DESAI WILL BE COMPARED TO GANNON UNTIL HE MAKES HIS OWN MARK
Jonathan Gannon was a frequent target for criticism during his three seasons as the Eagles’ defensive coordinator.
Even after his unit racked up the third most sacks in league history last season and finished second in total defense and fifth in takeaways, there were few tears shed when Gannon waved goodbye to the City of Brotherly Love and headed off to the Arizona desert.
Gannon’s crime here essentially was that he wasn’t Buddy Ryan or Jim Johnson. He was a conservative defensive coach who didn’t much care for blitzing and favored a keep-the-ball-in-front-of-you-and-don’t-give-up-the-big-play philosophy.
The Eagles gave up the third fewest pass plays of 20 or more yards last season (40).
The year before, they gave up the second fewest (38). Gannon’s thanks was an endless stream of fire-the-bum rants on social media.
We’ll find out soon enough whether they like Gannon’s replacement, Sean Desai, any better.
The fact of the matter is, Desai’s defensive philosophy isn’t all that much different than Gannon’s, which, interestingly enough, is one of the reasons head coach Nick Sirianni hired him.
“What I did like [about Desai] is some of the similarities to the things that we’ve been doing,’’ Sirianni said. "That we’ve already been doing here on a very successful defense with different coverages, different run blitzes, things like that."
When Sirianni lost both of his coordinators – Gannon and Shane Steichen – to head-coaching jobs after the Super Bowl, it was assumed he would fill both jobs from in-house, promoting quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson to Steichen’s job and replacing Gannon with defensive backs coach/defensive passing game coordinator Dennard Wilson.
Johnson did replace Steichen, but Sirianni opted to go outside for Gannon’s successor and settled on the 40-year-old Desai, a former Vic Fangio protégé who spent the 2022 season in Seattle as an assistant head coach/defensive assistant to Pete Carroll after serving as the Chicago Bears’ defensive coordinator the previous season.
“He’s really a brilliant football guy,” Carroll said of Desai, who received a doctorate in educational management from Temple. “The information that he holds, his access to information, is really special.”
The four years Desai spent as a defensive quality control assistant on Fangio’s staff in Chicago was the equivalent of a doctorate in defensive football. Fangio, a native of northeastern Pennsylvania who took the Miami Dolphins’ defensive coordinators' job just before Gannon left for Arizona, is one of the league’s most highly respected defensive coaches.
Desai has called Fangio “one of the smartest football minds I’ve ever been around.”
Desai is taking over an Eagles defense that lost five starters to free agency, including both of its safeties (CJ Gardner-Johnson and Marcus Epps), both of its starting linebackers (TJ Edwards and Kyzir White) and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, who had a career-high 11 sacks last season.
It could have been worse. General manager Howie Roseman managed to work his salary cap magic and retain cornerback James Bradberry, a second-team All Pro last season, and sign veteran defensive linemen Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox to cost-effective one-year deals.
Roseman countered the loss of Hargave by grabbing the best interior defensive lineman in the draft, Jalen Carter, with the first of the Eagles’ two first-round picks, and then selected Carter’s University of Georgia linemate, edge-rusher Nolan Smith, with the Eagles’ other first-round pick.
“My overall defensive philosophy, I’ve talked to our players and our coaches; it’s something that we want to build together,” Desai said. “I don’t think it’s something that I can impart on somebody and say, this is the all-inclusive way to play defense.
“The one thing that we’ve agreed on and we’ve talked about as a group is there’s a certain mentality that we want to reflect. I really believe the city’s teams have to reflect the city. And we’ve got some grit, we’ve got some toughness. We want to be able to impose our will.
“We want to make sure that people feel us. We want to be able to run. We want to be able to hit, and we want to play smart. I think that’s a reflection of, really the history of the Philadelphia Eagles defense, and a reflection of this city, and that’s what we want to be. We want to be an encompassing part of that.”
Every defense wants to be tough and impose their will on people and run and hit hard and play smart. Like Gannon, Desai will rely mostly on a four-man rush to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Whether the Eagles will come close to matching last year’s league-leading 70 sacks remains to be seen. But they have the defensive line talent to once again wreak havoc on QBs.
The difference is, unlike Gannon, Desai will use some unconventional splits, particularly on obvious passing downs. He’ll overload one side with three rushers and leave the interior seemingly uncovered, daring opposing offenses to run the ball. It will be interesting to see how he uses his two young athletic tackles – Carter and second-year man Jordan Davis – in pass-rush situations. Don’t be surprised to see one or both occasionally lined up outside in wide-nine technique.
Desai, like Gannon, likes to disguise his coverages pre-snap.
When he ran Chicago’s defense in 2021, his corners would often jam receivers at the line of scrimmage, then drop into zone coverage.
The Bears played zone 64 percent of the time in ’21. The Eagles used it 71 percent last season.
The foundation of Fangio’s defense during his career has been a two-deep-safety look. That’s what Desai primarily used in Chicago and likely will use with the Eagles.
“The key word there is ‘look,” Desai said. “I think the most important thing is giving an appearance and a look that can cover up a lot of different things you do with your defense and your deployment of your defense and your players.
“So, that goes into the disguise element that we try to do, because we all know, you’ve got to impact the quarterback. Our philosophy is we’ve got to impact them physically and mentally. One of them is not going to be good enough. We need both, and we need both on every single play. So that’s a function of the looks that we give.
“We’ll give them split-safety looks and play split safety. We’ll give them split-safety looks and play post-high. We’ll give them post-high looks and play split-safety. We’ll give them post-high looks and play post-high.
“That’s the essence of what we’re trying to get done when we do that because we’ve got to impact the quarterback.” *