Despite a 14-3 regular season, having the best quarterback in the NFC, two blowout victories in the conference playoffs and a Super Bowl victory that was within their grasp, the Philadelphia Eagles enter this off-season at a bit of a crossroads, particularly on defense.
The departure of coordinator Jonathan Gannon to Arizona is being celebrated by many, and it’s not hard to see why. His unit’s utter failure to get a stop, any kind of stop, in the second half of the Eagles’ 38-35 loss to Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes was simply unacceptable.
Gannon’s defense was not good enough against Mahomes and Reid. It just wasn’t. Sure, the Chiefs had perhaps the league’s best offense, but just two weeks prior, the Cincinnati Bengals held them to 23 points.
Gannon’s unit gave up 24 in the 2nd half of the Super Bowl alone.
And before you scream at me in the comments about the punt return that gave Mahomes the ball on the five-yard line for their final touchdown of the game, I’ll grant you that. But I’ll also ask if it’s not unreasonable to get a red zone stop just once in an entire half of football or, at the very least, not hand them two scores on a silver platter.
At every opportunity after halftime, the defense allowed the Chiefs to do whatever they wanted, with no resistance. As noted by long-time former Eagles beat-writer Les Bowen, the Chiefs gained 223 out of a possible 225 yards in the 2nd half and scored touchdowns on all three of their drives in which they tried to score a touchdown. Only a kneel down at the one-yard line prevented a fourth.
Any defensive coordinator who blows a 10-point halftime lead in the Super Bowl should be excoriated and I don’t understand how the criticism isn’t universal.
There’s no doubt the unconscionably horrible playing surface negated and Eagles’ pass rush that notched 75 sacks in 19 games and was expected to be one of the biggest mismatches of the Super Bowl. In the end, they generated zero on the biggest stage, and Gannon did nothing to try and manufacture pressure in other ways. The supposedly awesome cornerback trio of Darius Slay, James Bradberry and Avonte Maddox didn’t net a single interception, either.
And yet, the pass defense is not what cost the Eagles this game.
Two weeks prior, the Bengals held the Chiefs to 23 points, losing on a last-second field goal aided by a late hit call that pushed K.C. into field goal range. Cincinnati allowed 315 net passing yards to Mahomes in that game, while Gannon’s pass defense allowed 182. And yet, the Eagles’ defense gave up 31 points to the Bengals’ 23, and it’s all but certain it would have been more had the Eagles not controlled the ball for 35:47 compared to the Chiefs’ 24:13.
The big difference? Stopping the run.
The Bengals held the Chiefs to 42 rushing yards on 20 attempts, 2.1 yards per attempt, in the AFC Championship Game.
The Eagles “held” the Chiefs to 158 rushing yards on 26 attempts, a 6.1 yard per attempt in the Super Bowl.
Gannon’s philosophy has always been to sacrifice run defense in exchange for preventing big plays in the passing game, relying on the front four to generate pressure. Linval Joseph and Jordan Davis played just 10 snaps each in the Super Bowl, and as Jimmy Kempski noted in his snap count analysis, Fletcher Cox, Javon Hargrave, Josh Sweat and Hassan Redick may have worn down in the second half with Redick getting 46 snaps, Sweat and Cox notching 45 snaps a piece and Hargrave 42. No effort was made to contain Kansas City’s running game, and that was by design.
Given the defense only gave up 7 points in the first half in four Chiefs’ offensive possessions, perhaps one could forgive Gannon’s reluctance to change things up on the Chiefs’ first two possessions after halftime. The third touchdown was the result of the defense’s inability to handle pre-snap motion, again something Gannon should have prepared for, but it’s hard to do much when a team is handed the ball at your five yard line.
The final drive, however, is where things should have been different.
In Super Bowl 52, Jim Schwartz’ defense was getting torched by Tom Brady, and just prior to Brandon Graham’s strip sack, Schwartz went up to Doug Pederson and essentially told him he was going to get very aggressive, in an attempt to either force a turnover or let the Patriots score quickly so he could get the ball back (16:42 mark), understanding they couldn’t let New England bleed the clock all the way to zero and score.
Gannon did not make a similar declaration to Nick Sirianni, although he did try to blitz Mahomes on the Skyy Moore touchdown that put the Chiefs up 35-27.
“I did not do a good enough job… On the second one, I thought [Mahomes] was gonna play that as a drop back and that was a zero [blitz]. Jesus Christ wouldn’t have covered that in a zero.”— John Clark (@JClarkNBCS) February 20, 2023
-Jonathan Gannon takes blame for Chiefs wide open TDs in SBhttps://t.co/qOO9fBjYTL
The one time he tries it, that happens.
It’s all part of Gannon’s philosophy, and against lesser quarterbacks, it’s fine. It’s also now the Cardinals’ problem. The Eagles must decide what kind of defense they want to have moving forward.
As of now, the Eagles are set to interview two people from outside the organization for Gannon’s old job. Vance Joseph is the former Cardinals and Broncos defensive coordinator, known for a more blitz-happy approach, with Bears associate head coach/defensive assistant Sean Desai, a Temple alum, also expected to interview. Chicago’s defense ranked 13th in defensive DVOA this year, but was tied for 22nd in EPA per play, albeit with scant playmakers on the field. Desai played a lot of 3-4 defense in Chicago, something that would be a drastic change from Gannon’s defense, although, like Gannon, he comes from the Vic Fangio tree, and hit unit played pretty darn well in mostly shutting the Eagles down when the two teams met late in the regular season. It’s also been reported they’ve interviewed Wisconsin Badgers defensive coordinator and interim head coach Jim Leonhard this week.
So will the Eagles continue utilizing a Fangio-inspired defense that attempts to change coverages at the last moment while trying to avoid the big play and keep everything in front of them? Will they employ a defense that stresses more physicality, both in terms of playing closer to the line of scrimmage, emphasizing a greater determination to stopping the run game on early downs and more man defense throughout? Do they do a complete 180 and embrace the blitz-happy philosophy that Steve Spagnuolo has had success with in Kansas City and Jim Johnson made famous before him in Philadelphia?
That is the most important question facing the team this off-season. Any new coordinator’s philosophy will have to match what will certainly be a different group of players, with some combination of Bradberry, Graham, Cox, C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Marcus Epps, and Linval Joseph leaving. New players will arrive, draft picks will ascend, and the defense must be molded around the new unit.
The hope is that, whoever the new hire is, be it from inside the organization or out, something will emerge that will give them a fighting chance against some of the better quarterbacks in the NFL. Because what happened in Super Bowl 57 cannot happen again.