Merry Christmas, BGN! It’s been a ride since my last post, when the Eagles were still undefeated (sigh) and had a slate of winnable-but-intriguing games on their schedule. They didn’t come out of that journey unscathed, but if they take care of business moving forward, it won’t matter. And if Sunday’s toppling of the Titans was any indication, the Eagles are very much in the business of, well, taking care of business.
We’ll get to that final stretch of games later. In this article:
- The cleverness of the Eagles’ “pick your poison” offense
- A defense of the defense
- Charting the course to the playoffs
Let’s dive in!
Heads I Win, Tails You Lose
One common theme of the Eagles offense this season is that Sirianni and Steichen try to put the defense in an impossible situation. We’re all familiar with this on a broad schematic level with the ad nauseum mentions of the RPO, but the Eagles will do this on a smaller, matchup-based level as well - disguising one play as another to prey on a defender’s tendencies.
Two clear examples of this resulted in touchdowns earlier in the season. First, there was DeVonta’s game-sealing score over the Cowboys in Week 6. If you watch the route, it’s kind of odd - he starts to run a slant, stops, then just scampers backwards into the end zone. It makes more sense if you also watch Goedert running a shallow route into the flat.
Smitty is feigning a pick play here, and safety Donovan Wilson (#6) has a choice to make. He can stick with Smith and “get blocked” or crash down on Goedert, who appears to be the first read on the play. He chooses to defend Goedert, as does Anthony Brown (#3), leaving Smith wide open for the touchdown. Heads I win, tails you lose.
The other example occurred two weeks later against the Steelers. A very similar play with a very similar result, this time with Zach Pascal catching the long score. I’ll let Barrett Tone explain this one, and add that the Eagles turned this into 4D chess by actually running the screen to Goedert out of the same formation earlier in the game:
The common thread between these two plays? They featured Goedert as a decoy. This was an underrated aspect of his contribution to the offense, and it was something they sorely missed during their close win over the Colts, when they were clearly out of sorts.
The Eagles were not going to win a lot of games scoring 17 points, so they had to adjust quickly. They could try to install “replacement” concepts into their offense midseason... or lean into their “pick your poison” persona. Their performances the past two weeks should be a good clue as to which route they went.
As I see it, Sirianni and Steichen adjusted for Goedert’s absence with a gambit: you can stop the pass, or you can stop the run, but not both. They realized this (almost too) late in the win over the Colts, when they called designed runs for Hurts to close out the game. No time was wasted against the Packers, with 49 runs for 364 yards. And finally, the script flipped last week against the Titans, where the Eagles finally integrated the backup tight ends into the passing game and Hurts feasted through the air to the tune of 380 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Goedert should be returning to the lineup soon, and it will be interesting to see how the Eagles utilize him in their ever evolving offense. But I have a feeling they’ll be handing opposing defenses the same ultimatum.
Heads I win, tails you lose.
Defending the Defense
Gannon successfully shut down Derrick Henry this week and was therefore spared from a lot of criticism, but I’m going to write about him anyway since that goodwill will expire with the next long run the Eagles allow. While I don’t believe Gannon is a “Top 5” defensive coordinator, he is more than competent and does not deserve the near-constant criticism he receives.
I’ll address some of the more common remarks I see.
“His scheme is too soft. It’s frustrating to watch.” As a fan that started following the team in 2006, I get this. Jim Johnson was the master of the exotic blitz and constantly left opposing quarterbacks confused and terrified. And before that, there was Buddy Ryan and his suffocating defenses of the early 90s. We’re used to seeing that, and when we don’t - when we are simply forcing a team to dink and dunk down the field - we think something must be wrong.
Nostalgia is great, but the NFL doesn’t treat it so kindly. Buddy Ryan’s ‘84 Bears defense still holds the record for most sacks in a season (72). Who is running his “46” defense today?
