All-22: What Rodney McLeod Brings To the Eagles
Hyperbole abounds during free agency, especially after high-priced signings when teams guarantee tens of millions of dollars to their top targets. This is especially true in the honeymoon period shortly after the contract is inked, and the new addition meets with the local press corps for the first time.
The Eagles have learned over and over again in recent years after being burned by such ill-fated moves, but even while speaking in the shadow of the DeMarco Murray and Byron Maxwell deals, Rodney McLeod wasn’t really exaggerating in March when he said he and Malcolm Jenkins could become the best safety tandem in the NFL.
It remains to be seen what role McLeod will have in Jim Schwartz’s scheme, which will go a long way in determining how good of an investment the Eagles made in the $37 million safety, but his teammates and coaches don’t really seem to care how he’ll be deployed because of his varied skill set.
“That was money well spent,” Schwartz said. “I’m sort of violating my rule with judging too much into this time of year, (but Jenkins and McLeod) are veteran players and you can see that right away. They’re both multi-dimensional. They communicate very well. They can cover a lot of ground. They can blitz, they can play man, they can play zone. I’d be very surprised as the year went on if they’re not one of the better safety tandems in the NFL. They’ve been very impressive so far.”
Minutes after the Eagles agreed to terms with McLeod on the first day of free agency, positive reviews began to circulate. McLeod hasn’t been named to a Pro Bowl and his numbers aren’t overly impressive, but those most familiar with his game said the Eagles got a good one.
Former teammate Chris Long called him an “all around really good player,” while one NFC West senior scout told the Inquirer’s Jeff McLane that McLeod is “super smart,” a “really good tackler” and someone who “takes away reads from the QB.”
McLeod’s new partner on the back end, Jenkins, doesn’t disagree.
“I’ve watched him on tape before he even got here, and he’s a young player that’s very instinctual, very sudden and explosive out of the post as a deep player,” Jenkins said. “He’s also somebody who knows football, is pretty smart, can control his side of the field. So that actually frees me up; I don’t have to control the whole defense. You got somebody else that’s barking out orders, too, so it’s fun.”
The first time people come in contact with McLeod, whether they’re adults or children, they always mention his 2014 hit on Emmanuel Sanders. During the Rams’ 22-7 victory over the Broncos in Week 11, McLeod concussed Sanders on a long incompletion down the right sideline.
McLeod led with his shoulder and wasn’t fined, but he was penalized on the play.
“I can’t blame the ref,” McLeod now says. “The game is so fast — you just got to make the judgment call. Obviously seeing that he was down and injured like he was, I don’t fault him for calling it. But if this would’ve cost us the game, I would be heated to this day.”
Although it’s a flashy play to have on McLeod’s highlight reel, it’s also a good display of the traits that make him a talented safety.
McLeod almost always lined up as the deep post safety in St. Louis, and he started this play 23 yards off of the ball. His coverage responsibilities sometimes varied a bit depending on if the Rams were in man or zone, but his overarching job never changed. “I had the same principle: don’t let the ball go over my head,” McLeod says.
He was typically told to be about 20-25 yards from the line of scrimmage, which gave him some freedom to change his alignment based off his “feel” for what was coming. He cited a couple of key factors that determined where he lined up on this play.
“They’re just about at midfield, and in between the 50 and 40 is usually the shot area where teams like to take a shot just to see whether they can connect or get a pass interference to set them up closer to the end zone,” McLeod says.
“It’s not the same Peyton [Manning] from Indianapolis when he first started, and we knew his arm strength wasn’t as strong. [He] can’t really throw but so far nowadays. Respect to Peyton,” McLeod adds with a chuckle, “but it is what it is.”
Although McLeod is known as a hard hitter, he says he has to pick and choose his spots because of his size (“I’m not Malcolm Jenkins,” he notes). But on this play, the 5-10, 195-pound safety wasn’t sure if he could make a play on the ball in the air, so he chose the next best option.
