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How Shaq Leonard's choice keeps Eagles' Super Bowl hopes alive after 49ers exposed LBs

PHILADELPHIA − Shaq Leonard no doubt took a look at the Eagles linebacking situation after their debacle against the 49ers on Sunday and clearly felt that he could make a difference.

Good luck.

Leonard, the former Colts All Pro, picked the Eagles over the Cowboys on Monday. And for the Eagles, it certainly beats seeing him play against them Sunday night in Dallas.

But Leonard had to see the same thing everyone else saw Sunday in the Eagles' 42-19 loss to the 49ers.

He saw wide receiver Deebo Samuel take a short pass over the middle, brush off linebacker Nicholas Morrow's tackle, then burst his way down the field for a 48-yard touchdown. He saw Samuel take another short pass and leave Christian Elliss grasping at air as Samuel blew by him on a 46-yard touchdown pass.

Or Christian McCaffrey and George Kittle have their way in the middle of the field time after time.

It's hard to see Leonard wanting to play for a team that exposes its linebackers like the Eagles do.

"They kind of attacked our weaknesses, I guess," safety Kevin Byard said. "We just didn’t play well. We didn’t communicate good enough on some of those plays. At the end of the day, there weren’t a lot of plays deep down the field in air yards. It was a lot of five-yard gains turning into 30 or 40.

"Just leaving guys wide open, things like that."

Leonard will have his work cut out for him. After all, if the 49ers can scheme up plays for Samuel to get matched against a linebacker, there's no reason why the Cowboys can't come up with similar plays for wide receiver CeeDee Lamb.

San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel (19) runs with the ball before scoring on a touchdown catch against the Philadelphia Eagles during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023, in Philadelphia.
San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel (19) runs with the ball before scoring on a touchdown catch against the Philadelphia Eagles during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023, in Philadelphia.

In fact, the Cowboys already did in the first meeting, on Nov. 5, when quarterback Dak Prescott threw for 374 yards and 3 touchdowns, just like Buffalo's Josh Allen threw for 339 yards and ran for 81 more, and just like the 49ers Brock Purdy threw for 314 yards and 4 TDs on Sunday.

Those would have all been lopsided losses too if not for Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts. In each game, the Eagles trailed at halftime − that also included the game against the Kansas City Chiefs on Nov. 20 − and Hurts brought them back in the second half.

But when the Eagles settled for two field goals in the first quarter Sunday, that was all the 49ers needed. They scored touchdowns on their next six possessions and sent the Eagles to their most lopsided loss since the 2021 regular season finale, the first season under head coach Nick Sirianni.

Not even Hurts could answer that onslaught.

"When you’re playing a good team like that, every little thing matters," Hurts said.

And really, the Eagles put themselves in this predicament by neglecting the linebacker position for the past several years. Even when they tried to address it by drafting Nakobe Dean in the third round in 2022, he went on injured reserve for the second time this season.

Then Zach Cunningham, the other starter next to Dean, suffered a hamstring injury against the Bills and sat out against the 49ers. That left Morrow, who began the season on the practice squad, as one starter, and Elliss, who hadn't played a single defensive snap from Week 4 through Week 9, as the other.

No wonder Samuel was talking so much trash this week. He had 116 yards receiving and scored three touchdowns against the Eagles − a 12-yard run on an end-around and the other two catch-and-run TDs.

"At the end of the day, we played our style of football, which is being physical," Samuel said. "And that’s what we did."

The Eagles had no answers.

Sure, injuries happen, but when the Eagles are this undermanned and overmatched at linebacker, there's only one thing for an opponent to do: Expose that weakness as much and as often as possible.

So the 49ers did after they got their bearings straight following a first quarter in which they had minus-6 yards. From the second quarter on, the 49ers had 462 yards, and they scored on every possession until taking a knee at the end.

"That’s a tough team to tackle," Sirianni said. "We take pride in our tackling. I think we’ve been pretty good this year. We’re in the top 10 as far as missed tackle rate. But we didn’t do a good enough job.

"Again, that’s us (as coaches) putting the guys in positions to be able to tackle, and then also doing it."

That brings us back to Leonard.

Even by signing Leonard, the Eagles will have to help him. He's not an every-down linebacker anymore, and nowhere near the player he was from 2018-21 when he made the Pro Bowl three times.

If Leonard was that player, he'd still be on the Colts.

But the Eagles also desperately needed Leonard to pick them over the Cowboys. The last thing the Eagles need to see is Leonard making plays against them next Sunday while the Cowboys expose the Eagles like the 49ers did.

Give Eagles general manager Howie Roseman credit for addressing a position that the Eagles neglected for far too long. That's because their 10-1 start to the season could have imploded because of the linebacker position.

But that doesn't mean it's fixed.

At the very least, the Eagles will have to move on from this loss, and quickly.

"You have no choice," wide receiver A.J. Brown said. "Mope around, be mad or be sad at yourself about it, but we got a big opponent coming up next weekend, Dallas on the road.

"We gotta put our big-boy pants on. That’s life. Everything doesn’t go your way every single time."

At least the Eagles gave themselves a chance.

Contact Martin Frank at mfrank@delawareonline.com. Follow on X @Mfranknfl.

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This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: How Shaq Leonard pick keeps Eagles Super Bowl dream after 49ers fiasco