“Not Gonna Take That Stinger Away:” Gannon Eyes Tough, More Diverse Defense
An offseason Zoom with new defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon in May that revealed very little was, until lately, the only means for information about how the Eagles’ defense would look in 2012.
But the first two days of Eagles training camp has presented some insight into the philosophies and schemes Gannon is working to implement.
If all goes according to his plan, Gannon’s defense should feature some noticeable differences than his predecessor’s scheme.
On Wednesday, the day camp opened, the Eagles showed almost entirely zone looks during drills that mainly took place in the red zone. Rookie defensive lineman Milton Williams, a defensive tackle in college picked in the third round, lined up mostly at defensive end. Several linebackers rotated in and out of sub packages.
On Thursday, after a second day of his defense showing more edge than what’s typically seen in contact-less team drills, Gannon discussed the emphasis he and his staff are placing on takeaways, disguise, and formational variance.
The intent, he said, is to make quarterbacks think a little longer and harder prior to the snap.
“We have a very defined language with how we talk about takeaways, and you guys are gonna see that in practice, hopefully a lot,” Gannon said. “We know the value of the ball, and we put a lot of importance on it. We have a very defined language with how we coach that.”
Gannon is a proponent of the “HITS” principle. “HITS,” in defensive football vernacular, is an acronym for Hustle, Takeaways, Intensity, Smarts.
Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, whom Gannon coached under for the past three years, preaches the same philosophy. The “T” part of HITS has already been showcased in camp. Already, we’ve seen some turnovers and some extra shots from those attempting to strip the ball or narrow a passing window.
Gannon’s defense hasn’t yet crossed the line of acceptable aggression, but it’s come close.
“We have very distinct language with how we force fumbles, how we scoop and score, how we block interception returns,’ Gannon added, “So it just puts a very clear picture of what the standard is, what the expectation is, to how we conduct business.
“We gotta clean it up, because we don’t want guys to the ground at times, but on defense we’re gonna play with a stinger – and I’m not gonna take that stinger away.”
The Eagles were among the worst at producing turnovers last year, ranking 29th, and didn’t post high marks in that category in the final three years of former defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s five seasons.
The team never ranked higher than 25th in turnover ratio after placing fourth in 2017, their Super Bowl season.
Schwartz always seemed to reference turnovers as happenstance, or the byproduct of quarterback getting hit repeatedly. But the Eagles led the NFL in sacks last year and still finished with the league’s fourth-worst turnover ratio.
Schwartz wasn’t one to show much pre-snap movement or feature multiple defensive line fronts. He generally – and stubbornly, some felt – believed the key to masking defensive deficiencies was just generating more pass rush from the front four.
Based on his Thursday press conference, Gannon seemed to suggest that diverse formations and moveable pieces are his preferred way to confuse quarterbacks and create turnover opportunities. He referenced last year’s Rams defense, the league’s No.1-ranked scoring and yards defense, which was known for using multiple fronts.
“You guys are gonna see a lot of looks out there,” Gannon added. “We believe out D-line is a strength and we’re gonna put them in position to make a lot of plays. A lot of those guys have unique skill sets and were gonna try to accentuate those skill sets by how we align people.
“Stay tuned, we gotta lot more to put in. As we keep going in camp hopefully you guys will see a lot of different variations with what we’re doing and we’re using guys in different ways. We like guys that play multiple positions, because we feel it’s hard on offense [to get comfortable]. We don’t want to just line up and they know where we’re gonna line up.”
That last sentence is probably symphony to the ears of ardent Schwartz critics, many of whom believed the former coordinator refused to adjust and lacked answers in games where his pass rush was neutralized.
Now’s also a good time to remind folks that training camp is often a time of abundant optimism for coaches and players, when ideas and concepts sound novel in theory only.
Gannon’s desire to be multiple and diverse could easily be tempered by deficiencies at linebacker, safety and depth in his cornerback room.
Around this time last year, the Eagles were hoping the additions of offensive assistants Rich Scangarello, Marty Mornhinweg, and Andrew Breiner – a diverse group of coaches who each specialized in a different area of passing offense – would help spice up Doug Pederson’s aerial attack headed into the 2020 season.
We all know what happened there.
But one of Gannon’s coaching influences is Vikings coach Mike Zimmer. Gannon spent four seasons in Minnesota coaching under Zimmer, one of the league’s godfathers of pre-snap movement, disguise and line games.
If Gannon can implement a defense that has some disguise and guile, perhaps the Eagles could mask their deficiencies and field a better product than anticipated.
– Geoff Mosher (@geoffmoshernfl) is co-host of the “Inside the Birds” podcast and staff writer for InsideTheBirds.com.
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