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‘It's really tough:' Zach Cunningham helping Shaq Leonard prepare for Eagles debut

The Eagles' linebacker knows what it's like being the new guy, and the adjustments that need to be made in such a small window.

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Zach Cunningham knows exactly how challenging it is coming in late and trying to learn the defense. Because a few months ago he had to do the exact same thing.

The Eagles signed Cunningham two weeks into training camp, so he missed OTAs and all the spring practices and two weeks of camp, but at least he had a month before the season opener against the Patriots.

“I would say it took maybe a few weeks (to get acclimated),” he said Thursday. “Something like that.”

Now Shaq Leonard has to do the same thing. Only he has less than a week to do it.

The Eagles’ linebacker carousel has been in motion all summer. It was only a few months ago that guys like Davion Taylor, Shaun Bradley and Myles Jack were getting 1st-team reps alongside Nakobe Dean.

Things have sure changed. 

The Eagles have four off-ball linebackers on the roster right now and none has been on the roster since the start of camp. Cunningham got here late, Nicholas Morrow was released in August, Ben VanSumeren spent most of the year on the practice squad and Leonard just got here on Tuesday. Christian Ellis, who was on the roster all year until Tuesday, was claimed Thursday on waivers by the Patriots.

“Yeah, it's really tough coming into the new system,” Cunningham said. “I went through it and had guys in and out with injuries or whatever. It's always going to be tough getting adjusted to having a different player out there, working with someone else. It is what it is.

“It definitely puts an emphasis on us having that communication out there. Constant communication with each other, constantly talking to each other, helping each other out, giving checks and stuff like that.”

The Eagles have already used four different starting linebackers – Cunningham has started nine games, Morrow eight, Dean four and Ellis one. 

With Christian Ellis now in New England, we could see an entirely new linebacker alignment Sunday in Dallas, with Cunningham and Leonard. 

“He's a veteran player,” Cunningham said. “He's done a lot of great things in his career. I'm sure from what I've seen, like in the meetings and stuff, he's able to pick up quick on the concepts and what we're doing.

“He looked pretty good out there (at practice). From what I saw, obviously it's going to be an acclimation period, for sure, but he looked good out there.”

As for Cunningham, he’s been limited each of the first two days of practice this week after missing the 49ers game with a hamstring injury he suffered against Buffalo.

It’s no lock he’ll play, but he seems optimistic.

“Yeah, I had some limited reps, but when I was out there, I felt pretty good out there,” he said at his locker Thursday.

Does he expect to play? “Oh yeah, for sure.”

Cunningham not only had to watch from the sidelines Sunday, he to watch the Eagles suffer one of their ugliest losses of the Nick Sirianni Era.

“It was really tough,” he said. “I mean, having to sit and watch from the sidelines, it's always hard having to sit out anyway. … It sucked a lot, man. You gotta focus on the stuff that you can control. I was out there trying to help where I could as far as anything I saw out there on the field. That and working on getting back. That’s my main focus.”

Eagles-Cowboys is always big, but Sunday night in Dallas is truly the Game of the Year.

A win would go a long way toward helping the Eagles lock up the No. 1 seed and would virtually lock up the NFC East title. A loss and the Eagles would be staring at a possible wild-card game.

“We’re definitely going to be ready to respond, for sure,” Cunningham said. “That was a tough loss last week but we’re focused on taking what we can from that game to improve and just getting better and coming into this week and improving on that.

“More than we saw the first time, they've been a great team. They've changed a little bit of what they've been able to do and what they've done in their scheme a little. I'm expecting going into this game it's going to be a fight and I'm ready for that.”

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