For obvious reasons, analysis of Rodney McLeod’s game is difficult to find compared to his counterparts in the Philadelphia secondary. In one offseason, the Eagles have made Darius Slay the highest-paid CB ever based on average annual value, stolen slot CB Nickell Robey-Coleman from the Rams in hopes that he’ll be the new Patrick Robinson, and moved Jalen Mills to safety to replace Malcolm Jenkins. Given that the second starting outside CB will not be named Mills or Ronald Darby, this means that McLeod will be the only returning starter in the Eagles secondary in the same position he was in a year ago (even including the group’s position coach).
But just because McLeod is the lone familiar face doesn’t mean that he’s any less important to his unit’s chances of turning things around after a season in which the Eagles gave up more than twice as many 50+ yard passing touchdowns as any other team in the NFL. Philly fans and media have long taken it for granted that McLeod is just someone steady in the defensive backfield without talking about it, but what are his true strengths and weaknesses? I watched every Eagles 2019 defensive snap, while also using R programming and Pro Football Focus’ data, to break down what McLeod can bring to the table to help his secondary finally “live up to the standard” that has escaped it in recent seasons.
Big Picture: What do the Numbers Say?
I’ll begin this breakdown the same way I started my piece on Sidney Jones in June; how often was McLeod responsible for “the big play?” Jimmy Kempski’s Twitter thread of every passing play of more than 30 yards that the Eagles allowed last season has become the gold standard, so I will again use that as an opening barometer. McLeod has a media reputation of being largely at fault for several of the plays Kempski discussed. But by my count (and I tried to give one person primary blame for each play, rather than involving fractions), the free safety wasn’t primarily responsible for any of them. Note that this chart, and all other stats in this article unless otherwise noted, include the postseason:
Despite how good this chart makes McLeod look, there are some caveats. For one, there were several “big plays” where it could be argued that McLeod was to blame; I’ll address those borderline ones when we get into the film. And secondly, there were a few screw-ups by McLeod that could’ve been costly, but resulted in him getting bailed out by poor QB vision and/or strong D-line play. But even with those disclaimers, McLeod was the only Eagles defensive back with significant playing time not to directly allow one of these “big plays”, and that has to count for something.
PFF’s numbers give a similar narrative; while McLeod’s stats in the pass game were elite, he didn’t grade out at quite as high of a level due to mistakes that went relatively unpunished. McLeod’s overall PFF grade was 67.2, ranking 52nd out of 119 safeties with 100+ defensive snaps — in other words, slightly above league average. His pass coverage grade was a team-leading 71.9, 33rd out of those 119 safeties.
Digging into PFF’s more granular passing statistics, McLeod begins to shine even more. A couple more caveats; first, I already talked extensively in my Sidney Jones piece about how coverage stats can be volatile, because they depend just as much on the competence of the opposing QB and receiver as that of the defensive player. But beyond that, these stats can be even more unstable for safeties, because they are often not guarding a specific man.
But, with those warnings in mind, McLeod’s PFF coverage numbers are elite. Among 53 safeties with 25+ targets, McLeod led the NFL in completion pct allowed, also ranking 4th in opposing passer rating:
These are “who’s who” lists of elite safeties, and McLeod is right up there with them. McLeod was also 5th in yards per target allowed at 5.09, trailing only McCourty, Adams, Thornhill, and Simmons. The NFL’s only two safeties to be sub-60 in both comp pct allowed and passer rating allowed via PFF were McLeod and Simmons, who graded out as PFF’s 2nd-best overall safety.
McLeod is the green dot here, as he will be on all ensuing graphs. That bottom-left quadrant is ideal, and the graph visualizes McLeod’s strong showings in both categories. But as elite as the numbers look, they must be taken with a major grain of salt. For starters, 11 of McLeod’s 32 targets were either dropped or off-target via PFF, a rate of 34.4% that ranked 2nd among all safeties behind only Jaquiski Tartt’s 35.5%.
