Nick Foles is not the only guy trying to fill in for a key Eagles starter, despite not having played very much this season.
Dannell Ellerbe seems to be the new starting middle linebacker. The Eagles lost Jordan Hicks, one of their most talented and most intuitive players, to an Achilles tendon tear on Oct. 23 vs. the Redskins. They’ve mostly filled in since with Najee Goode and Joe Walker, but on Nov. 13 the Eagles signed Ellerbe, a former Raven, Dolphin and Saint who hadn’t played in the league this season. Monday night against the Raiders, Ellerbe started at MIKE and played 40 percent of the defensive snaps. He had played just one 2017 snap previously, against Seattle.
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was asked this week if he used Ellerbe so much because he wanted to match him against Marshawn Lynch and the Oakland running game, or if this is the new setup.
“It’s probably more the way we’re leaning going forward,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz indicated that he had this thought from the day the team signed Ellerbe, but it took time to get Ellerbe in game shape and teach him the defense.
“He had a lot of things we liked, it just wasn’t an overnight thing getting him in there. But he’s worked really hard at it, and I think it showed in the game,” Schwartz said. “He’s a tough, inside-run defender, used his hands well, was active, stepped up, and made a big tackle for a loss in that game. Just like any other player, he’s still got a long way to go, but I like the way he’s trending, and we think that he can help us going forward.”
Ellerbe said: “I figured I was going to play earlier, but I just had to get the terminology of the defense down and stuff like that.”
For a while, it seemed the Eagles were doing fine without Hicks. Nigel Bradham took over the signal-calling, and he and Mychal Kendricks both put together excellent seasons, stopping the run and in coverage. Walker couldn’t get off blocks, then suffered a neck injury, and Goode often seemed a step slow in his recognition, but really, the Eagles didn’t play much base defense. Kendricks, who’d been offered around in trades in the offseason, stepped up as Hicks’ replacement in the nickel.
But this was the period when the Eagles often were blowing out weaker opponents, who couldn’t afford to stick with the run when they fell far behind. Better opposition lately, plus the season-ending knee injury to Carson Wentz, has led to closer games, more opposition running, and more base defense from the Eagles.
There is an excellent chance the Eagles will have to face a strong running attack in the playoffs — the Rams, with Todd Gurley and his league-leading 1,305 yards, New Orleans, with Mark Ingram (1,089) and Alvin Kamara (684), or maybe Atlanta, with Davonta Freeman (842) and Tevin Coleman (605).
Ellerbe, 32, five years removed from his days as a key cog in the Ravens’ Super Bowl XLVII-winning defense, was only OK in this role Monday night. The Raiders rushed for 137 yards, the highest total of the season against the NFL’s No. 1 rushing defense, on 33 carries, also a season high for an Eagles opponent.
Lynch came as close as any foe has this season to becoming the first 100-yard rusher against the Eagles, finishing with 95, on 25 carries. With Oakland QB Derek Carr increasingly ineffective on a bitterly cold, windy night, the Eagles really stacked the box as the game wore on. Carr completed seven of 17 passes for 22 yards and a pair of interceptions in the second half.
Ellerbe’s best play, the tackle for a loss Schwartz referenced, came in the third quarter, when he dropped DeAndre Washington for a 3-yard loss on first down, forcing passes on second and third down; the third-and-5 pass was intercepted by Patrick Robinson.
“I feel like I played all right,” said Ellerbe, who identified “the way I took on blocks and was moving around” as what he liked about his performance.
“It was football. I’ve been doing it all my life. It was just getting back out there and getting my feet up under me,” Ellerbe said. “I felt great.”
At 6-1, 245, Ellerbe is about an inch taller than Goode and about 10 pounds heavier than Walker. He has the most postseason experience of any Eagle, having taken the field for 10 Baltimore playoff contests.
Ellerbe said that going into the postseason, “you want your guys to be light, and not uptight,” something that can be difficult.
“The only thing different about it is there’s not a game after, so you’ve got to put your all into it. You lose, you go home,” Ellerbe said. “That’s the only thing that’s different from the regular season.”
Ellerbe said he won’t mind if he gets a lot more snaps this Sunday against Dallas, even though the game is meaningless.
“It’ll be good to get more reps going into the playoffs. We’ve got a bye week after this game,” he said. “Long as you’re doing your job, the chemistry’s going to come. I’m just making sure I do my job, not letting these guys down.
“I can help wherever I’m needed. I’ve been in some defenses where all I did was cover. This defense, it seems like I’m going to be in for base. So that’s going to be more run. … I’m not just a run-stopper, I feel like I can do it all, blitz, cover, run.”
Ellerbe certainly would like to win another Super Bowl, but he also has more practical considerations for being glad he’s finally getting on the field here. He was signed to a one-year, $900,000 contract, after sitting on the shelf through more than half the season.
“I’m just looking forward to getting more film out there, ’cause I’m definitely not trying to retire anytime soon,” he said. “The more film the better.”