From player to coach, Eagles’ Matt Leo making a difference – NBC Sports Philadelphia

Fresh off the first two-sack game of his NFL career, Eagles first-round rookie Jalen Carter was crowded by a group of reporters in the visiting locker room at SoFi Stadium when he was asked a really simple question.

What worked for you against the Rams?

“I don’t know,” said Carter, before a light bulb went on. “Going over the film throughout the week with Matt Leo.”

Matt Leo is a name that might ring a bell.

Leo, 31, is the former plumber from Australia who came to the United States to chase his dream to play American football, first as a defensive end at Iowa State and then in the NFL. He joined the Eagles through the International Player Pathway Program 2020 and spent the last few years as an extra practice squad player but never got a chance to play in a regular season game.

Well, he’s a coach now. 

And Leo has sort of become a secret weapon for the Eagles’ 2023 defensive line.

“He’s been tremendous,” Eagles defensive coordinator Sean Desai said. “And it’s just a great voice because he’s got the most recent experience of being in that room with the players in the locker room and all that. He’s done a tremendous job. He’s very relatable as a coach.”

Several Eagles defensive linemen have been raving about Leo this season. While Tracy Rocker and Jeremiah Washburn are still the Eagles’ position coaches on the D-line, Leo has been a welcome addition to the staff.

A little weird at first

Leo had been on the Eagles’ practice squad for the past three season but his international roster exemption was about to run out in 2023. It was decision time for the organization and for Leo this summer.

“It was either sign for that season, or the dream is now over and that’s it,” Leo said to NBC Sports Philadelphia this week.

But that’s when Eagles general manager Howie Roseman and head coach Nick Sirianni came to Leo with a proposal to add him to the coaching staff. They, of course, had to figure out exactly what that role would look like but Leo had proven his worth. They wanted to keep him around. Eventually, Leo ended up with the title of Defensive and Football Operations Assistant.

And when the Eagles reported to training camp in late July, Leo was on the other side.

That part was a little strange.

“Without a doubt. That was the hardest thing, honestly,” Leo said. “Coming out the first time seeing the guys and they were all like, ‘What are you doing?’ They were doing their cardio test and I was on the sideline. Guys were looking at me like why am I not out there running with them. But they embraced me, which was almost overwhelming.”

For three seasons, Leo took his role as a practice squad and scout team player seriously. One of his main goals during his time in the NFL has been to help his teammates get ready for game day.

He’s still doing that. But now it has just taken a different form.

“I’ll say that first week was a little weird,” outside linebacker Patrick Johnson said. “I always like to mess with him. I call him Coach Matt. But he’s one of my good friends here, has been since I got here as a rookie. It hasn’t been as weird anymore. He does a hell of a job with his new career so I’m happy for him.”

‘He’s been a great help’

When Carter mentioned Leo after the win over the Rams a couple weeks ago, he was speaking specifically about Leo’s work helping him prepare to face opposing offensive linemen. That’s a big part of Leo’s job.

“Matt has been helping a lot,” defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu said. “He does our film review of some of the O-linemen so he teaches us about what their tendencies are and stuff and then also he’s also on the field with us. He’s been helping a lot, man. He’s been great.”

It goes beyond film of opposing offensive linemen too.

Johnson said Leo has been great getting him film of other edge rushers from around the NFL. Specifically, Johnson said Leo made him a cut-up of Ryan Kerrigan’s long-arm moves because that’s something Johnson really wants to incorporate in his game.

First-round pick Nolan Smith meets with Leo every Friday afternoon after practice. They watch all of Smith’s reps in games and practices.

“Me and him watch film for hours every Friday,” Smith said. “Just me and him going over my reps. And he’s just always available for Zooms and stuff. Man, I’d say he’s an extension of Coach Wash for me just because he’s been in this program for a long time. I’m just trying to learn. That’s what he’s doing.”

Some of the cut-ups Leo gives to the Eagles’ defensive linemen are unsolicited but sometimes those guys will ask for things. And whenever they send Leo a last-minute message, he’s quick to drop what he’s doing to get them whatever they need.

At least for now, Leo is a bit in purgatory between player and coach. Even though he’s on the coaching staff and has different responsibilities, he still feels like he’s a part of the locker room. He relishes when a rookie will ask him where to eat or where to buy furniture for their new house or apartment. He really values those relationships.

“He’s been a great help because he’s coming from a player’s perspective,” longtime Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham said. “He can understand the language of what we’re talking about. That’s only going to help.”

Learning the role

The Eagles had a bit of an unusual schedule early in the 2023 season, playing on three different days of the week in their first three games.

But now Leo is starting to get in a bit of a rhythm with several Sunday games in a row.

On Monday and Tuesday, Leo works to get the players their film cut-ups so they can watch it over the course of the rest of the week. He wants them to be able to have as much time as possible to study opposing offensive linemen. But then he’ll also give them all of their own reps from games, practices and even 1-on-1s. All that ends up in individualized folders for those players that they can access throughout the week.

Then on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, Leo is out with the guys on the practice field helping them implement all of those skills.

“It’s been a huge help week in and week out,” Johnson said, “and I feel like that’s why we’ve been producing pretty well this year.”

While reporting for this story, some of the compliments made their way back to Leo and he was extremely grateful.

“Absolutely incredible, man,” Leo said. “I went to each and every one of them personally and thanked them. They really didn’t have to. And I told them not to lie on my behalf. To hear those things makes everything worth it. It makes the time, the effort worth it. Even though I didn’t need any gratification or pats on the back, hearing them say those things is an incredible feeling because I love those guys so much.” 

After putting up a ridiculous 70-sack season in 2022, the Eagles are off to a pretty good start in 2023 with 20 sacks through the first six games, which ranks fifth in the NFL. But that’s a group that has the ability to take over games.

It’s not like Leo is the reason this high-profile and well-compensated defensive line is getting after the quarterback. But he’s helping. And all you have to do is ask his former teammates about it.

Leo’s dream for almost a decade was to be an NFL football player but dreams can change.

“When I say it’s over, it’s almost just a new path of the same dream,” Leo said. “It’s something that I never even envisioned to be honest. I was so locked in on one path. It’s been that way for the last 9, 10 years. Focusing on the highest level I could be and what I was going to do to make sure I could play and have the opportunity. 

“Now, the path’s changed and I can help these young guys. I can help them put their best foot forward and perform on Sundays. Especially the guys who were rookies trying to develop. We’ve got so many studs in our room that I just tell them I appreciate these guys. You never know when your opportunity is going to come.”

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