I included the best-fit line here to show that, while McLeod did lead all safeties in comp pct allowed, his performance wasn’t that out of the ordinary when accounting for the quality of targets he saw; he got lucky. McLeod’s “forced incompletion percentage” of 12.5% ranked 23rd among the 53 safeties with 25+ targets, suggesting that he caused incompletions at only a slightly above-average rate. A similar concept holds true for this graph, though I omitted the best-fit line since the negative correlation wasn’t quite as strong.
Additionally, I had a few pretty important discrepancies with PFF’s numbers, which I can fully list out to anyone interested. I had his coverage stats as 18-32 (56.3 pct), with 219 yards (6.8 yards/att), 3 TD, 2 INT, 4 PBU, and an 82.7 passer rating; not bad numbers by any means, but a far cry from what’s given by PFF. A pair of receiving touchdowns by Devin Singletary and Phillip Dorsett were the most impactful discrepancies, as PFF had McLeod with 1 TD allowed instead of 3.
As it pertains to McLeod’s tackling abilities, the numbers aren’t too friendly. McLeod’s PFF run defense grade was a sub-par 54.2 (T-93rd of 119 safeties w/ 100+ snaps), and McLeod had 15 missed tackles, T-5th-most among safeties. (I also had McLeod with 15 MTs, but on slightly different plays.) He was the only safety with 15+ missed tackles and fewer than 80 total tackles, via PFF. Among 53 safeties with 25+ targets, McLeod’s missed tackle rate of 16.7% was 10th-highest, via PFF.
The bottom-left quadrant is the ideal place to be here, and McLeod’s MT rate is too high for it. But McLeod did have some awesome big hits, as we’ll see both the good and bad in the tape.
The Film: Big Plays
I’ll start off the film analysis by looking at the Kempski “big plays”, since many readers might not believe my judgment that McLeod wasn’t primarily responsible for any. The way I see it, there are three plays where it could be reasonably argued that McLeod was the main guy at fault:
That first clip against the Vikings was discussed in remarkable detail by Eagles Production Manager Fran Duffy, and I highly recommend checking out his work in general. But to summarize: with a great route combination designed to attack Cover 4, the Vikings turn what should be a numeric advantage for the Eagles into a 2-on-2 game between Adam Thielen/Stefon Diggs and Rasul Douglas/McLeod. Knowing that Thielen will be uncovered if he drops deeper to help Douglas with the outside route, McLeod has to make the split-second decision of which route to cover, and in my opinion he makes the right one. If Diggs gets double-teamed, that means Thielen is uncovered for an easy first down, and a potential TD. But if Diggs and Thielen each have a man chasing them, that at least forces Kirk Cousins to make a more difficult throw to a receiver that isn’t on an island — better to dare him to complete that instead of giving him a free 20+ yards.
In the Seahawks game, it’s really more a case of incredible offense than bad defense. Not only is Russell Wilson’s throw outrageously good, but WR Malik Turner does a stellar job to sell the fake run block before releasing, and C Joey Hunt is the unsung hero of the play for pulling to the offense’s left side to block Derek Barnett. But still, someone on defense has to be considered culpable, and I went with Mills instead of McLeod. If the defense is playing man coverage — and based on Jenkins traveling with OT George Fant’s motion pre-snap, and Darby staying within a few yards of TE Jacob Hollister after the snap, it is — then the defender whose man scored is usually at fault.
But that doesn’t mean that McLeod is exempt from criticism here. Both his and Mills’ lack of top-end speed gets exposed, as Turner simply outruns them to the ball. For McLeod, his top speed on a defensive play all season was 19.4 MPH via Next Gen Stats, 2nd-slowest out of the Eagles’ 10 DBs with 100+ snaps ahead of Jenkins (19.2). 19.4 MPH is also faster than he reached in 2018 before his ACL injury, meaning that injury rehab can’t be the scapegoat here. McLeod doesn’t have the flat-out speed of some of the league’s elite safeties, which can be exposed when a pass is on the dot like this one.
