Under former defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, the Eagles were rarely known for their defensive prowess. The only season they ranked inside the top-10 in total defense, 2017, their defensive effort was largely overshadowed by their 7th ranked offense.
While there are quite a few questions marks surrounding this new-look Eagles coaching staff, one member stands out above the rest in my eyes. New defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon.
The former Indianapolis Colts secondary coach has never been a defensive coordinator before. But, his long track record of developing his players, along with the new defensive scheme he’s going to implement, should excite Eagles fans.
Gannon’s coverage scheme
Under Schwartz, the Eagles defense ran man coverage more than they should have — given their lack luster talent in the secondary. In 2020, the Eagles ran man coverage at the fifth highest rate across the NFL. Schwartz’s MO was consistently getting pressure with four down lineman, which in theory should make man coverage more viable. While the Eagles front-four did get significant pressure last season, recording 49 sacks (good for 3rd most in the league), they allowed the fifth highest quarterback rating (102.4).
Part of that was obviously due to personnel, but Schwartz routinely put his corners in bad positions. If you know your corners can’t run man coverage effectively, why not change it up a bit?
Gannon, on the other hand, will barely run man coverage as defensive coordinator. In 2020, the Colts ran man coverage at the fifth lowest rate in the NFL. If his time as the Colts secondary coach is any indication, cover 2 zone coverage will be his scheme of choice.
This scheme change should benefit everyone in the Eagles secondary. Darius Slay will have more opportunities to jump routes and cause turnovers, Avonte Maddox will now shift into his natural role as a cover 2 slot corner, and safety Rodney McLeod will now only have to play half of the field as opposed to the accounting for the entire backend of the coverage.
What about blitzing?
One thing that may not change much is the amount of blitzes Gannon throws at opposing defenses. During his three-year tenure with the Colts, they had an average blitz percentage of 19.1%. The only season they posted a higher blitz percentage than the Eagles during that time was in 2018 when the Eagles had the lowest blitz percentage in the entire league — and Indianapolis only blitzed 1.5% more than Philly.
This doesn’t necessarily mean Gannon won’t dial up the blitz more often in Philly, but his scheme doesn’t need heavy blitzing for it to be effective. In 2020, Indianapolis had the 10th ranked total defense in the NFL, and more importantly, they ranked sixth in interceptions.
There are some fans who correlate turnovers with heavy blitzing, but that’s no always the case when you’re able to disguise coverages effectively. Plus, the Eagles still have some solid pass rushers up front who can get after the passer at a high rate without the extra help. Why blitz all the time if you can get there with just four rushers?
The key difference here is that the coverage on the backend should be better under Gannon than it was under Schwartz, simply because of the scheme. That was always the missing link under Schwartz. He was able to get constant pressure with his wide-9 pass rushing scheme, but the coverage on the backend never held up their end of the bargain.
Gannon likely won’t install a wide-9 technique for his lineman, but the Colts defense still got significant pressure on the quarterback last season. They recorded 40 sacks, tied for 12th-most in the league.
The Gannon defensive system fits the Eagles defensive personnel
As I’ve eluded to throughout this piece, the style of defense Gannon is going to install fits the Eagles personnel much better than Schwartz’s did.
Even the linebackers should find more success under this new system, the one position I haven’t touched on yet. The Eagles will have more traditional linebackers in this new system, not safety-linebacker hybrids like Nate Gerry (thank God). With the added traffic in the middle of defensive line, due to the fact that they won’t be in a wide-9 alignment, the linebackers should have more clean shots on the ball carrier. As opposed to taking on pulling lineman more often.
Both Alex Singleton and T.J. Edwards are good fits as linebackers in this scheme, so it’ll be interesting to see if the front office decides to bring in any free agents into the mix.
From the secondary all the way down to the big boys up front, everyone should be able to make plays under this defensive scheme.
Every Eagles fan should be excited about the potential of Gannon’s defense this year.