Front Four Dominates, Finally
Birds D-Line Overwhelms Panthers Offense
Jonathan Gannon had little choice than to revert to the drawing board last week after helplessly watching his defense continue to concede yardage at an alarming rate in a blowout loss to the Chiefs.
His veteran secondary had been culpable in the regression and was painfully exploited by a potent Chiefs aerial attack, but coverage woes hardly constituted as the unit’s most glaring deficiency.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of his defensive unraveling was the ineffectiveness of a defensive line that’s supposed to live up to its high price tag.
Through the better part of four weeks, Gannon’s tentative plan of attack — as far as his front seven was concerned — had been passive despite utilizing multiple fronts. Most notably, Gannon’s read-and-react philosophy had curiously rendered Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fletcher Cox virtually obsolete.
But in the Eagles’ 21-18 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, Gannon introduced an inrush of line games up front — rife with stunts and twists – to capitalize against a vulnerable Panthers’ offensive line that missed left tackle Cameron Erving and was comprised of mostly replacement-level starters.
While Gannon’s defense still surrendered 109 rushing yards – 101 to rookie running back Chuba Hubbard – the wave of back-breaking chunk plays that plagued the team in consecutive losses were effectively curtailed, thanks to an active defensive front that did a better job of clogging lanes and alleviating pressure on the team’s struggling linebackers.
The pass rush was also revitalized, with Javon Hargrave, Josh Sweat, and Cox each collecting a sack of Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold as the Eagles collectively dominated up front for the first time since the season opening win against the Falcons.
The defensive line also accounted for four tackles for loss and seven quarterback hits, routinely moving Darnold off his spot and prompting hasty decisions from the scattershot quarterback, who was picked off three times.
“We really just had to forget about last week and move on,” Hargrave said after the game. “It was a challenge just trying to stop Carolina, and we just wanted a big bounce-back game.”
Among the Eagles’ lone standouts through four games, Hargrave continued an impressive start to his second season in Philadelphia, notching his sixth sack of the season on Sunday. His previous career-high came in 2018 when he registered 6.5 sacks with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Assuming his impressive play continues, Hargrave will begin to command extra attention from offensive linemen and opportunities will arise for teammates to reap the benefits.
Hargrave, along with his counterpart, the six-time Pro Bowler Cox, will have an opportunity to build on the defensive line’s revival on Thursday night against a high-powered Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense engineered by future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady.
Cox’s sack, on third-and-5 in the third quarter, gave him 55.5 for his career, which are the most ever by an Eagles defensive tackle. Overall, he ranks fifth on the franchise’s all-time sacks list, trailing only Reggie White, Trent Cole, Clyde Simmons and Brandon Graham.
“It’s never just me,” Hargrave said. “We have great guys on our D-line and everybody can win up front. So, it just makes everybody’s job easier when everybody can win in 1-on-1s.”
While Gannon adapted and schemed to the strengths of his personnel in a week in which he fell under intense scrutiny, the first-year defensive coordinator must consistently demonstrate an ability to execute similar tactics against better-equipped offensive lines, or it’ll be back to the drawing board for revision, once again.
– Andrew DiCecco (@ADiCeccoNFL) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com.