“I took a quick glimpse at the ball, but I didn’t know if I would make it to intercept the ball,” McLeod says. “My intention immediately wasn’t to automatically hit him; it was more of a reaction. I saw him get ready to put his hands out.”
After primarily playing special teams in his rookie season, McLeod took over as a full-time starter at safety in 2013. In the last three seasons, McLeod has forced eight fumbles, which is tied for the league lead among safeties (Jenkins has seven).
“I kind of just found a little niche for the ball on certain hits — lead with my shoulder and I make contact with the ball,” McLeod says. “When I look at a lot of those fumbles, it’s the same type of hit.”
One such fumble came against the Cardinals in Week 4 last season. In the middle of the third quarter, with Arizona facing third-and-2 from their 38-yard-line, Carson Palmer completed a 22-yard pass down the right sideline to Larry Fitzgerald. After Fitzgerald took a few steps, McLeod, who started out 24 yards from the line of scrimmage, popped the ball loose.
McLeod notes that he wanted to line up a bit deeper than he normally did because the corners were in press coverage and focused on taking away anything low and inside, leaving them vulnerable over the top.
“That’s a play they run a lot,” McLeod says. “We actually did a bad job from a technique standpoint from having double press. Usually one guy needs to be on and one guy needs to be off. It’s third-and-2, so you’re expecting slants, things like that. Nowadays, teams scheme up these rub-type concepts when people want to play press.
“It’s pretty much flat-foot, read the quarterback and then break. You break off quarterback mechanics and read the shoulders, and obviously Larry Fitzgerald is a hot target in their offense — definitely on third down.”
It’s unclear how, exactly, McLeod will fit into the Eagles’ defense. According to Pro Football Focus, McLeod lined up in the box — which they define as within eight yards of the line of scrimmage — on less than five percent of the snaps last season. He played very well as the post safety, and it’d make sense for Schwartz to play him in a similar role, especially with Jenkins enjoying playing in the box.
But in his limited snaps when he’s closer to the line of scrimmage, McLeod has had success.
“Rodney is versatile enough to do it all,” Jenkins says. “Mostly in his career, he’s been deep, but this is a chance to see what he can do when talking about covering tight ends, covering the slot. Right now, it’s that period where you have the flexibility to just try stuff. We’ll probably hone in on what that plan looks like closer to the end of training camp.”
When he left that usual post spot, McLeod made some plays that were reminiscent of Jenkins last season when the Pro Bowler dropped down to slot corner in nickel. Against bubble screens, like the one against Arizona when he dropped John Brown for a one-yard loss, McLeod quickly diagnosed the play and closed the gap.
“It’s play recognition,” McLeod says. “I knew they liked to run the bubble a lot. We’re showing a zero look, and that’s kind of their check against that. Larry never attacked me, so rather than play the blocker, I played the ball. It’s dependent on him because he never came to me. My first reaction is to look at Larry because I’m covering him, but he never attacks so I just go and shoot.”
On the flip side, McLeod also explained what goes into being a good post safety, which is where most of his impressive plays have come from.
“You got to have depth and just good vision,” he says. “It comes from film study, knowing the quarterback’s mechanics — whether they’re going to look you off or they’re going to just stare guys down — and as the game goes on, you kind of get a feel of when certain things are going to happen. Depth is key and vision and break, and once you go, you got to lock in and get going. It’s a hard task.”
One example of that is McLeod’s interception against Baltimore last season. He only has five career picks, which the safety attributes to less opportunities to play the ball in the air because of how deeps he lines up, but occasionally he’ll be both well-positioned and fortunate due to an errant throw.
In the second quarter of the Rams’ Week 11 matchup against the Ravens, Baltimore ran a play-action pass on first-and-10 from their 29-yard-line. McLeod didn’t bite at all on the play-fake, and he got over top of Joe Flacco’s intended target as the quarterback sailed the ball a bit.
