GANNON'S BEND-BUT-DON'T-BREAK DEFENSE ISN'T WORKING - IS IT ALL HIS FAULT?
Jonathan Gannon’s defense had another rough day Sunday.
Gave up 27 points to the Chargers, making it the fifth time in nine games this season that his unit has allowed that many points or more.
Justin Herbert, last year’s NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, became the fifth opposing quarterback in the Eagles’ last seven games to complete 80 percent of his passes.
In the fourth quarter, when they badly needed a stop after tying the game with six minutes left on a 28-yard touchdown pass from Jalen Hurts to DeVonta Smith, the defense died yet another slow death, allowing the Chargers to drive 64 yards on 15 plays and squeeze all but five seconds off the clock before Dustin Hopkins’ game-winning 29-yard field goal.
“It’s definitely fixable,” the upbeat 38-year-old Eagles defensive coordinator said Tuesday when asked about his unit’s 2021 struggles. “Absolutely. I wouldn’t say it’s alarming to me. We know the areas we need to get better at. And we’ve done that at times. We just need to be more consistent.”
Gannon has been catching all kinds of hell from the fans and media for his soft bend-but-hopefully-don’t-break scheme that has the safeties playing 15 yards back and the corners usually playing off-coverage and the linebackers playing God knows where.
That approach has prevented the Eagles from getting torched deep. They’ve allowed just 20 completions of 20 yards or more this season, which is the fourth fewest in the league.
But it’s allowed teams to body-punch Gannon’s defense to death underneath.
Thirty-three of 88 opponent possessions in the first nine games, or 37.5 percent, have been eight plays or more.
Fifteen of the 25 touchdowns scored on the Eagles have been nine plays or more.
Not surprisingly, the Eagles have won just two time-of-possession battles this season – in two of their three wins against Atlanta and Detroit – and are 31st in overall average time of possession (27:08).
Last week, Herbert targeted his three tight ends 11 times and completed all 11 passes to them for 126 yards and two touchdowns. This wasn’t George Kittle or Travis Kelce or Darren Waller.
This was Jared Cook and Donald Parham and Stephen Anderson.
In the last four games, tight ends have been targeted 39 times against the Eagles and have 36 catches for 351 yards and four touchdowns.
The Eagles are last in the league in opponent completion percentage (75.5%).
“We definitely have to get that completion percentage down, and there are a number of ways to do that,” Gannon said. “It starts with us as coaches to detail out some things, change some looks.
“The rush-and-cover, cover-and-rush has to be better. But when you’re playing good quarterbacks with good skill people, we’ve played well at times, but probably not consistently enough. So that number has to come down. We need to improve that and be able to provide some resistance to good offenses.”
I’m not a big fan of Gannon’s conservative defensive approach. But the fact of the matter is he’s doing what he feels he has to do to succeed with the talent he has.
His predecessor, Jim Schwartz, had a similar approach to Gannon. Take away the deep ball, give them the short stuff, then limit the yards after the catch. The problem has been that with a few exceptions, the Eagles have not tackled very well this season.
While most eyes have been on quarterback Jalen Hurts as the organization tries to determine whether he has the right stuff to be their quarterback going forward, the defense is a mess and is going to need to be almost completely rebuilt over the next couple of years.
Hurts will have an impact on that. If he convinces the Eagles that he can be the long-term answer at quarterback, they can then use those three first-round picks they have in the 2022 draft to get Gannon some defensive difference-makers.
The Eagles’ defensive problems didn’t happen overnight. The unit has been going in the wrong direction for the last three years. Part of it is age and injury and part of it is personnel mistakes by general manager Howie Roseman and his scouting staff.
In 2018, the Eagles finished 12th in points allowed (21.8). This year, they’re 20th (24.2). In ’18, they finished 8th in first downs allowed (19.2). This year, they’re 32nd (23.3).
Over the last three years, they have plummeted from fifth to 27th to dead last in opponent completion percentage.
Since 2018, their opponent red-zone touchdown rate has soared from 44.6 (1st) to 55.6 (14th) to 64.7 (27th) to 69.7 (27th) through nine games this season. They haven’t finished in the top 20 in takeaways – they’re 24th this season despite Gannon preaching takeaways in the spring and summer – since the 2017 Super Bowl year.
Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, who will turn 31 in December, is a shell of the All-Pro player he was in 2018. Pro Football Focus has him rated as the 60th overall interior defensive lineman this season, down from 29th last year and eighth in 2019 and second in 2018 when, for one shining moment, he was being mentioned in the same sentence with Aaron Donald.
The Eagles tried to trade him last week, but Roseman has restructured his deal so many times that it’s made him virtually untradeable. If they try to get rid of him after the season, they’ll take a $24 million cap hit in 2022.
Pro Bowl defensive end Brandon Graham, who suffered a season-ending Achilles tear in Week 2, will be 34 in April. Safety Rodney McLeod, who returned in Week 4 from a 2020 ACL tear, will be 32 next June. Cornerback Darius Slay, who currently has a ginormous $22 million cap number in 2022, will be 31 in January.
Former first-round defensive end Derek Barnett has not been anything close to the impact player the Eagles had hoped he’d be. PFF has him rated No. 74 among edge rushers this season. He’ll be a free agent after the season and it’s safe to say the Eagles have no intention of bringing him back.
Their other defensive end, Josh Sweat is a decent pass-rusher, but doesn’t have the size or strength to be a three-down player. Cornerback Steven Nelson, who signed a one-year free agent deal, has been underwhelming and isn’t expected to be re-signed.
So, yeah, Roseman and the Eagles have a lot of work ahead of them rebuilding the defense Gannon inherited. *