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Eagles defense preview: 5 questions and answers

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles Training Camp Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The season is nearly here! As well as looking at the preseason games, I wanted to write something looking back at the Eagles offense and defense and considering what schematic changes we will see this season. If you missed the offense piece, go back and read it here.

For this article, I spoke to Ryan Sasaki (known as @ChipWagoneer) who is one of the brightest football minds around. I asked him 5 questions about the Eagles defense moving forward and we discussed each topic. It was a great football conversation and I have tried to convey our conversation the best I could in this article, with some film clips to help explain what we are talking about.

1. Will the Eagles secondary go back to more 2-high shells?

The league is moving to a 2-high world. This has been a clear trend the past few years, with pretty much all defensive coordinators (except Gus Bradley, sorry Colts fans) following Vic Fangio’s lead and implementing more 2-high shells. It is pretty clear to see why, as everyone moved to a ‘Legion of Boom’ style cover 3, NFL offenses started taking advantage of the 1 on 1 matchups on the outside and throwing it outside the numbers. I think Jim Schwartz was a great defensive coordinator, but we all remember those bad days watching Jalen Mills or Rasul Douglas struggle on an island with very little safety support. With yards per attempts going up and up, defensive coordinators decided it was time to sacrifice the 8 man boxes and start stopping explosive plays in the passing game by having more 2-high shells.

The 2-high shells defense has largely worked around the league. EPA per play dropped around the league last year. Defenses won the schematic battle (just about) last year and many teams struggled to adjust to this. The wide-zone offense

So good news, the Eagles defense was fantastic with these 2-high shells right?! Sadly, no. We all know what happened.

The Eagles didn’t seem to be able to do what has made other 2-high teams so successful for most of the year. Teams aren’t just sticking in 2-high shells, they are using the 2-high look to rotate to other coverages. They are rotating the safety post snap and using the 2-high look pre-snap to get to other coverages. The Eagles just didn’t do this effectively and gave up a ridiculous amount of completions to almost any good quarterback.

So what did the Eagles do as the season progressed? They actually started to run a lot more single-high press man coverage which is not what I expected the Eagles to do, at all.

The Buccaneers playoff game was a brilliant example of the Eagles wanting to be a 2-high zone defense but being unable to do it effectively and then turning to more single-high with press coverage. It was almost a microcosm of the season.

My personal opinion on the Eagles secondary, is that the Eagles are going to move back to a lot more 2-high rather than single-high. If you look at the current group of Eagles safeties, I don’t see a natural centerfield safety there and Bradberry excelled in zone coverage last year (more on this in question 2). I asked Ryan if he agreed with my feeling on Gannon and he did agree with my premise.

“The move to single-high was out of necessity, they had to change things up, I wonder if Sirianni wasn’t happy with Gannon and spoke to him. The defense at the start of the season was 2 deep, rush the same 4, play off coverage, and was the most vanilla defense you could possibly run. Gannon likes a conservative approach on the backend. We are going to see more 2 deep zone next year”

Pre-snap 2-high shells aren’t going away. The running game is going to continue to make a comeback as NFL offenses decide the best way to defeat the 2-high shells is to simply run the ball against a lighter box. Get used to it!

2. Will the Eagles use more man coverage next season?

For the rest of the article, I am probably going to defend Gannon quite a bit (which may surprise you) but I do have a little concern that the Eagles will go a bit too zone heavy and be predictable. The Eagles ran zone coverage a little too much at the start of last season and it was a bit too predictable, just ask Justin Herbert.

However, I think there are lots of things the Eagles will do differently next year and I will get to them later, but I don’t expect to see a lot more man coverage.

If anything, with the recent addition of James Bradberry who excels in zone coverage, I think the Eagles might run even more zone coverage.

And as I mentioned recently in my film piece on them, both Maddox and Slay played really well in zone coverage last year too.

I can’t lie, I expect the Eagles to run a heavy dose of zone coverage next year and although it worries me a little, as long as Gannon is willing to adjust when things go wrong, I’m not too concerned. Yet!

3. How will the Eagles force more incompletions next year?

The Eagles allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 69.97% (lol) of their passes this past year. That was the worst in the NFL, which doesn’t shock anyone. How much does this really matter though? This is how the defense ranked last year.

Now obviously you do not want to be the worst in the NFL in terms of completion % allowed and we all know exactly why the Eagles ranked this badly. They ran a passive defense with little disguised coverage throughout most of the season, with poor results. I highlighted this frequently and it was very annoying.

Now I have some bad news Eagles fans, I think Gannon is naturally very conservative and I think the Eagles will continue to give up a high percentage of completions. While I am not saying this is perfect, I am going to defend Gannon a little bit here and say that I do understand why Gannon is conservative, despite it being annoying at time.

