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All Twenty Take: Rodney McLeod, Box Safety

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This is good Schwartz. Do more of this.

Atlanta Falcons v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

It started off in training camp on a 10-10-10 day. Those days, which feature 10 plays for offensive install against a soft defense, then 10 for the defense against a soft offense, then 10 special-teams reps, can give onlookers a little insight as to the new wrinkles/adjustments that coordinators are focusing on.

During a portion of the practice, Doug’s offense got uber college-y. Not just the usual bits and pieces — it was straight option offense, bubble screens galore, pre-snap motion for days. If you’ve ever watched a Matt Canada offense (current HC at Maryland), think that.

But Pederson was only running those looks because Schwartz had asked for them. The emphasis was on Schwartz’s secondary being able to communicate and adjust through the various pass-catchers re-aligning and releasing in curious ways.

The big note from Schwartz’s defense during that install: how much he asked of Malcolm Jenkins, Rodney McLeod, and then-SAF3 Tre Sullivan. All three safeties had to play reps as the deep middle safety, deep half safety, cover man over the slot, cover man over the tight end, cover man over the running back, curl-flat defender, et cetera. Lots o’ hats.

The surprising carryover into the first two weeks of the season? The usage of Rodney McLeod in the box, even when no pre-snap motion or funky alignments have forced him there. Schwartz seems more willing this season to deploy McLeod in roles other than centerfielder — the sample size is still small, of course, but early returns are incredibly promising.

The Eagles have generated two interceptions so far this season. The first was the Rasul Douglas pick on the sideline against Julio Jones, which was a rather terrible throw to a poorly run route. The second was this play, on which McLeod plastered Tampa TE O.J. Howard and popped the ball into the air.

McLeod is not in his typical high alignment because he’s peppering the edge, threatening QB Ryan Fitzpatrick with a blitz to hopefully force him to shift protection or audible to a hot route. As he peels off, he has flat responsibility, sinking outside of the numbers to sit underneath the deep comeback route that had been hurting Philadelphia’s Cover 3 early in the game.

There’s a bit of discontinuity in the interior zones, however. Faced with the choice of two vertical stems coming his way, the middle hole defender (Malcolm Jenkins) takes the #2 receiver to the trips side, leaving the #3 defender, O.J. Howard, to work across the open middle of the field, as LB Nigel Bradham is forced to close down on the RB release.

McLeod, watching all of this unfold from his flat responsibility (Fitzpatrick never looks his way) makes the play of an instinctive free safety. A corrective position that has to anticipate the if-then causality between route concepts and zone coverage, free safeties regularly have to fly to the most likely choice and begin attacking the throw before the quarterback even begins the process. That’s what McLeod does here.

McLeod abandons his post in the flat, which leaves the comeback open, because he sees Fitzpatrick processing the middle of the field and feels the hole in the defense. Howard, rightfully, does not expect the flat defender to come at him so immediately and with such velocity — he is unprepared for the body-check, and McLeod creates a turnover.

Now, it’s easy to conclude via results and not process, which is why it’s important to talk about this play: the O.J. Howard 75-yard touchdown:

While the Eagles rotate in a different manner in order to get into their Cover 2 on this play, this is again a shell that looks like Cover 3 early but changes late to Cover 2. McLeod is again threatening the backside edge as a blitzer, and again peels off to sink underneath the comeback route that Tampa had been cashing in on.

But McLeod doesn’t come off the flat to attack the crosser; O.J. catches this ball and scores a touchdown. That is objectively bad, but it doesn’t mean the process was bad at all. Again, Philly has forced Fitzpatrick into a second read and a middle-of-the-field throw, protecting their struggling corners.

But this play is after the Darby interception, and clearly the team has adjusted on the sideline. This time, the middle hole defender (Jordan Hicks) is quick to get attached to Howard’s crosser and carry it into space. There is no longer confusion in the middle zones — they know how to handle this familiar concept from a few drives ago.

As such, in terms of process, this is a great situation. Fitzpatrick needs to thread this throw right over Nigel Bradham (who didn’t close as hard on the running back this time) and jam it into Howard’s chest to prevent Hicks, in a decent position, from attacking the catch point. And even then, Howard needs to shed Hicks and break another tackle or two to get all the way downfield.

At this point in the play, this rep is a win for the Eagles’ defense.

Now, both of these reps saw McLeod initially down in the box, as a potential blitzer and, if not a blitzer, a likely short-zone defender. The fact that McLeod offers that interchangeability is quite nice, in that it allows Jenkins and McLeod to be more fluid pre-snap handling those motions we discussed in the intro.

However, for deception’s sake, teams will quickly come to key on McLeod’s alignment. When he’s down, the Eagles are far less likely to run true Cover 3 than when he’s up high. As such, working McLeod down into the box from a high alignment pre-snap is important for Schwartz’s defense.

And he’s checked that box off as well. It goes back to the coulda woulda shoulda been third interceptions of the Eagles’ young season:

This coverage shell should seem familiar. It’s essentially the same back-end coverage as the first clip — the Darby interception.

(You will notice that a lot of the Eagles’ early ball production this season on defense has come from this shell. Makes you think!)

This shell is basically Inverted Cover 2, and it’s a natural compliment to Cover 3 coverage. At the snap, they look rather similar — the corners are in off coverage, and there’s a single-high rover covering the middle of the field. At the snap of Cover 3, everyone begins slowly gaining depth; at the snap of an inverted Cover 2 rep, the free safety closes down, to become the middle hole defender of the Cover 2.

Really, Inverted Cover 2 is closer to a Tampa-2 coverage than a true Cover 2. A true Cover 2 is a five-under, two-over coverage: five defenders handle the underneath areas, two defenders handle the deep areas. Philly’s inverted Cover 2 doesn’t ask the middle hole defender — that dropping free safety — to really get all the way into the underneath zones. He plays more of a robber role — a rat defender, some would call it. He’s allowed to roam in the barren land between underneath and deep zones, feeling the route concept and adjusting accordingly.

And that’s what you see from McLeod here. Similarly to the first rep, he plays with his eyes in the backfield, feels the space QB Matt Ryan wants to attack, and undercuts the route. Everything is solid but the execution.

And that’s really what we have, here: an interception, an incompletion, and a touchdown. I could throw in the DeSean Jackson touchdown — McLeod rotated into man coverage on Mike Evans at the snap, which allowed Philly to generate a free blitzer — that would be two touchdowns on four total plays. If you were to just look at the stats, McLeod down in the box seems rather a poor idea.

But even on that DeSean touchdown, Philly was at a great position in terms of X’s and O’s on the chalkboard: they had DeSean double covered and a free rusher baring down on Fitzpatrick. One mental mistake — albeit an egregious one — was enough to tip the scales.

If and when Schwartz moves McLeod into the box, he’s typically moving away from the base Cover 3 defense. In the past, when moving to different shells, Schwartz still made an effort to keep McLeod as a high safety. In 2018, he seems far more willing to use McLeod in unexpected ways, and it’s paying off early for the Eagles’ defense.

McLeod’s instincts and sharp mind for the game translate down into underneath zones, and he has either directly or indirectly put the defense in plus situations with his versatility. The more frequently Philadelphia deploys McLeod as a middle hole or flat defender, the further they can confound opposing offenses, force longer processes in the pocket, and generate turnover-worthy plays.