But for two plays, the Eagles' defense has played stellar in 2017. And the two big plays the Eagles' defense has surrendered this season occurred at least in part because free safety Rodney McLeod was out of the lineup.
McLeod is set to return in Week 4 after a missing a game-and-a-half with a hamstring injury, and not a moment too soon. His replacement was largely to blame for both a 53-yard touchdown run by Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt and 77-yard touchdown reception by Giants wide receiver Sterling Shepherd.
Those just happen to be by far the two biggest scoring plays against the Eagles' defense so far this season — and some real backbreakers at that.
Let’s jump back to Hunt’s run in Week 2, already in progress. Obviously, one look at this frame can tell you this was going to be trouble from the start. Eagles linebacker Jordan Hicks loses track of the football, and gap integrity along with it, leaving the middle of the football field wide open.
McLeod’s replacement — Corey Graham in this case, at the top of the screen — becomes the last line of defense.
Here is the precise moment Hunt begins to make his move — a simple cut to the left. It’s unfair how much room the ball carrier has to work with, but he’s also going to catch Graham a little flat-footed here.
Does McLeod definitely make this tackle? No. Hunt has been sensational, with at least one rushing attempt of 50 yards more in each of his first three NFL games. This is a difficult spot for just about anybody.
But McLeod is 27 years old and generally does a solid job at free safety. Graham is a 32-year-old journeyman whose move from cornerback to safety a few seasons ago was at least in part the result of his losing a step.
The point here isn’t to bag on Graham, but to merely point out McLeod may have come up with this stop. Instead, the Chiefs took a 13-10 lead in the third quarter, and the Eagles were never ahead again.
A case could be made Hunt scores regardless. Shepherd’s touchdown this past Sunday, on the other hand, was a disaster brought about almost entirely by a player in an unfamiliar role.
Two hamstring injuries later, the Eagles are down to Chris Maragos at free safety. A special teams ace, Maragos lines up on defense so infrequently, he saw a grand total of 19 snaps during the preseason. Now, there he is on the far right side of the frame, with the receiver coming on the slant.
Shepherd beats Patrick Robinson in man coverage, and Giants quarterback Eli Manning fits a perfect ball between the linebackers in zone. There’s really not much the Eagles can do about this except tackle the receiver and minimize the damage.
Except not only does Maragos miss the tackle, but he also barrels right into Robinson, knocking the one person trailing Shepherd out of the play as well. Rather than hold the Giants to a first down and force them to drive the field, the Eagles give them the touchdown and a 21-14 fourth-quarter lead in one chunk play.
Again, the point here is not to rip Maragos, who did an otherwise solid job. However, this is an example of a play McLeod almost certainly makes, if for no other reason than he has far more experience and this is a common play free safeties are asked to make all the time.
McLeod isn’t quite a star himself, but he’s a good to very good player. Clearly, the Eagles missed him the last few weeks, and now that he’s back, maybe these huge plays over the middle will become much more infrequent.