Both when watching it live during Week 14 and when re-watching it again during the all-22 film review for this piece, I was under the impression that McLeod screwed up big-time during the Slayton TD. The Eagles are in a traditional Cover 2 zone defense, and clearly both McLeod and Darby think they are responsible for the flat underneath area. After doing further research, The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Les Bowen revealed that players told him it was indeed Darby who didn’t hear the coverage before the play. So while McLeod could have done a better job with pre-snap communication, the TD still has to go on Darby for not being in his deep half of the field.
However, just because McLeod wasn’t responsible for any of the Kempski “big plays” by my count doesn’t mean that he didn’t have his fair share of errors. Attached is video of every “semi-big” play where I had McLeod as the targeted defender, plus one more at the end that fell incomplete. Any completion that went for 15-30 yards is included here:
I won’t address every single play with its own paragraph the way I did in the Jones piece, but I will discuss the two discrepancies I had on the Singletary and Dorsett touchdowns. For the Bills clip, it appears to be a Cover 0 6-man blitz, involving “banjo” coverage on the WR/TEs and McLeod manned on Singletary. To the field side, Douglas and Jones handle their pass-offs perfectly. But to the boundary, Ronald Darby and Andrew Sendejo both guard TE Dawson Knox, leaving WR Duke Williams uncovered. Though McLeod is originally manned on Singletary, he sees Williams running free and picks up the wide open man right in front of him, like any athlete instinctively would, which leaves Singletary open. As such, though I don’t think McLeod is fully at fault, it has to go down as a man coverage target for him — there’s no one else you can reasonably argue was manned on the RB. For what it’s worth, PFF didn’t give the target to anybody; if you go to the “Coverage Stats” for that game, the site says the Eagles allowed 1 pass TD, even though Josh Allen threw two scores.
As for the Dorsett score on the trick play, coverage responsibilities are much easier to diagnose. PFF gave the target to Darby, the CB to the top of the screen, but in my opinion, that isn’t fair based on where the ball was caught; Dorsett is outside of the hashes on the opposite side of the field that Darby is responsible for. Now, Darby still did a bad job on the play — he should have kept running with Dorsett once he saw no other routes coming toward his zone. But he still can’t blamed as much as the deep-middle player, McLeod. It’s concerning that McLeod and the Eagles got duped on double-pass trick plays in back-to-back weeks, especially when Patriots had already tried a similar double-pass earlier in the same game. While McLeod’s quick play recognition is a positive trait, it’s clear that a few 2019 opponents were eager to use that against him.
Looking at the remainder of this “semi-big plays” reel, I don’t think McLeod does a particularly bad job. The Vikings clip is really rough; the dig by Thielen should fall right into McLeod’s lap, but McLeod takes a horrendous angle to the route and allows a 20-yard gain. Poor pursuit angles are a recurring theme for McLeod throughout the 2019 season. But several of these clips just involve route combinations designed to put McLeod in a situation where he has multiple receivers to defend. The Packers TD and Week 17 Giants clip are nearly identical, with the opponents running “four verts” while the Eagles are in Cover 2, forcing McLeod try to straddle the #1 and #2 receivers to his side. Still, overall, this is not a disastrous reel. While there were some mistakes, he was often victimized by either slip-ups by his teammates or great play calls by the opponent putting him in near-impossible situations.
The Film: Zone Coverage/Awareness
Now that we’ve spent tons of time talking about McLeod’s weaker plays, we can transition into what he does well. McLeod’s reputation is that of a calming presence in the defensive backfield, someone who’s “always in the right spot.” And while he’s not quite as flawless in this regard as we often perceive him to be, he’s generally pretty good at handling assignments on the back end. Here are some of his better reps as a deep zone coverage player:
That first clip against the Falcons is awesome. The way he makes his break once he can tell the ball is going to Julio Jones, and then jumps to barely deflect the pass in time, is simply how “MOFC” (i.e. 1-high safety) coverage is supposed to be played. However, in the majority of these clips, McLeod’s sound handling of his assignments contributes to the ball not being his thrown his way at all, which is a win for the safety, even if the ball going elsewhere still sometimes resulted in a TD.