A hugely underrated part of the Eagles defense last year was how good they were at not giving up explosive plays. This Data is from Sharp Football Analysis.

It was evident on film last year that the Eagles secondary was really well coached on the back end and were good at preventing explosive plays.

Despite saying all of this, I am optimistic the Eagles defense will actually lower the completion percentage of opposing quarterbacks because they started doing something towards the end of last season, disguising coverages!

We also saw some more sim pressures, more on that later though…

My very, very optimistic take, is that Gannon didn’t use any disguised coverage or late movement at the start of the season as he needed time to teach the Eagles defense the new scheme. Therefore, if we start seeing some more coverage disguise from the start of the season, we should see the completion percentage drop. Don’t expect to see the Eagles start playing press man frequently or blitzing 5 all the time, I just don’t think that’s Gannon’s style.

4. What will Jordan Davis do to the Eagles defense?

Go back to question 1, sometimes football is a very simple game. When defenses turn to more 2-high shells by an extra man out of the box, what does that do to a team’s run defense? Well, it probably makes it weaker.

No surprise to see the Chargers here, as head coach Brandon Staley is all about the modern 2-high approach.

This is why Jordan Davis will be absolutely vital to the Eagles defense this year. You cannot overstate his importance to this Eagles defense. The Eagles will want to run more of these 2-high shells which means they will have more 7 man boxes. With a light box, it is imperative that you have a big nose tackle who can 2-gap, take up a lot of space and free up other defenders to make a play on the ball. The Eagles have done a lot of exciting things this off-season, but nothing will be more important that adding Jordan Davis in my opinion.

Remember, just because someone isn’t on the stat sheet, doesn’t mean they aren’t important.

I asked Ryan about the impact he thinks Jordan Davis should have on this defense and we agreed on his impact.

“Jordan Davis is the one player who really gives me hope. I really was not pleased with Gannon last season but if he wants his safeties back etc, its clear that the front 7 simply have to be able to stop the run. If you are going to be light in the box, you need a huge body in the middle of the defense. Specifically targeting a bigger body nose tackle, allows you to run more odd man fronts which can help stop the run’.

5. Will the Eagles blitz more?

This may be controversial, but I don’t care if the Eagles really blitz a great deal more. The Eagles blitz rate was pretty low last year at about 20% which ranks about 30th lowest in the year. I love an effective blitz and sack as much as anyone, and I do think making quarterbacks uncomfortable by blitzing is massively important, but I am happy for the Eagles to do it a different way. I’m not the only one thinking this either, clearly!

The importance for the Eagles next year is to be more unpredictable with their fronts. They have to confuse the quarterback and making him uncomfortable by not making it obvious what players are coming after the quarterback. Whether the Eagles send 4 or 5 is not the most important part, what it is important is that the opposing quarterback does not know who will be rushing. We didn’t see this last year, anywhere near enough. It was far too basic.

This is something that Jim Schwartz used to be great at doing on 3rd down.

We also saw Todd Bowles confuse Jalen Hurts in the playoff game last year by being unpredictable with his fronts. Even when the rush didn’t get there, it badly affected Hurts’ confidence in the pocket.

In defense of Gannon, the Eagles didn’t have many good blitzing linebackers last year. This is not the case this year. I asked Ryan whether he wanted to see the Eagles blitz more or not. Similarly, he was not massively focused on the idea of a blitz, but was focused more on being more unpredictable in the front 7 and also using alignment to create more one on one matchups.

“If you want to play 2 deep safeties, the only hope is more disguise in the front 7 and use more shifts. If you don’t want to blitz, you have to send different guys. The good news is with the addition of Reddick and Nakobe Dean, we now have players that get after the quarterback. This will give Gannon more flexibility from a sim pressure perspective. If we aren’t seeing sim pressure and we’re just seeing a front 4 rush with the same people, we are going to struggle. To run sim pressure effectively you need linebackers who can rush the quarterback”.

Gannon can also be use more creative alignments in order to set up one on one matchups for his pass rushers. For example, you can put Reddick on wide 9, Cox in 4i technique and other creative stuff to get your best pass rusher in one on one matchups. If you want to be safe on the backend, something has to give upfront”.

Ryan mentioned sim pressures and you may have also heard of creepers recently. Creepers/simulated pressures and just pressures that bring a 2nd or 3rd level defender in exchange for dropping a 1st level defender on the defensive line. They aren’t blitzes as you aren’t bringing 5 men, so they are safer than blitzing as they don’t sacrifice a number in coverage. Here’s an easy example of one.

It’s obvious to see why defensive coordinators love these pressures. The Bucs defense ended up with a free rusher on the left side of the line, despite only rushing 4.

There is no excuses now for Gannon not to run these pressures with players like Reddick and Nakobe Dean who excel at getting after the quarterback.

That will do for this one, as always, comments and feedback appreciated!

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