GANNON’S DEFENSE LOOKS FOR CONSISTENCY IN 2022--ROSTER UPGRADES WILL HELP
Jonathan Gannon took his fair share of criticism from both Eagles fans and the media in his first season as the team’s defensive coordinator.
His bend-but-try-really-hard-not-to-break approach was necessary because of the dearth of talent he had at his disposal.
But it often was difficult to watch, as opposing quarterbacks nickel-and-dimed their way down the field against a defense that struggled to muster a pass rush and was primarily focused on not giving up the big play.
For what it’s worth, the strategy kinda-sorta worked. Despite averaging their fewest sacks per game (1.7) in 46 years, the Eagles managed to finish a respectable 11th in passing yards allowed.
They gave up just 38 pass plays of 20 or more yards, which was the second fewest in the NFL to Buffalo’s 31.
They also gave up the eighth fewest run plays of 10 or more yards (45).
But takeaways also are a big part of Gannon’s defensive approach, and his defense failed miserably there, largely because of their pass-rush problems. Their 16 turnovers were the fifth fewest in the league.
While they finished eighth in yards allowed per pass attempt (6.8), they had the highest opponent completion percentage in the league (69.4). Five quarterbacks completed 80-plus percent of their passes against the Eagles in a six-game span.
Gannon’s defense constantly struggled to get off the field. They were 20th in opponent plays per drive (6.3). Third-and-short was a never-ending problem.
Opponents converted 78.4 percent of their third downs of three yards or less. Only Atlanta (81.0) was more inept.
They gave up 11 touchdown passes on third down, the sixth most in the league.
Tight ends were a season-long problem for their coverage-challenged linebackers and safeties.
Thirteen of the 28 TD passes they gave up last season were to tight ends. Thirteen!
Cowboys tight end Dalton Schultz had four of his eight touchdown catches against the Eagles.
The good news is the Eagles have spent the offseason giving Gannon’s defense a much-needed makeover. They have upgraded their front four with the additions of free agent Haason Reddick and first-rounder Jordan Davis.
Did the same with their linebacking corps, signing veteran Kyzir White and gobbling up Nakobe Dean when the Georgia Bulldog inexplicably fell to the third round of the draft.
Last month, they added a veteran corner to pair on the outside with Darius Slay, signing former Giant James Bradberry.
The only position they didn’t upgrade in the offseason is safety, where the tentative starters right now are Anthony Harris and Marcus Epps. But it’s still early.
“We did what we wanted to do last year,” Gannon said. “I think hopefully, what the fans will see this year is us executing at a little higher level when we need to. That’s what I’m concerned about. My number one concern or goal is to make sure that we’re playing good enough on defense to keep us in games and play good football to help our team win.’’
Gannon’s defense needs to start faster this year. The Eagles gave up 100 points in the first quarter last season. Only 3-14 Jacksonville gave up more (119). Opponents put up points on 19 of 34 first- and second-possessions against the Eagles.
The additions of Reddick and Davis, along with the return-to-health of 34-year-old Brandon Graham, who is coming off of an Achilles tear, should dramatically improve the Eagles’ pass rush. Their 29 sacks were the second fewest in the league behind the Falcons’ 18.
Reddick had 23 percent sacks over the last two seasons. That’s the fifth most in the league behind only T.J. Watt (37.5), Myles Garrett (28.5), Trey Hendrickson (27.5) and Aaron Donald (26).
It’s going to be interesting to see how Gannon uses Davis. The freakishly athletic 6-6, 341-pounder was primarily a run-stopper at Georgia, where he had just two sacks last season.
But he ran a 4.78 forty at the scouting combine and followed that up with a 10-2 broad jump, which is unheard of for someone his size. He clearly has the ability to get up the field and disrupt the quarterback.
Gannon plans to use him as a rusher on passing downs, and not necessarily only inside. The prospect of a player with his size, speed and power coming off the edge on third-and-long is intriguing.
“He’s a big, explosive, violent man that can win one-on-one,” the Eagles defensive coordinator said. “So yes, he definitely will have a role in the passing game, and he will affect the quarterback in a good way. I’m excited about his skill set and what he can do.’’
The Eagles didn’t blitz much last year because they didn’t really have a linebacker who was very good at it, and Gannon was afraid of what might happen if they didn’t get there. But that is likely to change this year with Dean, who was an outstanding blitzer at Georgia. He had six sacks last season.
The addition of Bradberry gives the Eagles a solid corner trio with Slay and slot Avonte Maddox, assuming Gannon doesn’t decide to move the 5-9 Maddox to safety, where he also can play. Bradberry has 10 interceptions over the last three years.
“[Bradberry is] smart, tough and physical,’’ Gannon said. “He can go get the ball and he can cover. Any time you have that type of skill set with your outside corners, it’s a good asset to have. He’s going to allow us to play certain things predicated on what we’re trying to stop that week, just as Slay does.’’
Assuming everybody stays relatively healthy, I think we’re going to see a different Jonathan Gannon this season. I think we’re going to see his defense do a lot of things it wasn’t capable of doing last year, which is why he was so conservative in his approach.
He's going to take more chances this season. He’s going to put five and even six people up on the line of scrimmage and make the offense guess who is going to be rushing and who isn’t.
A lot more tora, tora, tora and a lot less bend-but-don’t-break. It should be fun. *