Still, being in the right position to make a play doesn’t mean that the play is going to get made, and even this mostly positive reel shows that McLeod’s ball skills leave a lot to be desired. Though he’s in a good spot in the second Falcons clip, he completely whiffs on his attempt to knock the ball down, getting bailed out by a very well-timed swipe by Darby. McLeod did tie for the team lead with 2 INT on the season, but both of those came on deflected passes, as we’ll see that beating a receiver to the ball in the air isn’t one of McLeod’s strong suits.
Back to the point of McLeod’s positioning, while he usually is in the right spot in zone coverage, there were definitely some slip-ups in that regard. For starters, there were occasional moments where he bailed too far from the LOS and wasn’t able to guard anybody, similar to that long Washington completion we saw in the “semi-big plays” reel:
While these aren’t very good reps from McLeod, what’s even more costly than bailing too far is not bailing deep enough. And McLeod was guilty of that on a few occasions in zone coverage as well:
There’s no sugarcoating it; this reel is ugly. Uglier than the actual completions that he allowed, in fact. The second clip is a walk-in score for slot WR Geronimo Allison if Aaron Rodgers sees how open he is, instead of only looking to Davante Adams. In the third clip, it’s possible that either of the outside receivers (Adams to the top, Marquez Valdes-Scantling to the bottom) could’ve had a touchdown, as McLeod crashed down to the 7-yard hook by Jimmy Graham that he simply has no business caring about in Cover 3. But his over-aggressiveness is bailed out by Brandon Graham destroying OT Alex Light with a dip and rip to force a throwaway. The fourth clip is extremely similar to the second one, as slot WR Robby Anderson has an easy TD if a Tackle-End stunt by Hassan Ridgeway and Vinny Curry doesn’t get through for a sack. So while it’s true that McLeod wasn’t directly responsible for any of the Kempski “big plays” by my count, he was a couple of strong defensive line plays away from having just as many as any of the team’s other safeties.
Another one of McLeod’s weaknesses, as mentioned in the “semi-big plays” section, is his inconsistency with pursuit angles.
Several of these plays involve situations where the primary mistake was made by a cornerback, but that doesn’t mean McLeod is exonerated of all fault. In the second clip, Adams has a touchdown if not for a shoestring tackle by Sidney Jones. In the fifth clip, Darius Slayton does get a touchdown after Darby misses a tackle, as McLeod’s angle after the initial release of the pass is not nearly flat enough. But to me, the most frustrating of these clips is the fourth one, from the Dolphins game. Darby deserves primary blame for getting absolutely sonned by DeVante Parker, but McLeod’s initial steps are toward the pivot by the slot WR, Albert Wilson, for no reason. If that quick route was thrown, he was never going to impact it. But McLeod may have been able to impact the fade by Parker if his initial angle was in that direction — if not to break up the pass, then to at least force Parker out of bounds after the catch. McLeod’s judgment of angles was sub-par in 2019, as he often under-estimated opponents’ speed and wasn’t able to make up for it.
Still, even when accounting for those pursuit slip-ups, McLeod is generally strong at playing that “center-field” role and cleaning up the mistakes of those around him. Here are some notable clips where the Eagles are in man coverage, but McLeod himself is not manned on any receiver, instead playing help defense.
