PHILADELPHIA — Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon walked to the podium Tuesday afternoon, looked out at the media eagerly waiting to ask about the state of the Eagles’ deplorable defense, and said, “Hit me.”
He meant with questions.
Those came rapidly after yet another game in which the Eagles’ defense was dissected in their 33-22 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders, mostly by quarterback Derek Carr, who completed 31 of 34 passes for 323 yards and two touchdowns.
And it came after defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, coming off six straight Pro Bowl seasons, openly criticized Gannon’s scheme. Even head coach Nick Sirianni was critical of Gannon after the game.
That doesn’t even begin to address the outrage from the fans.
So Gannon tried. He said he has the players to work his read-and-react system, which he said ultimately plays to their strengths.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Anybody that we need to play winning football is in that building right there. I’m 100% confident in that.”
The evidence isn’t there.
Carr isn’t the only quarterback to rip apart the Eagles’ defense. Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady and Dallas’ Dak Prescott have all completed more than 80% of their passes against the Eagles.
Granted, they are among the best in the NFL. But overall, the Eagles have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 74.4% of their passes, the highest percentage by far in the NFL. That is the same percentage as Drew Brees’ NFL record for an entire season.
So it hardly surprised Gannon when Sirianni said after the game that the defense has to “challenge more.” In fact, Gannon said he was the one who suggested it.
“We came out of the game, and I said, ‘The ball didn’t hit the ground,’” Gannon said, referring to the lack of incompletions from Carr. “That’s within, ‘Hey, this is our Rolodex of coverages, how we want to play, what we need to get done.’
“I need to change some coverages up and challenge a little bit more, get a little bit tighter, get closer to people, close windows ... That needs to get corrected because it’s hard to play winning football when the ball doesn’t hit the ground.”
As if that was the only problem.
The Eagles’ run defense has also been atrocious this season. The Raiders came into the game averaging 79.8 yards per carry, ranked 30th. They ran for 119 yards. In all, the Eagles are 29th in rushing defense, allowing 133 yards per game.
The Eagles’ pass defense is ranked 11th, allowing just 227.7 yards per game. In fact, the Eagles have allowed only 16 pass plays of 20 yards or more. That’s the fifth fewest in the NFL. They have allowed only four pass plays of 40 yards or more.
Gannon has said that he prefers teams to go on longer drives because that increases the chances for turnovers by the offense.
So the safeties are playing deep, thus leaving the middle of the field open for short and intermediate passes. Linebackers who are good in coverage can make an impact there. But the Eagles’ main duo of Eric Wilson and Alex Singleton has struggled in coverage. Davion Taylor, the Eagles’ third-round pick last season taken for his speed, is still learning the game.
The defensive linemen, meanwhile, aren’t getting as much pressure on the quarterback because they are reading and reacting rather than just attacking as they did under previous defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.
Defensive end Derek Barnett doesn’t have a sack this season. Ryan Kerrigan, who’s supposed to be a rotational defensive end, doesn’t even have a tackle.
That, in turn, gives quarterbacks enough time to find open receivers.
For Cox, that means that he has to hold up on double teams to defend against screen passes. That led to his comment after the game: “I don’t get paid to play screens. I get paid to sack the quarterback.”
Of course, Cox isn’t doing that, either. He has just one this season.
“When you’re so used to playing so aggressive the last however many years I’ve been playing, it’s just changed, so you can’t be as aggressive,” Cox said.
Still, Gannon’s counter is that the defensive line and linebackers need to shorten those underneath plays. That would force third-and-long situations, an obvious passing down where players like Cox can attack.
But those situations are few and far between.
On the Raiders’ second and third drives, spanning the end of the first quarter and most of the second quarter, the Raiders had two drives that consisted of 19 total plays. None of those plays came on third down. Needless to say, the Raiders scored touchdowns on both drives to take a 14-7 lead.
That led to Sirianni’s comments after the game that 1) the Eagles couldn’t get into a rhythm offensively because they had so few plays, and 2) he felt compelled to try an onsides kick to start the second half, saying it was in part because the defense wasn’t stopping the Raiders.
“It’s not good football by us,” Gannon said. “You’ve got to get a team to third down. To do that, we’ve got to change a little bit what we’re doing on first and second down.”
That, of course, goes back to scheme and personnel. Gannon sort of talked around whether the Eagles have the right match for that.
“We have to coach better, I know that,” he said. “(The record of) 2-5 says that immediately. Who does that fall on? Us. But with saying that, we have proven, our guys have proven, (that) we can be more consistent with it.”