The Philadelphia Eagles are 10-1 this season. They are unquestionably a Super Bowl contender and have been an extremely entertaining team to watch all year. Yet, it feels as if every time I peruse “Eagles Twitter” on Sundays during and after games, the fans are not having a good time. To be clear, this is nothing out of the ordinary and is not meant at all as a slight towards the fanbase, whose proprietary passion and expectations of success are what make them so special. Most of this frustration, however, seems to be geared toward defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, who many feel is going to inevitably cost the Eagles an important game at some point due to his relatively conservative style. Is Gannon perfect? Definitely not, and I am sure this article is going to come off to many as me stanning for him. The reality is, though, that on the whole this Eagles defense has been exceptional, and scapegoating Gannon seemingly every time the team hits a bump in the road during a game is silly, so I am forced to take this stance. Let’s take a look at how the Eagles have performed defensively this year and shed some light on it.
Firstly, the numbers speak for themselves. Here is where the Eagles rank league-wide in several major defensive statistical categories:
|Name of Statistic
|Yards allowed per game
|Rushing yards allowed per game
|Rushing yards per attempt
|Passing yards allowed per game
|Passer rating allowed
|Third Down Conversion Rate
|Points allowed per game
If you are into advanced metrics, they are also ranked 6th in defensive DVOA per Football Outsiders.
If I told you in August that the Eagles would be top three in yards, passing yards, and passer rating allowed, plus sacks produced, I would have to imagine you would undoubtedly sign up for that. Let’s look at this table above more closely.
One common sentiment is that the Eagles are too conservative and allow opposing quarterbacks to pick them apart methodically rather than forcing the QB to make a good throw and beat them down the field. Last year, especially in the first half of the season, this was often the case, particularly against higher-end quarterbacks including Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott, and Justin Herbert. Gannon was clearly overly-concerned about the potential of these uber-talented passers with rocket arms beating them deep, but the alternative was allowing these guys to just dink and dunk their way down the field on long, often agonizing drives. Playing recklessly aggressive against Mahomes is a bad idea, but so is refusing to challenge him in the slightest, and there were some growing pains while he figured that out.
This season, despite substantial improvement in this regard, the criticism has yet to wane. The Eagles have been elite in terms of both pressuring the quarterback and in coverage, as can be inferred from the table. What the table does not show is that the Eagles also lead the league in turnovers forced (23) and turnover differential (+13), both by fairly wide margins. Yes, the improved personnel (additions of Jordan Davis, Haason Reddick, Kyzir White, James Bradberry, and C.J. Gardner-Johnson) has played a huge role in that as well, but you do not force more than two turnovers and three sacks per game by constantly sitting back in a vanilla prevent defense and watching the offense beat you underneath. Quarterbacks have generally had an extremely difficult time moving the ball consistently against the Eagles this season. The perception that Gannon has yet to adapt to something that works is nonsense.
This does not necessarily mean he has been flawless. Certainly, there have been flashes of his poor tendencies that we can sit here and nitpick if we want to, such as Reddick and Josh Sweat dropping back into coverage on occasion, and being too conservative on all of those third downs in the game against Washington. The truth is that putting the defense under a microscope like this is just a fruitless exercise. Nobody goes back and puts together a montage of all of Jalen Hurts’ poor decisions this season in order to conclude that he is having a bad year, because it would be foolish to do so. This is obviously to a lesser extent, but if you treat the defense similarly and just look at the big picture, the results speak for themselves.
“No they don’t! Look, they can’t stop the run! The defense has been exposed!”
I would be remiss to gloss over the evidently below-average run defense to this point. Certainly, the Eagles have not been fantastic at stopping the run, which is why they signed Linval Joseph and Ndamukong Suh off the street a couple weeks ago. However, I honestly think that the degree to which the Eagles are supposedly getting gashed in the run game is being ridiculously overblown.
First of all, Jordan Davis has not been on the field for the past four games. While he has barely produced anything statistically and is not yet a threat as a pass rusher, there is no question that teams have way more difficulty running the ball when he is on the field. The immediate impact he has had in the run game has frankly blown me away, and he has been a huge loss in that regard.
With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s look at said past four games. Against the Texans, Dameon Pierce ran 27 times for 139 yards. Pierce is a bowling ball who runs hard, and the Eagles did not tackle him very well, but it never reached a point where he was taking the game over, and ultimately the Eagles only allowed three points in the second half and kept Pierce out of the end zone for the entire game.
Many fans and analysts alike have pointed to the aforementioned game against the Commanders as evidence that the Eagles needed help in run defense after they allowed 152 yards on the ground. I’m not arguing that they didn’t, but the reactions coming out of that game were completely out of hand. Even ignoring all of the once-in-a-blue moon chaos from that game that contributed to the loss, Washington possessed the ball for over 40 minutes and ran the ball 49 (!) times. You better muster 152 yards if you run it 49 times as a team. That is only 3.1 yards per carry, a flat out putrid amount.
The following week, the Eagles faced Jonathan Taylor and the Indianapolis Colts. Taylor ran seven times for 49 yards and a touchdown on the opening drive of the game, and the general knee-jerk reaction was basically “(sigh), here we go again. Please fire Gannon into the sun.” Over the last 55-ish minutes of the game, however, Taylor ran the ball 15 times for just 35 yards, and the Eagles did not allow a touchdown of any kind for the rest of the game. In fact, the defense practically won them the game, as they held the Colts to field goals off of two different Eagles turnovers in their own territory in a game they won by one point.
Finally, against the Packers, A.J. Dillon had some nice runs, including a long touchdown in the first quarter. Again, though, the Packers never fully dominated the trenches in that game, and star running back Aaron Jones only had 43 yards on 12 carries. On a side note, Gannon got obliterated for this past game on Sunday night. It was definitely not the most inspiring defensive performance ever, but the defense was put in endless difficult spots thanks to practically every kickoff getting returned to midfield, a failed QB sneak in the first quarter, and a brutal A.J. Brown fumble that was returned into the Eagles red zone. Sure, on paper they allowed 33 points to a bad Packers team, but I am not sure how you can watch that game and conclude that Green Bay truly played them to a narrow 7-point defeat if not for all of the careless errors.
One of the more popular shticks on NFL Twitter this season has been updating weekly what the Broncos record would be if they had scored exactly 18 points in each game this season, given how many low-scoring unwatchable monstrosities they have been involved in this year. The 3-8 Broncos would (incredibly) be 8-3 if they scored exactly 18 points in every game. Of course, the purpose of this statistic is to emphasize how horrible Russell Wilson and the Denver offense has been this year, but it also sheds light on how great their defense has been. So what would the Eagles record be if they scored exactly 18 points in every game? 7-4, and that includes a game where the Jaguars had a pick six on a rainy day, leading them to score 21 points instead of 14.
Like it or not, this statistic would simply not be the case if Jonathan Gannon was truly the bumbling idiot he is made out to be. Nick Sirianni also mightily struggled upon his arrival in Philadelphia (remember the “run the ball” chants?) and then vastly improved going into season two. Despite making some nearly costly in-game mistakes and occasionally trying to execute pretty poor gameplans, it is widely accepted that Sirianni is a fantastic coach and a coach of the year candidate (as should be the case). Heck, Jalen Hurts was a very poor passer for the better part of last year, and now he is a city hero and MVP candidate (again, deservedly so). Yet, despite his own very obvious improvements, Gannon still gets micromanaged on a weekly basis, and his great games get completely disregarded.
So for the pitch fork-toting mob, please, just relax, and enjoy your 10-1 team that is playing great defense.
Photo: Tim Hawk/NJ.com