Most of this reel is damn impressive, but those last two clips show that he’s not perfect in this role. In the 2nd-to-last one, McLeod attempted to split the difference between two vertical routes and didn’t end up guarding either one, resulting in Parker winning a jump ball over Mills. But a play like that is the exception instead of the rule, as McLeod is stellar at playing that clean-up role and diagnosing which man to help out with. The first clip is a great representation of what McLeod can bring to the table; Jenkins gets shook out of his shoes by the slot WR to the field, Darrius Shepherd, but McLeod quickly spots it and gets there to help, which forces Rodgers to flip his eyes across the field and eventually throw an incompletion. The second clip, besides being another example of McLeod positioning himself well, shows us what McLeod can do with the ball in his hands — not bad play-making ability for someone with no offensive background.
Both Bills clips are also very indicative of McLeod’s football intelligence; instead of automatically helping on whatever the deepest route is, he really works quickly to figure out which defender needs help the most and adjusts accordingly. On the first of the two Bills plays, it’s simply that Mills’ man (John Brown) has way more separation than Darby’s man (Duke Williams), so McLeod comes down to help Mills and also makes a great tackle. On the latter of the two, Darby plays as if he’s in a zone coverage and the rest of the Eagles play man, but McLeod spots Darby’s mistake and picks up Darby’s man (Brown) quickly enough to prevent the pass from being attempted at all.
However, the best play of this reel comes near the goal line against the Patriots. The Eagles are in Cover 1 Robber, with “banjo” coverage to the trips side. There’s a miscommunication in “banjo” between Jenkins and Avonte Maddox, as both guard the #3 receiver (Phillip Dorsett) which leaves the #2 (Mohamed Sanu) wide open. At this moment, Tom Brady, Sanu, and everyone in Lincoln Financial Field think it’s a sure TD:
But McLeod hustles from the middle of the field to break up this pass, saving the Eagles four points. Even though McLeod’s top speed isn’t elite, he does accelerate well, with this play being a strong example. Combining that acceleration with the very quick recognition of the Jenkins/Maddox mishap shows us exactly what McLeod is capable of at his best.
Because McLeod almost exclusively plays as the free safety, he doesn’t often have to play an an underneath zone defender. But when he was called into that responsibility in 2019, he fared very well.
Generally, underneath zone coverage is more about having the smarts to figure out which route to pick up than having the top-end speed to run with those routes, so it makes sense that McLeod performs well here. The only bad rep in this entire reel is the final one against the Vikings, when McLeod gets bailed out by a Diggs drop. By my count, McLeod’s coverage stats as an underneath zone defender were: 5-9, 27 yards, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 21.3 passer rating. And even if we account for those final three clips of this reel that were either overthrown or dropped, he still only should’ve allowed approx. 34 yards on the nine targets.
To me, the clip of the interception is impressive — not because of the catch, but for just about everything else he does. Knowing the situation on 3rd and 25, the flat by RB Rashaad Penny doesn’t matter, so McLeod can drop deeper than a typical Cover 3 flat defender to give Darby extra help on WR David Moore. McLeod is rewarded for this, as he’s in perfect position to clean up after Darby deflects the ball. Many viewers might not like McLeod’s subsequent pitch to Maddox during the return, but I actually like the play. If you’re going down, but you’re moving slowly enough to accurately pitch the ball and a teammate has some green space in front of him, why not throw a little rugby flair to make a play? This wasn’t a Reggie Bush vs. Texas-style reckless play by any means. It only resulted in a few extra yards, but I love the mentality of trying to make something happen any time he touches the ball.
Another play that stands out is the 3rd-to-last clip, from the Wild Card game. The Eagles are in a matchup zone defense near the end zone that resembles Cover 1, and McLeod wisely picks up Lockett once it becomes clear that Cre’Von LeBlanc isn’t. Great job to spot Lockett leaking out from behind the offensive line and react to it effectively.
While this isn’t directly related to zone coverage, another demonstration of McLeod’s football awareness comes with his play recognition. A key trait for any safety is how quickly he can discern run vs. pass, and McLeod is usually strong in this regard.