“You just read linemen,” McLeod says. “During film study, I usually try to find one or two linemen that kind of give things away pre-snap, whether it’s high hat in their stance or anything I can pick up on. We call what they’re doing here elephants on parade — they’re all just moving sideways and not getting up to the linebackers or anything like that. There’s no need for me to come up.
“The formation’s condensed, and I really only have one threat, which is this over route. My linebacker, James Laurinaitis, does a great job at busting out. He kind of got sucked in on the run fake, which as a linebacker happens, but he did a great job of getting back and underneath the tight end, which forced Flacco to put a little bit of air on it. On a bootleg, there are only certain routes — over route, usually the receiver will do a comeback, sometimes you might get a post with it. It’s just play recognition.”
It’s not difficult to see why Schwartz likes McLeod. Although McLeod doesn’t have perfect size, he has the aggressive mentality Schwartz so often preaches. You can see the safety playing with anger at times, which can be especially apparent on run plays.
McLeod explains that when he forced the fumble against the Bears during Week 10 last year, there aren’t many X’s-and-O’s to dissect. “This was a lot of frustration built up because we’re losing,” he says.
In general, McLeod looked pretty good against the run last season, mostly because of his tackling. According to Pro Football Focus, McLeod recorded the 9th-best tackle rate among safeties, and he was reliable against elite backs like Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch.
While Jenkins noted last week that he’ll have to adjust to changing run fits after mostly being a force player on the edge in Billy Davis’ 3-4, McLeod says he had more ‘C’ gap responsibilities in St. Louis, which Schwartz will require of his safeties now in Philadelphia.
McLeod also spent some time behind the wide-9 front with the Rams under his last two defensive coordinators — Tim Walton and Gregg Williams — so what Schwartz asks of him won’t be entirely new. While it seems more likely that Jenkins will be in the box making plays against the run, McLeod is capable of doing the same.
One of McLeod’s tackles against Tampa Bay in Week 15 last year was nullified because of an illegal formation penalty, but he quickly got down hill to meet Doug Martin close to the line of scrimmage.
“First, I’m just looking at my run-pass key — the offensive linemen,” McLeod says. “The guard goes down, and they were in 13 personnel, so I cheated down. There’s no need for me to be 20-25 yards back, I moved up to 15. We knew Doug Martin was big in their offense and they wanted to run the ball a lot. I was just getting down hill as fast as possible.
“You want to close the cushion. I’m not a bigger dude, so if I see it, I react and go. I feel like I see the same thing as he sees and react to what hole he’ll run through.”
‘WE’RE GOING TO BUILD SOMETHING GREAT’
Now that McLeod is in Philadelphia, he’s learning from a former Eagle who also played beside a great safety. His position coach, Tim Hauck, started next to Brian Dawkins in 1999, and Hauck seems to have made a good impression on McLeod.
“He’s been great so far,” McLeod says. “We work on post breaks literally every day, (including) how we read the shoulders of the quarterback, which is key as a post safety. You get a good jump — whether it’s a dig or slant, something intermediate — it changes your angles, how you come out your breaks. We’ve been stressing that a lot, and you can see it carry over on the team periods.”
McLeod mentioned a few elements of his game he wants to improve: reading the shoulders of the quarterback, working on his route recognition and eliminating routes as they come, and getting to the point where he can “feel” routes and keep his eyes on the quarterback. He also says the biggest challenge in changing schemes is that now zone principles turn into man-t0-man more often in Schwartz’s defense.
As good as he looks on film, and as much as Schwartz has been impressed with him in OTAs so far, there’s no guarantee McLeod’s success will translate with the Eagles. Still, two months after his introductory press conference, McLeod’s goals in Philadelphia haven’t changed one bit.
If anything, they only seem to have grown now that he sees what he’s working with.
“Me and Malcolm,” he says, “I think we’re going to build something great here.”