prove to himself he can still play.
“It felt good to get back out there and get my feet wet a little bit,” he said. “Body’s feeling good, just looking forward to the next one.”
Perfecting the rub routes
In back-to-back weeks the Eagles have had positive offensive plays wiped out thanks to offensive pass interference calls on rub routes. One from DeVonta Smith against the 49ers wiped out a 7-yard gain from Jack Stoll on 1st-and-10 and one from A.J. Brown wiped out a 14-yard gain on a pass to Dallas Goedert.
There’s an art to these rub routes and the Eagles need to work on them.
“Yeah, I think it's essentially a game of chicken, right?” offensive coordinator Brian Johnson said. “You have to be willing and ready to bail out and not create contact.
“That's a detailed fundamental that obviously we have had two of those calls in the past two weeks and we got to definitely get that cleaned up.”
Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni is a former NFL receivers coach and he’s crazy about fundamentals so these are the kinds of mistakes that really bug him. But they can be tricky plays.
Especially, when the defensive backs realizes what’s going on.
“You just gotta try to get in the way and get out the way as quick as possible,” Brown said. “I think the last two weeks, I got a penalty and Smitty got a penalty. It’s a reaction thing. You just don’t know how a DB is going to react. We’re trying to do what we’re taught. Trying to go on the upfield shoulder and get out the way. But DBs, they’re trying to run into you on purpose. So unfortunately it got us.”
Moving on after Christian Elliss
To make room for Shaq Leonard on the Eagles’ 53-man roster, the Eagles released linebacker Christian Elliss. They hoped to get Elliss to their practice squad but miscalculated and Elliss was claimed by the Patriots.
That left the Eagles without their leading snap-getter on special teams through 13 weeks of the season.
“It's my job as a special teams coordinator, regardless of who has the most snaps — injuries happen and takes away the guy that has the most snaps, so it's my job, starting in OTAs to the draft, to get all these guys up to speed,” Eagles special teams coordinator Michael Clay said this week.
“The practice squad players do an unbelievable job of, one, helping the active roster get ready for the games, and it's not like I don't take notice of that in terms of what they’re doing. If they're giving us fits, they're going to do a good job against the rest of the league. So being able to have a practice squad able -- you have seen -- there has been a handful of guys on our practice squad that have played on special teams for us this year. So, it’s nothing we didn't worry about.
Obviously, when a guy such as Christian Elliss, not just how good of a player he is, but how great of a person he is, it's always tough. But that's the nature of the beast, that’s the nature of the NFL.
“But, again, Howie and Nick do a great job managing the roster, and we're always going to try to get the best out of these guys to help the team out.”
It will be a group effort to make up for the snaps without Elliss. VanSumeren has been mentioned as a player who will take on more of that responsibility but he has already been playing a ton of special teams. Jack Stoll saw a big jump in his special teams snaps this past week, which also coincided with the return of Dallas Goedert to the lineup. We also saw a jump from Patrick Johnson in this last game.
Worried about fumbles
Early in the week, Sirianni mentioned that falling to the ground while maintaining control is an unnatural movement. He said this in response to Jalen Hurts’ fumble in the first quarter against the Cowboys.
Sirianni said they would rep that specifically and on Thursday, they did.
For whatever reason, many people made a big deal about that clip you see above. For what it’s worth, all of the Eagles’ skill players went through this ball security drill on Thursday. And the Eagles already have plenty of ball security drills; they just added this one.
There also seems to be a misconception that professional football players don’t need to practice fundamentals. That’s just not true. It’s all about muscle memory. It’s why baseball infielders take ground balls and why basketball players practice their jumpers. You never stop repping the fundamentals.
And if you think that head shake by Hurts means something, you haven’t been paying attention to Jalen Hurts. He’s pretty mentally tough and doesn’t mind being coached hard.
Shhh … the silent count
The Eagles will be without right guard Cam Jurgens on Monday night against the Seahawks. It’s worth noting that the right guard has an important role when the Eagles use their silent count.
For years with the Eagles, it’s the right guard who is responsible for tapping Jason Kelce before he snaps the football.
And not having the right guard can really affect the silent count.
“It can change a lot,” Kelce said. “The key of the silent count is all timing, right? So if a new guy is in there and the timing’s off, it can take the unit a little bit of getting used to. But the benefit for us is that Sua (Opeta) has not only played this year but he’s played a lot for us. I think everybody feels very comfortable with him operating it if he has too. And (Tyler) Steen has played. So whoever is operating the silent count, we’ll feel good with.”
Early in the week, it was Opeta working at right guard. His experience should give him an edge, especially in a really tough and loud environment.
Seattle can be a tough place to play. The Eagles haven’t won there since the 2008 season. Kelce would really like to finally get one against the Seahawks.
“It’s loud,” he said. “It’s an environment that makes it difficult to communicate. You gotta be on top of the snap count, you gotta be on top of your assignment. Whenever an environment is loud and the fans are into it. It makes it challenging offensively to communicate and be on the same page.”