There are a few rough clips in here. In that first one against the Jets, McLeod shuffles outward to defend the pass even after the OT Kelvin Beachum more or less sprints downfield to indicate a run. And in the 2nd-to-last clip, McLeod backpedals way too far during Washington’s speed option, even though the OL’s downfield motion clearly indicates a run — perhaps an over-correction to the double-pass trick plays from the Seahawks and Patriots. (We can still acknowledge that Brandon Graham was more responsible for the big gain here.) But overall, this reel has more good than bad. Even in situations when he’s lined up far off the LOS, he uses pre-snap motions and the OL’s post-snap movement to quickly recognize plays and rally to the ball.
The Film: Man Coverage
Because McLeod is almost exclusively lined up as the free safety, he doesn’t have to play man coverage often. But it still is a part of his game, particularly when the Eagles go into Cover 0 blitzes. Here is every man coverage target that he faced in 2019:
While it’s a mixed bag here, there’s more good than bad. By my count, McLeod’s man coverage stats were: 6-11, 56 yards, 1 TD, 1 PBU, and a 99.1 passer rating. That doesn’t look great, but keep in mind that the lone touchdown and half of the 56 yards came on the previously discussed Singletary TD. One thing that stands out about McLeod in man coverage is that he’s not afraid to get physical. Against Green Bay’s Jimmy Graham, he jostles the bigger TE for position the whole way. On this play, McLeod shows off not only physicality, but also his game intelligence; on 1st and goal from the 1, there’s really no downside to a penalty, so he knows he can play with nothing to lose. (Plus, the refs might let him get away with a bit more against an opponent who has nine inches and 70 pounds on him.)
McLeod is also really adept at avoiding contact. While this sounds like a backhanded compliment to someone who plays tackle football for a living, I can explain. Look at the final of the four Packers clips here; not only does McLeod do an excellent job on the RB/TE pass-off with Zach Brown, but he also senses the pick coming from outside WR Valdes-Scantling and avoids it, managing to make the tackle for a short 2-yard gain. That’s how you single-handedly ruin a slant-flat combo. The first of the two Patriots clips is very similar. New England tries to run a double-pick by Ben Watson and Julian Edelman to free up the flat run by Mohamed Sanu (lined up as an H-back), but McLeod sees them coming from his peripherals and is able to avoid both, making a great tackle for a 1-yard gain.
McLeod wasn’t tested vertically in man coverage much, but when he was, he showed off some nice hip fluidity in the second Patriots clip. A few other man coverage clips where McLeod stood out, whether for a particularly good or particularly bad job, can be seen here:
There are a few sub-par reps in there, mostly due to giving the opponent too much cushion (e.g., the Patriots clip is a free 15+ yards if Vinny Curry doesn’t blow through the NE offensive line). But McLeod also shows off the physicality to hang with bigger guys like Jacob Hollister and DK Metcalf, which is encouraging. Overall, McLeod is a sufficient man coverage defender, as he lacks the top-end speed of outside receivers but makes up for it with physicality and excellent route recognition.
The Film: Physicality/Tackling
When I set out to do this project, I was under the impression shared by many Eagles fans and media; that McLeod was a guy who made the plays he was supposed to make, but didn’t have many SportsCenter-worthy highlights. I was incorrect. McLeod had some of the Eagles’ biggest hits of the season, but he also had a few plays where it looked like he had no interest in making contact with anyone in a differently colored jersey. Let’s start with the former:
That was fun. Good things could be said about any of those reps, but I particularly liked the Amari Cooper hit in the Cowboys clip — not only because of how good the hit was, but also because of how quickly McLeod covered ground to get to the outside-release go. Both Week 17 Giants clips also were remarkable plays. In the first of the two, the Eagles are in a Cover 3 zone blitz, with McLeod as the underneath flat defender. On paper, McLeod should be responsible for the hitch by outside WR Sterling Shepard. But McLeod understands that Daniel Jones likely will look to TE Kaden Smith immediately after he sees LeBlanc and Nigel Bradham blitzing from that area of the field, and he reads Jones’ eyes to make a huge hit and earn a PBU.
