September 5, 2023   4 MIN READ

Nickel For Their Thoughts

Analytics Report: New Look For Birds Defense


The Eagles in 2023 return seven defensive starters from last year – Brandon Graham, Josh Sweat, Fletcher Cox, Haason Reddick, Darius Slay, James Bradberry, and Avonte Maddox.

Second-year impact players safety Reed Blankenship, linebacker Nakobe Dean, and defensive tackle Jordan Davis are also poised to start.

The Eagles also added two potential starters, linebacker Zach Cunningham and safety Terrell Edmunds, through free agency.

Finally, the team brought in Jalen Carter, Nolan Smith, and Sydney Brown through the draft. All three will see substantial snaps this season.

Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox

GETTY IMAGES: Veteran DLs Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox will help new DC Sean Desai integrate his schemes to the defense.

In our latest analytics-based research project, we aimed to determine what to expect from new defensive coordinator in terms of personnel groupings based on data compiled from the team’s entire preseason tape.

Last year, under coordinator Jonathan Gannon, the Eagles typically deployed three interior defensive linemen flanked by two overhand defenders for a five-man line, with either one or two off-ball linebackers in a 5-1 or 5-2 look depending on the offensive formation and down-and-distance scenarios.

If this year’s preseason and roster construction are any indication of how the Eagles intend to defend in 2023, it appears they’ll continue to be a base nickel team but with a three-man line and one overhang defender, along with two off-ball linebackers and five defensive backs, including nickel corner Avonte Maddox.

Occasionally, the Eagles used another edge defender as a defensive lineman (we’ll call this “base 5-2”) to create a five-man line, and sometimes they showed a third off-ball defender (we’ll call this “traditional” 4-3).

Out of the 230 defensive snaps* during their three preseason games, the Eagles showcased the following personnel packages by percentage:

*This snap count includes plays that resulted in penalties.

Vs. Baltimore’s Offense

Typical of the preseason, both the Eagles and the Ravens played vanilla formations and coverages, as the Ravens ran exclusively 11 pers0nnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) and 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR). The Eagles countered predominately with their nickel.

Below is a breakdown of the personnel packages that Desai utilized against the Ravens in the 64 defensive snaps:

Desai’s defense faced off against Ravens first-year offensive coordinator Todd Monken, whose offense put up 20 points against Desai’s defense.

Not surprisingly, the Eagles were in their base nickel for almost the entire game, with very few traditional fronts.

Vs. Browns Offense

The Cleveland Browns, under head coach Kevin Stefanski, run a “Shannahan-style” offense, meaning a variety of personnel packages and an emphasis on the run and play-action pass.

Here’s the percentage breakdown of what the Eagles ran against the Cleveland Browns in the 90 defensive snaps:

The Eagles responded to Cleveland’s complexity with the polar opposite in terms of personnel – with simplicity, again. They played almost 80 percent nickel – like against the Ravens – and only occasionally showed the 5-2 front. This time, they didn’t play any traditional fronts.

This mirrors head coach Nick Sirianni’s approach to football in general: keep concepts simple, allow players to make plays.

The Eagles tied the Browns, giving up 18 points to the Browns offense.

Vs. Colts Offense

Former Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen faced the Eagles with his starting offense for the first few drives, which served as a good test to see how the Eagles would play against starting caliber players.

Here’s how the Eagles defensive personnel countered against the Colts’ offense in 76 defensive snaps:




The final preseason offered the greatest variety of looks, potentially for several reasons.

It’s possible that this chart more accurately projects the regular season, as the team gained more experience in the scheme.

Also, it’s possible the personnel was game-plan specific for the Colts.

Most likely, it was a combination of those two.

In Wednesday’s segment, we’ll go deeper into which personnel groupings were used against more specific offensive packages and in specific down-and-distance scenarios.

– Sam Finkel is a staff writer for who focuses on analytics.

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  • Jodi

    Great article!