Blitzes are fun, but the best quarterbacks are the best because they can beat them. Tom Brady built a Hall of Fame career by being immune to any pressure that didn’t come from the interior defensive line. And it wasn’t just him! Name any “elite” quarterback from recent history - Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Patrick Mahomes, Matthew Stafford, Russell Wilson, Peyton Manning - they all torched defenses that tried to blitz them.
And as for “frustrating”... Watching even mediocre quarterbacks drop bombs all over our man coverage when the defensive line or zero blitz couldn’t get home? THAT was frustrating, and it was the norm before Gannon. Or remember our plodding, crawl-down-the-field offenses of 2018-2019? THAT was frustrating, and I am more than happy to force our opponents to play like that on a weekly basis. It’s been working so far.
“He never adjusts/He’s too slow to adjust.” The numbers don’t really back this up. Consider:
- The Eagles are 15th in first half points allowed (11.0) but tied for 5th in second half points allowed (7.8).
- They are actually tied with the Chargers for last in first quarter points allowed (5.8 - not great!) but that ranking jumps to 4th in the second quarter (5.2).
You might argue that part of the improvement later in games is because the offense is scoring points and the opponent become one-dimensional. I say, so what? That’s how football is supposed to work. And that’s why you want a good pass defense! If the Eagles focused on the run instead of the pass they’d find themselves facing far more comebacks this season than they have. Moreover, when the defense has needed to step up and help out the offense they’ve generally delivered (Jaguars, Cardinals, Colts). Even in the loss to the Commanders they only gave up six points in the second half - it was the issues with the offense that ultimately cost them the game.
“With the talent on the defense there’s no way Gannon could fail.” I think it’s worth acknowledging that several players are having career years under Gannon and his staff (Slay, Bradberry, White, CJGJ come to mind) while rookie backups like Dean and Blankenship are filling in admirably for injured starters. It wasn’t long ago that players like Jordan Poyer or Rasul Douglas floundered on the Eagles and found success elsewhere. Even Slay in his first season here (2020) was having a “down” year. Raw talent makes a coach’s job easier, but it’s still his job to put it all together and make it work.
Even beyond that, who would replace Gannon, anyway? Vic Fangio? He runs the same defense! And check out these ranks:
- Scoring - T-7th
- Yards/Play - 1st
- Sacks/Game - 2nd
- Passer Rating Allowed - 1st
- Third Down Conversion Rate - T-10th
- Opponent First Downs/Game - 11th
- Interceptions/Game - 1st
- Opponent Yards/Rush - 23rd
- Opponent Rushing First Downs/Game - 13th
- DVOA - 6th
- EPA/play - 4th
Gannon isn’t perfect - the run defense sticks out here - and there are times that I get frustrated with him, but to me this is absolutely a case of “an eagle in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
The Path to the Playoffs
Even though the Eagles can clinch a playoff spot as early as this week, that’s not the goal. The goal is to win the division and secure homefield advantage. The path there is simple, but also confusing. Confusing because the biggest game left on their schedule - Christmas Eve in Dallas against the Cowboys - could also be one of least importance.
The magic number for the Eagles is four. Win four more games and lock up homefield advantage. They have five games on the schedule: four very winnable and one very difficult. The Eagles could win the games they are favored to win, get beat by the Cowboys, and be no worse for wear for homefield advantage.
And to be honest... I don’t know how to feel about that. I really, REALLY want the Eagles to beat the Cowboys on Christmas Eve. But I’m not above the pettiness of a functionally pointless Cowboys victory over the Eagles, which they would undoubtedly treat like their Super Bowl. There’s a saying that the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference, and I would love to be indifferent about the Cowboys game.
Obviously, the preferred outcome is the Eagles just win all of their games and go 16-1 (or 15-2 resting starters in Week 18). It’s just nice knowing that as long as the Eagles take care of business, there’s nothing the Cowboys can do to take homefield away from them.
(I say they go curbstomp them anyway.)
How many more games will the Eagles win in the regular season?
This poll is closed
Four, rest starters Week 18
Four, lose to the Cowboys
Fewer than four (I’m not fun at parties)