The best experience is game experience. The Eagles' young linebacker corps is about to find out about that football saying.
With the release of Zach Brown on Monday and the uncertain status of the injured Nigel Bradham (ankle), the Eagles could be looking at Sunday's critical Dallas game with a linebacking corps consisting of Nathan Gerry, Kamu Grugier-Hill, rookie T.J. Edwards, and Duke Riley, acquired just a couple of weeks ago in a trade with Atlanta.
What they lack in experience, they make up for with the willingness to do anything to help the defense.
Gerry has emerged as a playmaker in his third Eagles season. He understands all three linebacker positions and he's been fast to the football. Grugier-Hill is healthy after missing the first few games with a knee injury suffered in Training Camp. Edwards went undrafted and the Eagles felt fortunate to sign him and add him to the spring roster. Riley has starting experience from his two-plus seasons in Atlanta, but he is still very much in the early stages of learning this defense.
Malcolm Jenkins is playing in a quasi-linebacker role, as he's done in the past, and the emphasis in today's NFL isn't necessarily on having linebackers on the field, but still …
"We need more production from our linebacker group in general," defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said at his Tuesday press conference at the NovaCare Complex.
He's right about that. Other than Gerry's interception return for a touchdown against the Jets and Grugier-Hill's fumble recovery late in the fourth quarter of Sunday's loss in Minnesota, the linebackers have been awfully quiet this year. They've had, collectively, only a handful of tackles for losses. The big plays in coverage have been sparse. Bradham's health has been an issue for parts of the season after not playing in the preseason, along with Grugier-Hill. Brown made zero impact after the Eagles signed him to a low-risk free-agent contract in the offseason.
Against Dallas on Sunday night, the linebackers are going to be tasked with the responsibility of an 11-man defensive group containing running back Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys' running game. The Cowboys have a powerful offensive line, even if starting tackles Tyron Smith and La'el Collins aren't able to play because of injuries. Dallas loves to play power football and feed Elliott, relying on the interior of the offensive line.
The linebackers have to shed blocks and find the football. It's critical.
Who steps up? It remains to be seen if Bradham plays, and that's a big part of the equation. Gerry has spent time in the middle of the defense calling the signals, so the communication part of it should be fine. Grugier-Hill is all the way back from a knee injury suffered in Training Camp and his speed and versatility will be an important part of the scheme. Edwards will rotate in after making four tackles in his 10 snaps of playing time in Minnesota. Riley has yet to play on defense in the two games he's been with the Eagles, lining up exclusively on special teams.
This isn't exactly how the Eagles envisioned the linebacker position prior to the season. They loved the progress made from Grugier-Hill and Gerry throughout the offseason. They thought Brown would be an ideal fit on the strong side as a tackling machine. Bradham played the MIKE position in the Super Bowl season of 2017. Edwards was here to develop and help on special teams if needed. The Eagles signed L.J. Fort in free agency, but he never got on the field for the defense before he was released. Fort is now playing with Baltimore.
The challenge on Sunday is very real. Dallas has some weapons missing on offense – it looks like wide receiver Amari Cooper is a longshot to play after suffering a quad injury against the Jets on Sunday, slot receiver Randall Cobb is questionable with a back injury, and the offensive tackles are question marks – and that's a help to a linebacker group in a changing situation.
As Schwartz said, the linebackers need to step up for the defense. Heck, the entire defense needs to be better. There is no time to pause here, not with first place in the NFC East on the line against the Cowboys.