Five things we learned about the Eagles defense in week one

PHILADELPHIA, PA – SEPTEMBER 27: Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (91) celebrates a sack during the game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Philadelphia Eagles on September 27, 2020 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, PA. (Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire)

The Eagles dominated the Falcons in every phase last Sunday, but I wanted to take a deeper look into Jonathan Gannon’s first game as a defensive coordinator. Here are my thoughts on the new Eagles defensive scheme.

3-4 vs. 4-3

Gannon has been clear that the Eagles will show offenses a lot of different looks and lineup in different base sets and he was true to his word on Sunday. The Eagles threw a variety of combinations at an inexperienced Falcons offensive line. While the Eagles mainly rushed with four defensive linemen throughout the game, there were a handful of plays where the eagles played with 5 across the line of scrimmage. I think this could be a lethal weapon for the defense if they are able to get a lead on their opponent, especially on 3rd downs.

The game started out shaky for the defense allowing two long drives into the red zone. Let’s credit the Falcons for coming out with an excellent script to start the game. They played up-tempo and did not allow for the Eagles to make substitutes which forced them to stay in 3-4 defense for the majority of both drives.

I love Jonathan Gannon’s principle of remaining versatile, but the strength of the team right now is the defensive line. Taking any of the defensive linemen off the field for a SAM linebacker just does not seem to suit the strengths of the front. I will be interested to see if he continues to run 3-4 concepts or if the defense settles into a base 4-3. The only way I can justify a 3-4 is if Josh Sweat or Derek Barnett are filling the SAM linebacker role.

2. Domination in the trenches

After re-watching the game, every Eagles defensive line made impact plays. Obviously, the Falcon’s offensive line is leaving a lot to be desired, but you cannot take away from the brilliance of their performance.

The Falcons opted to double-team Fletcher Cox for most of the game which left Javon Hargrave to eat up his 1-1 opportunities against rookie Jalen Mayfield. Opposing offensive lines will have to pick their poison upfront but I think double teams may start sliding to Hargrave soon.

Brandon Graham, Josh Sweat, and Derek Barnett all made big plays throughout the game. Notably, Barnett showed some excellent zone coverage skills in the red zone that forced the Falcons to kick a field goal on their opening drive. Brandon Graham stuffed the run and got pressure per usual. Josh Sweat displayed his elite athletic ability throughout the game, he showed a relentless motor on every down never giving up on a play.

I will stop gushing over the defensive line now!

3. Coverage scheme

The Eagles were in zone coverage for nearly every snap of the game. It was refreshing to see the birds keep everything in front of them and not allow any explosive plays in this game.

This is a totally new philosophical approach for the Eagles defense which fits into the mold of a Brandon Staley defense. This defense is designed to stop the pass first by playing a cover-2 shell. This consistently forces opposing offenses to have to make long sustained 12-14 play drives which is difficult to do. This is a modern NFL defense prepared to take on a pass-happy league. The run defense will not be as stout as it was during the Jim Schwartz era, but it doesn’t need to be.

On Sunday, I barely noticed Anthony Harris but on review he really shined. A quiet day where the broadcasters don’t mention your name is an excellent day for a safety.

Former Pittsburgh Steeler, Steven Nelson had a relatively quiet debut, but he made all the necessary plays in coverage and was never caught out of position. It’s hard for me to figure out why a contending team wasn’t willing to pay nelson more than the Eagles, but I am not complaining.

It wasn’t perfect especially on the opening drives, but the secondary really settled in and pitched an excellent performance. I cannot remember the last time I could say that about a Philly defense but it feels good. I do not miss watching Jalen Mills & Co. consistently being confused on where to be in zone coverage.

4. Will the real SAM linebacker please stand up?

Linebacker is the biggest weakness on Eagle’s defense. While run support was lacking early in the game, Eric Wilson and Shaun Bradley seemed to settle into a good rhythm. Alex Singleton displayed good awareness in zone coverage throughout the game. Overall, it was a better performance than I expected but Falcon’s offense did not do a good job of trying to exploit the linebackers.

Gannon flirted with running a 3-4 defense throughout the game as discussed earlier in this article, but the birds do not have the personnel to pull this off. If 3-4 is going to be a staple of the defense, they needed to make getting a quality SAM linebacker a bigger priority during this past offseason.

The position group is young and largely inexperienced, but they kept everything in front of them and did not make any crucial mistakes. This week will be a huge challenge for this group as 49ers will likely try to take advantage of these linebackers. It will be interesting to see if they can rise to the occasion.

5. Quick takeaways  

Every snap for Genard Avery is a waste of a snap. He is not good.

Ryan Kerrigan had a few nice rushes during the game. The old man still has something in the tank.

Defensive line depth is amazing. Hassan Ridgeway and Milton Williams flashed during the game.

Avonte Maddox didn’t have his best game, but he made a few nice plays defending Kyle Pitts which was impressive. Maddox is finally home in his natural role as a slot corner.

The depth at safety is paper-thin and it is concerning me.

I hope Kyle Shanahan doesn’t make me regret all the nice things I just wrote about the Eagle’s defense.

Final Thoughts

Honestly, watching the film of the bird’s new-look defense was a breath of fresh air. I am almost afraid to say it, but this defense looked well-coached and disciplined. The defense played together, and each position group filled their role to near perfection. It wasn’t complicated or exotic, but it was lethal.

Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire