If Nick Sirianni can change things up, why can’t Jonathan Gannon?

PHILADELPHIA, PA – DECEMBER 13: Philadelphia Eagles Defensive Tackle Fletcher Cox (91) heads to the locker room before the game between the New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles on December 13, 2020 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, PA. (Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire)

The Eagles defense is drawing plenty of criticism this season and rightfully so. Rookie defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon has continually struggled to find ways to negate his units struggles, but what’s more concerning is the fact that the reasoning for the defensive fall from grace is something that everyone else can see.

What’s really going on?

It doesn’t take a genius to work out and unfortunately, the crux of the issue was exactly the same under Jim Schwartz. If you’re going to play cornerbacks 10 yards off the ball, then opposing QB’s are just going to take the appealing cushion every single time and let their receivers eat up the open space with out-routes and curls. What’s different this time around is the way the middle of the field is covered.

Gannon draws plenty of inspiration from Mike Zimmer. Predominantly playing a cover-2 look, his cornerbacks are often protected as there’s help on the way, which is why the spotlight is no longer on the boundary despite there being flurries of passes being peppered to the outside each and every week. It’s rare that those deep shots are given up because there’s always help deep down the middle of the field.

Where the Eagles compensate for that is the shallower level. The linebackers are often being deployed near the line of scrimmage and asked to fly back in coverage, disguising as a potential blitzer. This is fine in theory, if you have the talent to diligently dissect what’s going on and players who won’t be drawn by a quarterbacks’ eyes. Unfortunately, this is a very young group and discipline is something that’s alluding them for the most part. Their growth is gradual and while players like Alex Singleton shine when penetrating and playing the run, playing zonal assignments is proving to be difficult and has all season.

Having a linebacker group struggle in zone coverage is one thing. But tossing them, and edge rushers into coverage with the nearest support from a safety sat 20 yards down the field helping cornerbacks is just asking for trouble.

Quarterbacks are getting the ball out fast and there is nothing that the defense can do to stop it.

What should happen next?

For weeks, Nick Sirianni has taken responsibility for the terrible defensive performances that Eagles fans have been subjected to. Interestingly, he went one step further this week by clearly showing knowledge of what’s going wrong and why.

To get the quarterback to hold it in this quick game, when it really comes down to that quick game and two seconds out before the ball – with him having the ball and getting out in two seconds, it’s the disruption from the secondary. 

It’s hard, because if they’re getting it out in two seconds, the pass rush isn’t going to get there, right? So, it’s the disruption in the secondary, whether it’s cover two with some reroutes, whether it’s a different type of zone with reroutes, or the press man to man out there that deters that thing from getting out that quick. 

If Sirianni knows what’s going wrong, and the rest of the football world can see it, then why can’t Jonathan Gannon? If he can and there’s still no adjustments, then Sirianni has to do more than take accountability for his defensive coordinator’s shortcomings, and work with him to rectify them.

The pass-rush won’t get home if the ball is out within 2 seconds. The linebackers can’t cover the middle of the field because they’re not suited to this scheme and are not being given the help they need to change that. Gannon has shown that he can change things up, but he does it so infrequently that its not really worth mentioning.

Nick Sirianni is beginning to find his identity as a Head Coach. His offense has started to really pick up traction in recent weeks and has shown real elements of adaptation and growth. On the other side of the ball, we’ve seen nothing but players throwing indirect shade at their coordinator, clearly displeased with what they’re being asked to do.

Whether the pressure comes from Sirianni himself or those above him, something has to change. There is no way that the teams’ Head Coach can pinpoint what’s wrong with the defensive scheme and yet nothing be done about it. Not if this team has any chance of continuing to grow.

Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire