PHILADELPHIA — At the end of Nick Sirianni’s weekly radio appearance Monday morning, the Eagles coach proposed a poll question for the hosts and listeners alike.
“Assistant coach of the year, Jonathan Gannon?” he said on 94.1 WIP-FM.
Sirianni knew full well the criticism that his defensive coordinator endured after the Eagles’ only loss of the season — a few days earlier, the station’s poll question was whether Gannon should be fired — and Sirianni’s well-timed submission was a not-so-subtle defense of the coach who oversees a unit ranked No. 4 in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) this season and kept the offense in the game to allow for a 17-16 win over Indianapolis.
“Geez, Nick. What is he doing?” Gannon said in a moment of self-deprecation when informed of the poll suggestion. “I did not hear that.”
“I stuck up for him because I believe in Jonathan Gannon,” Sirianni said Wednesday. “He’s a great football coach and you’ve continued to see the defense get better and better as he’s been here. And I get it, we all get it, we’re in a week-to-week league when it comes to some of these things. And we know that after a bad performance, they’re going to be calling for us. … We understand the waves of the season. … It’s been a great defensive performance throughout the year, if you think about where we are in all the major statistical things.”
There were undoubtedly clunkers — Week 1 against Detroit and Week 10 against Washington weren’t good for Gannon’s approval rating — but the overall performance of the season places the Eagles among the NFL’s best defenses. They have allowed 17 or fewer offensive points in eight games, which leads the league. (They rank No. 7 in scoring defense with 18.3 points allowed per game.) Since a poor Week 1 showing in Detroit, Philadelphia has kept opponents to a league-best 14.8 points per game. And it’s not surrendering leads, limiting opponents to 5.8 points in the second half.
“What’s our record now, 9-1? That’s how I base it,” Gannon said. “Are we doing enough to give ourselves a chance to win games? And I think we can definitely get better at that, and as the year goes on, we’ve got to keep playing really good, clean football on defense to give ourselves a chance to win.”
The two statistics the Eagles care most about on defense (other than points scored) are takeaways and explosive plays allowed. Philadelphia leads the league in takeaways and has allowed the sixth-fewest explosive plays based on its formula (rushes for 10-plus yards and passes of 16-plus yards).
The run defense and third-down defense were a problem against Washington in the loss, and there’s little rationalizing that performance. The team apparently thought it was at least partly personnel related (even if it won’t say it) because it quickly signed Linval Joseph and Ndamukong Suh. Joseph gave the Eagles a space-eating nose tackle, and the difference was apparent against the Colts.
The question that will hang over the Eagles is what happens when they face a quarterback who will take easy completions and move the chains without issue, like those who navigated through Gannon’s defense last season? Kirk Cousins and Kyler Murray weren’t able to do it this season, but Philadelphia hasn’t faced as many top quarterbacks. It’ll see Aaron Rodgers on Sunday. Even if Rodgers’ production is down in 2022, Gannon’s coached against Rodgers enough that he’ll likely have No. 12 on his mind at the Thanksgiving table. Christmas Eve against Dallas (assuming Dak Prescott is healthy) will be another critical test.
With the way the Eagles are built, they need to get the opponent into known passing situations by forcing third-and-longs and also playing with leads. Then they could trust their top cornerbacks in coverage and send their high-paid pass rushers after the quarterback. The Eagles finished No. 31 in the NFL in sacks last year; they’re No. 3 this season. Haason Reddick and Javon Hargrave lead Philadelphia with 7.5 sacks and seven sacks, respectively, becoming the first Eagles teammates to top seven sacks through 10 games since Reggie White and Clyde Simmons in 1991.
Gannon’s defense seldom wins style points with a segment of the fan base that appreciated attack-style systems used by Buddy Ryan or Jim Johnson. The proliferation of shell coverages with an emphasis on preventing explosive plays does not often overlap with blitz-happy defenses of the past, and Gannon would rather allow a long drive when playing with a lead than a 50-yard pass over the defense’s head. (Of course, he’d prefer neither.) A passive defense is understandably aggravating to the fan base when Philadelphia isn’t getting off the field, and Gannon’s Year 2 priorities were forcing more turnovers and affecting the quarterback better.
At least this season, the Eagles can point to the results. They have 33 sacks, 21 takeaways and are allowing fewer than 20 points per contest through 10 games for the third time in franchise history.
The leaders of the last two defenses to reach that mark? Johnson in 2001 and Ryan in 1989. Even Gannon’s biggest critics would acknowledge that’s good company.
Sirianni realizes Gannon might not remain in Philadelphia for long, except it’s not for the reason proposed in last week’s poll question.
“I just have so much faith in him,” Sirianni said. “I have so much faith in his staff. I have so much faith in the players; they play for him. I just think he’s a special coach. I’d love for him to be here the entire time I’m the head coach here, but I know that’s probably not reality.”
Jalen Hurts meets Aaron Rodgers again
Jalen Hurts will start against the Packers on Sunday night nearly two years shy of the December 2020 game when he replaced Carson Wentz in Green Bay.
After that game, Hurts and Rodgers spent a few moments together on the field. Hurts, who has publicly shared his respect for Rodgers, told the Packers quarterback he was trying his best to mimic him on the scout team that week. Rodgers asked Hurts if he nailed the cadence. Hurts told him not yet, but he’s working on it.
Two years later, how would Hurts do with the cadence?
“It’s always a work in progress,” Hurts said with a smile Wednesday. “Definitely got more comfortable with doing that. He’s one of the best at it. He has a whole bunch of years on me in it.”
The two years since that interaction have shown how much Hurts has grown. He helped lead the Eagles to the playoffs last season and has turned into a bona fide MVP candidate this season — the same award Rodgers won each of the past two years. It won’t be long before young quarterbacks are as eager for a moment with Hurts after a game as he was with Rodgers in 2020.
“I try to be as organic as possible, be who I am,” Hurts said. “Aaron Rodgers has been one of the most consistent quarterbacks throughout his time. I have a lot of respect for him.”
Hurts emphasized that there are different ways to play quarterback, and he admires those who are efficient at the position. If Hurts continues on his 2022 trajectory, he’ll inch closer to the description that he used on Wednesday to describe future Hall of Famers such as Rodgers and Tom Brady.
“They’re greats for a reason,” Hurts said.
Sirianni explains the timeout
After Sunday’s game, Sirianni did not reveal why the Eagles called a timeout late in the fourth quarter after trying to draw the Colts offside on a fourth down before the two-minute warning. He cited a strategy that he did not want to divulge to opponents.
One day later, Sirianni was willing to offer more insight on a decision that seemed like a head-scratcher.
“I thought it was better in that scenario to have two opportunities to get the fourth-and-2 done as opposed to just one,” he said. “What do I mean by that? Try to draw them offside on fourth-and-2. … Try No. 1, we didn’t get that. But then we have another try to get it. It’s hard to get inside the 10. … To save the timeout, get the ball back at the 50 — potentially, maybe, right? You got to stop them to get the ball back at the 50, and then go and try to get back inside the 10 again.
“In my opinion right there, again, it was better for us to have two opportunities at fourth-and-2 inside the 10 — I believe we were on the 9 at the time — than to only have one. We needed it on our second one. We didn’t get them to draw offside and then we got it on the second one because of a great play by our offensive line and a great play by Jalen Hurts.”
Essentially, Sirianni believed that the reward of potentially drawing the Colts offside and getting a fresh set of downs was worth the timeout, outweighing the risk of using the timeout, missing the fourth down and not being able to get the ball back until there were a few seconds remaining in the game — if any at all.
It seems the key variable was field position; Sirianni was bearish on the idea of getting the ball at or past midfield and having to score a touchdown with no timeouts. The Eagles were already inside the 10-yard line and he wanted to maximize their chances at the first down.
Agree or disagree — and for full disclosure, I would have saved the timeout — it was a sensible explanation.
A pivotal meeting for the Eagles
Want to get Sirianni excited? Discuss the “low red zone” meetings — the area between the goal line and the 10-yard line.
Philadelphia’s game-winning touchdown came in this area Sunday, and the Eagles are No. 3 in the NFL with 21 touchdowns in the low red zone. They’ve settled for field goals only four times.
“My favorite meeting personally of the week is the low red zone,” Sirianni said. “It’s a long meeting. It’s a grind where you’re thinking about plays that … you probably get about five to seven of them, and that’s a lot, right? But it’s the grimiest, longest meeting that we have of the week, and I always look forward to that so much. There are just so many things that can happen, and we know when you get down there … hey, these are four-point plays, right?”
The four points are the difference between a touchdown and a field goal. The Eagles often view this as four-down territory — their four touchdowns on fourth down in the low red zone lead the NFL — so the range of plays is important. Because the field shrinks, the Eagles call the game differently when close to the goal line. They run on 69.5 percent of their plays in the low red zone, which is the second most in the NFL. But they dress up the runs differently. On the Eagles’ game winner against the Colts, they ran a draw out of a formation that wasn’t seen on film.
JALEN HURTS. @Eagles take their first lead of the game!
?: #PHIvsIND on CBS
?: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/CMzpA9q8ut pic.twitter.com/ksMCO7FIKQ
— NFL (@NFL) November 20, 2022
“The thought process there was, ‘Hey, hopefully they play their third-down coverages in that situation,’ which they did, which was awesome, and it was like, ‘Hey, if we can get this down even to the 2- or 3-yard line, it gives us a chance at fourth-and-goal from the 2 or 3,” offensive coordinator Shane Steichen said. “We did it out of the three-by-one set, which everyone saw. It was just a different way of doing it because we’ve been doing it from different sets, but just to give it a little different wrinkle from that look and it worked out well.”
These are the types of strategies that come out of those meetings, which occur on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Sirianni said assistants leave exhausted.
“That thing is a gantlet in there,” Steichen said. “We come up with our red zone package, but it is good. We go through every little detail to get it right, and there’s a lot of stuff because we know when we get down in there tight, teams might play us differently than most. … Those things go long, but we’ve got to make sure we get it right.”
Eagles in black
The Eagles will wear black helmets (along with black jerseys and black pants) for the first time Sunday, the beginning of new uniform combinations that will eventually lead to the reintroduction of kelly green in 2023.
“We come out in all black, it will be fun,” Hurts said. “It’s always nice to try something new, especially when you look good. …We can only wear it with black uniforms. I wouldn’t mind wearing the black helmet with all green. Baby steps.”
A June 2021 rule change allowed teams to wear more than one helmet per season. The Eagles had been resistant to using a kelly green alternate jersey with their midnight green helmet, which is why they didn’t wear the throwbacks while the single-helmet rule was in place. The new kelly green alternate uniform with a kelly green helmet required two years for Nike to create, so the Eagles had a gap year for alternates. That’s why they introduced black helmets for the first time to use with the black alternate jerseys that were already in place.
Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie wants the NFL to allow three alternate helmets in future years, which would give Philadelphia the chance to wear midnight green, kelly green and black.
“I just want all of our fans to know we’ve listened to you, we’ve wanted this from the beginning when we were able to,” Lurie said in March. “(The year) 2023 is when we’ll have the introduction of the classic Eagles green, the kelly green and this year black. That’s the way this is going to go.”
(Top photo of Jonathan Gannon: Andy Lewis / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)