The second Giants clip was even better than the first. After a major “banjo” miscommunication between Bradham, Jenkins, and Jones results in Smith being wide open downfield, McLeod looks like Ed Reed covering tons of ground and making a huge hit to force a fumble. McLeod’s strong acceleration is on display here, as well as his propensity for big hits. The only safeties with 10+ regular season forced fumbles since 2013 (when McLeod made his first career NFL start) are McLeod and his longtime teammate, Jenkins. He can lay the wood, plain and simple.
But then, there are some plays that aren’t so pretty.
The Vernon Davis TD is hard to watch every time. Of course Sendejo is primarily to blame for arbitrarily deciding to stop covering Davis, but the play is still stopped for no more than 12-13 yards if McLeod has even the slightest interest in making contact with Davis. I do not want to know what kind of words Schwartz and his colleagues had for McLeod and Sendejo in the film room after this one.
The second clip makes me want to throw my computer through a wall just as badly. Again, McLeod isn’t the primary offender on the play — the Eagles have 10 men on the field, and the Lions naturally run a double-reverse right to where the missing DE should be. But still, the fact that McLeod slows up to avoid a downfield block from Matthew Stafford is unbelievable. The rule protections that a QB normally has go out the window when the QB has established himself past the line of scrimmage as a run blocker, and McLeod knows this. I don’t think McLeod makes the tackle even if he does run through Stafford’s block, but the lack of effort is outright inexcusable.
The rest of the reel isn’t quite as bad as those two plays, but they still demonstrate that McLeod can have lapses with bringing his physicality on a play-to-play basis. The final clip against the Giants again displays his sub-par ball skills, as he waits for the ball to come to him instead of attacking it in the air like Bradham and Golden Tate both do.
As previously mentioned, McLeod has a missed tackle rate on the higher side. But a lot of the tackles McLeod has to make are pretty difficult — since he’s a free safety, opponents are often at or near top speed when they get to him. Here are some more of his better reps as a tackler, besides the “big hits” reel:
There’s some real good stuff in here. Several could be argued to be touchdown-saving tackles, especially that “10 men on the field” Vikings play where McLeod trips up Dalvin Cook. He excels in bailing out teammates’ mistakes here, such as the Bills and Patriots clips near the end of this reel. (Side note: what the absolute hell is Jenkins doing in the Patriots clip? Legit looks like he’s a video game character with a broken controller.)
Since we have to take the bad with the good, here is every missed tackle McLeod had by my count, besides the TDs by Singletary and Davis that we’ve already seen.
Overall, though 15 missed tackles sounds like a lot, this reel isn’t terrible. A couple of plays involve really well-timed hurdles by the opponent, and there are also a few instances of McLeod slowing up an opposing player enough to make the tackle very easy for whichever defenders rally to the ball next. When he does miss a tackle, it’s generally because he takes a poor angle to the ball-carrier rather than simply being not strong enough to get the player down (though the Dolphins clip near the end is an obvious exception). It’s not fair to say he had a good season as a tackler, given the stats, but the film is not quite as bad as the numbers suggest. And besides, if the long Rashaad Penny TD gets Pete Carroll continuing to think that running on 1st and 20 is a good idea, maybe it wasn’t all bad.
The Film: Pass Rush
This isn’t something McLeod has to do very often, but it’s still worth addressing. To summarize: he isn’t very good at it. According to PFF, out of 49 safeties with 15+ pass rush snaps, McLeod’s 3.0% pass rush win rate ranked 43rd. McLeod only has 2.0 regular season sacks in his career, and one of them came in 2019
While this is a really nice play by McLeod — Russell Wilson isn’t an easy guy to tackle in the open field — it’s not at all a pass rush, just a very good tackle that happens to be recorded as a sack. As for plays when McLeod is actually a blitzer, it usually doesn’t go too well:
McLeod often chops his feet instead of running through the blocking RB, resulting in zero penetration into the backfield. For what it’s worth, the lone “pass rush win” according to PFF was the second clip of that reel, but since TE Jesse James has two guys to block, it’s not like McLeod really earned it. The last two clips aren’t bad from McLeod though; in particular, using a nice jab step on Ezekiel Elliott on the final play helps force a slight underthrow from Dak Prescott, important considering how much separation Michael Gallup had from Mills.
