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Vultures are circling over Jonathan Gannon’s defense

The early returns on Jonathan Gannon’s defense have not been good.

Kansas City Chiefs v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

After Nick Sirianni was hired away from the Indianapolis Colts to be the Eagles’ new head coach, it wasn’t long before he brought Jonathan Gannon aboard to be his defensive coordinator, elevating the 38-year-old from his job as defensive backs and cornerbacks coach under Frank Reich.

At the time of his hiring, the move was lauded by NFL insiders, some of whom thought it wouldn’t take long for Gannon to dust the Eagles off his shoes and take a head coaching job somewhere in the league.

Those tweets are not being posted to embarrass anyone, nor to say they were wrong to think what they thought last summer. By all accounts, Gannon was an up-and-comer and, to be fair, was very good in his first news conferences in Philadelphia. While it does seem a bit silly to anoint someone as a head coaching candidate when they’ve never been an offensive or defensive coordinator, never forget that Andy Reid was a quarterbacks coach and John Harbaugh was a special teams coach when they received their first head coaching jobs.

But the Gannon-as-head coach mantra was being touted loudly last summer, all based on his work as a secondary coach in Indianapolis and his ability do press conferences really well. And while there is still a somewhat-strong possibility that Gannon becomes a one-and-done defensive coordinator in Philadelphia, it’s not in the way people thought last January.

The Philadelphia Eagles’ defense is unwatchable. The scheme and play calling are nonsensical. No one is put into a position to succeed, and every quarterback who has played Gannon’s defense so far, with the exception of Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and Carolina’s Sam Darnold, has performed like a future Hall of Famer.

This is not hyperbole. The truth is in the numbers.

And now, we’ve reached the finger-pointing stage of the 2021 Eagles season, both from inside the Eagles’ nest and out.

First, Fletcher Cox sounded off about his usage in Gannon’s scheme.

“Honestly, it’s just not what it’s been. Obviously, you just have to play what’s being called, and when you’re so used to playing so aggressive the last, however many years I’ve been playing, it just changed. So, you can’t just be as aggressive, kind of got to play what’s being called.”

Cox went on to say that he thinks they do need to be more aggressive up front, but that starts with him. He just has to be mindful, because sometimes he can play too aggressive and it gets him back into his “old ways” and can get them in trouble.

“I don’t get paid to play screens, I get paid to sack the quarterback, play in the backfield, tackle. I don’t get paid to play screens. Get a screen, we get screened all the time, just get out of the stack and run to the football.”

Safety Rodney McLeod made similar comments.

“We have to figure out ways to create more negative plays, get them behind the sticks, get them off track, off rhythm, and that’s on us as players at the end of the day. We gotta find a way to do that. Find a way to be aggressive within the calls and within the scheme.”

It’s admirable that McLeod is trying to take the heat for how passive the team has been, but everyone knows players can’t play outside the scheme and be successful.

Then, Sirianni himself seemed to lay the blame for his offense’s inability to score at the feet of his defensive coordinator.

“We need to challenge more,” Sirianni said. “It obviously always starts with us as coaches being able to put them in positions to make plays, so we have to call defenses that are going to allow the defenders to challenge more and then our defenders (have) got to challenge more.

“When someone’s 91 or 92 percent or whatever he (was), everyone’s got a piece of that. So we’ve got to be able to challenge more and that’s defensive scheme and then obviously playing, too.” (quote via NBC Sports’ Ruben Frank)

Three days later, Sirianni defended Gannon, saying, “When I say the defense needs to tighten up and needs to get the ball back to the offense, I’m saying that that’s my responsibility, right? That’s my responsibility to say, ‘Hey, on this one, I want to tighten up and play man coverage on this one.’ In no way, shape or form was I putting any blame on the defense or Jonathan Gannon at all.

“I have utmost faith in Jonathan Gannon. I have utmost faith in our defense. I’m putting that responsibility on me and nobody else.”

It feels unlikely Gannon’s going to get that head coaching job anytime soon.

The numbers bear out the ineptitude of the defense. By playing a passive, give-away-the-store style, opposing QBs have picked the Birds apart underneath over the middle of the field at will.

Completion percentage isn’t the greatest statistic for measuring a quarterback’s effectiveness, but the way the Eagles have played, it’s been a huge issue. Below is a comparison between Jalen Hurts’ completion percentage each week opposite that of the Birds’ opponent.

Five of the seven QBs the Eagles have played have had a completion percentage over 70% and four of them, including Derek Carr’s insane 91.2% completion rate last week, have been over 80%. To put this into some kind of perspective...

The Eagles have given up 185 points this year. Only Washington, Miami, Kansas City, Houston and Detroit have given up more. They’re 9th-worst in points-per-game (26.4). In an era when no one runs the ball, the Eagles are getting gashed for 133.0 yards per game, 4th-most in the NFL. They have 11 sacks in seven games, 4th-fewest, and have given up 167 first downs, tied for 3rd-most.

Yes, the Eagles’ defense has allowed very few splash plays but they’re also allowing QBs to get the ball out quickly, avoid sacks, and repeatedly take the easy play the entire length of the field. Gannon’s defense is allowing an average of 5.3 yards per play (7th-fewest), but have allowed opposing offenses to run 472 plays, 6th-most. Compare that to 421 plays run by the Eagles’ offense (16th) at 5.8 yard per play (tied for 13th).

As a result, the Eagles’ average time of possession is 26:06 per game this year, 2nd-lowest, while Gannon’s defense has allowed a time of possession of 33:53, 2nd-most. Sirianni wasn’t wrong. You can’t win if you don’t have the ball (although when the Eagles do get the ball, it’s a disaster too, but that’s for another post).

To be fair, Gannon doesn’t have a ton of talent with which to work and, as the trade deadline approaches, it’s fair to wonder if he’s going to lose even more bodies. Brandon Graham’s injury in Week 2 was a crusher, but no other defensive end has stepped up in his absence.

The linebacking corps of Alex Singleton, T.J. Edwards, Genard, Avery, Eric Wilson, Davion Taylor and Shaun Taylor simply isn’t good enough, a not-too-surprising state of affairs after years of positional neglect.

But given their lack of investment in linebackers, it’s curious why Gannon would play a 2-deep scheme that emphasizes the need for effective linebacker play. Cornerbacks Darius Slay and Steven Nelson have done a decent job on the outside and Avonte Maddox has played better in the slot, but that 2-deep zone has also made their jobs much easier.

The scheme simply doesn’t match what the Eagles have, and frustration abounds both inside the locker room and among the fanbase.

Of course, all the blame for the Eagles’ 2-5 disaster should not be laid at the feet of Gannon. The head coach deserves as much, if not more, blame for what’s happened. And lest you think fans are imagining the worst when things actually aren’t as bad as they may seem...

There are still 10 more games on the Eagles’ schedule, which gets much easier from here on out. Owner Jeffrey Lurie is a patient man (Howie Roseman’s continued existence as general manager is proof of that), but that patience is not endless. If things don’t change soon, it’s possible Lurie will swipe his arm across the figurative desk and wipe the slate completely clean.

Because it can’t get much worse than this.