It’s called the HITS principle, and it’s going to be the foundation of Jonathan Gannon’s defense.
It’s one of those clever names coaches like to put on things. Gannon got it from his defensive boss in Indianapolis, Matt Eberflus, who got it from somebody he had worked for, who got it from somebody else, who got it from Amos Alonzo Stagg or Curly Lambeau or Papa Bear Halas.
Hustle. Intensity. Takeaways. (Play) Smart. There’s nothing there that every defensive coach in America doesn’t preach to his players. But it’s easier to get the message across when you package it in a nifty four-letter acronym.
“The main thing for us is not what we play, it’s how we play,” Gannon said two weeks ago. “We’re going to run to the ball. We’re going to outhit people. We’re going to take it away, and we’re going to be smart. That’s what we’re going to hang our hat on.”
The Eagles need to get better — much better — at the third part of the HITS principle — takeaways. The 38-year-old Gannon inherited a defense that hasn’t finished higher than 21st in takeaways since 2017.
They finished 23rd last year with just 19, including eight interceptions, which equaled the fewest in franchise history. As in 87 years.
The Eagles had the fourth-worst turnover differential (minus-10) in the league in 2020 and won just four turnover battles. They haven’t had a plus turnover differential since 2017.
They were 3-1 in games in which they won the turnover battle last year and 1-10-1 in ones they didn’t. So, you can see why increasing their takeaway total is so high on Gannon’s priority list.
“I’m excited for everything we’re going to be doing,” linebacker Alex Singleton said. “The principles of our defense are playing fast, being around the ball, getting to the ball, causing turnovers.”
Gannon and his defensive coaches have stressed the importance of takeaways during every player meeting and workout this spring, teaching takeaway fundamentals, including techniques for stripping the ball.
“A lot of teams talk about it,” Singleton said. “Everybody knows that if you win the turnover battle you’re going to have a good chance of winning (the game).
“But this staff, every day we’ve talked about a turnover fundamental. It’s something we’ve harped on. It’s something we’ve practiced. It’s something we’re going to do a ton of on a weekly basis.
“By the time (training) camp rolls around and you (media) guys are out there watching us, you’re going to be like, do they only work on turnovers and tackling? It’s something we’re going to pride ourselves on. Getting to the ball, making tackles, making team-defensive tackles and getting the ball out.”
Gannon knows of what he speaks. He spent the last three seasons as the Colts’ cornerbacks coach under Eberflus. Their defense finished in the top 10 in takeaways each of the last three years, including fifth last season with 25. Their 15 interceptions were the seventh-most in the league.
Takeaways impact field position, which impacts scoring. Getting little help from their defense, the Eagles’ average offensive drive start last season was their 26.6-yard line. That was the fifth-worst in the league. They finished 26th in scoring, averaging just 20.9 points per game.
During their Super Bowl championship season in 2017, the Eagles finished fourth in takeaways with 31. Their average offensive drive start that year was the 29.6-yard line (fifth-best). They finished third in scoring, averaging 28.6 points per game.
“You’ve got to take a look at what wins games,” said safety Anthony Harris, who had an NFL-high six interceptions with the Vikings two years ago. “What category can you get better in? Which category can you improve in to get the ball back? How can you limit points and give your offense more possessions?
“Turnovers is one of them. You look at turnovers and explosive plays. Defensively, you want to limit the explosive plays. And then you want to try and turn the ball over as much as possible.
“That’s going to be a focus for us. Coaching guys up on what to look for in terms of (turnover) opportunities. Being in the right position to force a turnover.”
Cornerback Darius Slay understands the importance of takeaways. He had just one interception last year in his first season with the Eagles. But when he was with Detroit in 2017, he had an NFL-high eight as the Lions finished third in the league in takeaways.
Despite an offense that averaged just 3.4 yards per carry, allowed 47 sacks and finished 20th in scoring, the Lions still managed to win nine games that year, almost entirely on the back of Slay and their opportunistic defense.
After spending nearly two months around Gannon and the defensive coaches, Slay seems confident that the Eagles will be a much better takeaway team this season than they were last year.
“We’ve been preaching it,” he said. “In the offseason, that’s all we’ve been talking about — becoming a turnover machine. That’s our main goal. Our main goal is to win, but as a defense, we want the ball. And that’s what’s going to happen.”
“It’s something we’ve talked about since Day 1 as one of our goals,” linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “Each day, no matter what drill we’re doing, the emphasis is always on (getting) the ball.
“As a defense, we need to be able to get turnovers and flip the field and help the offense. You can definitely sense a heavy emphasis on taking the ball away any way we can.”