One of his particular weaknesses as a pass rusher is jumping when he should not. Any good defensive line coach preaches that if there’s nobody between you and the QB, you run through the QB instead of jumping to try to deflect a pass. This is for several reasons: because jumping can leave you susceptible to the QB pump faking and running by you (the Russell Wilson special), because a QB’s throw can still be disrupted by seeing a defender coming at him at full speed, and because, in general, when you can legally put a big hit on the opponent’s most important player, you do it. McLeod made the mistake several times when he otherwise could’ve had a kill-shot.
That final clip against the Cowboys is irksome; he should be running through Prescott’s chest there. Here’s what happens when McLeod keeps his feet on the ground and runs through the QB:
Funny how that works out.
McLeod’s PFF stats alone in 2019 suggested that he was among the NFL’s elite safeties defending the pass, but a few key discrepancies showed that his true production wasn’t quite in that top tier. He’s capable of playing both man and zone coverage at a quality starter’s level, but needs to avoid some of his “over-aggression” mistakes that got glossed over by poor QB play or great D-line play.
In particular, one of McLeod’s strongest traits is his awareness in coverage, as he usually does a great job diagnosing which receivers to pick up as a zone player. He combines this awareness with his great acceleration to often prevent some of the deep targets that could head his way, though he occasionally crashes down too far and vacates the deep-middle. His play recognition is pretty strong, as he quickly adds another body to run support. He’s capable of delivering some huge hits for someone listed at only 195 pounds, and when he has the ball in his hand, he has a great play-making mentality as well. He doesn’t need to play man coverage often, but has proven sufficient at it when needed. The 2019 season was also a great example of his durability and discipline; he played 1,073 of 1,075 possible defensive snaps, and he was only penalized once all season (a facemask against GB), T-10th-fewest among 69 defensive players who had 1,000+ snaps.
However, McLeod’s lack of elite speed, ball skills, and consistent tackling separate him from the league’s top safeties. His acceleration helps him succeed with shorter spaces to cover, but he doesn’t have the range to go sideline-to-sideline that is ideal from a safety in a 1-high defense. While he can be extremely physical when he’s engaged, he fails to bring that on every snap, which can be costly. He is below-average as a pass rusher, though he’s not asked to do that often, and his weak judgment of pursuit angles can leave him unable to help out on the big plays that have plagued the Eagles in recent years.
When all is said and done, McLeod is much more inconsistent on a play-to-play basis than the average fan realizes, but he still ultimately is a slightly above-average NFL safety. He’s never going to be an All-Pro, but considering what the Eagles are paying him — $8.65 million over the next two seasons, ranking 30th in average annual value among safeties — the team is getting good return value for a player whose leadership in the post-Jenkins era will be just as important as his actual on-field production.
Expecting a sudden improvement from McLeod in his age-30 season likely isn’t reasonable, though having an offseason to focus on specific elements of his game rather than ACL rehab could marginally help. But with stronger talent supporting him, McLeod’s current form should help buck the trend of “balls going over our head.” If he can continue to perform at an above-average level into his 9th NFL season, and the secondary’s new pieces fit as well as anticipated, Philadelphia might just have the “new 2020 defense” that McLeod is promising it.
Cole Jacobson is an Editorial Researcher at the NFL Media office in Los Angeles. He played varsity sprint football as a defensive lineman at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a 2019 graduate as a mathematics major and statistics minor. With any questions, comments, or ideas, he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and @ColeJacobson32 on Twitter.