Forget what you thought you knew about the Eagles defense in 2021

College football national championship eagles
INDIANAPOLIS, IN – JANUARY 10: Georgia Bulldogs ILB Nakobe Dean (17) lines up on defense during the Alabama Crimson Tide versus the Georgia Bulldogs in the College Football Playoff National Championship, on January 10, 2022, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, IN. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire)

The Philadelphia Eagles finished 10th in the NFL in total defense in 2021. They let up an average of 13 points per game against teams who finished with losing records and 33.2 points against teams who finished with winning records.

The defense capably handled offenses led by bottom-of-the-barrel starting quarterbacks like Sam Darnold and Daniel Jones and feasted on overmatched reserves like Jake Fromm and Mike Glennon. However, they struggled against top NFL passing attacks led by accomplished quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Dak Prescott, and Patrick Mahomes.

Were the weaknesses more about first-year defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon’s seemingly passive defensive scheme or more about the personnel executing it? The Eagles had proven NFL veterans like Darius Slay, Fletcher Cox, and Javon Hargrave to work with on defense. However, they didn’t have the strongest pass-rushing depth or the most capable playmaking linebackers. They weren’t a top-tier unit by any reliable measure.

Gannon Problem or Personnel Problem?

Pro Football Hall of Famer Brian Dawkins spoke as a guest on the John Kincade Show about the Eagles defense entering the 2022 season in their second year under Gannon.

He was asked about the way NFL defenses can develop an identity and whether an identity comes more from a defensive scheme or from personnel. Dawkins responded by talking about the combination of both factors that played into the unit’s success during his career under long-time defensive coordinator Jim Johnson.  

“The mindset was set ahead of time about how he (Johnson) wanted the defense to be run. So we took that and we ran with it, but we already were physical anyway. So we meshed, but you have to draft individuals that you feel fit the mindset of how you want the defense to be ran. Again, we’ll see this year what type of mindset this defense has.”

-Brian Dawkins

The defense went through somewhat of an awkward transition from former coordinator Jim Schwartz to Gannon in 2021. The Eagles spent more money on defensive linemen than any other NFL team, but they finished 31st in sacks ahead of only the Atlanta Falcons. Part of the reason for the lack of production was because veteran players like Cox didn’t adjust quickly to unfamiliar responsibilities.

Roseman Making Upgrades

General Manager Howie Roseman prioritized upgrades on defense this offseason by signing Haason Reddick, Kyzir White, and James Bradberry in free agency and adding Jordan Davis and Nakobe Dean through the draft. The five newcomers will look to help the defense build the type of collective mindset that Dawkins was talking about.

Reddick is one of only five NFL players with 10 or more sacks in each of the past two seasons. The city of Philadelphia already saw his value during his time at Temple University, where he partook in one of the most underrated traditions in college sports by wearing a single-digit number reserved for the players who best represent the university with pride and toughness.

White was one of the most valuable defensive players for the Los Angeles Chargers in 2021. His starting experience will allow him to transition into a full-time role immediately. Bradberry brings a legitimate NFL pedigree as an indisputable upgrade over the previous candidates to start at cornerback on the opposite side as Slay.

Davis and Dean became core contributors at the University of Georgia for a ferocious defense that led them to a National Championship last year. Roseman told Dean on draft night to “bring that championship mentality” to Philadelphia to win another ring. The pair of former Bulldog defenders will join a defense that already has leaders with a championship pedigree. Both Cox and Brandon Graham factored heavily into the victory in Super Bowl LII after the 2017 season.

Davis will likely play a rotational role behind Cox and Hargrave in 2022. He will need to make progress in his conditioning to earn a more impactful long-term role. According to John Kincade, people who spent time with Davis at Georgia believe changes in diet and professional discipline will help a young man who has shown a strong work ethic in the past.

Dean will be hungry to prove his worth as a rookie after unexpectedly slipping to the third round of the NFL Draft in April. He has arguably the best skill set of any linebacker on the Eagles roster.

New Identity for Eagles Defense

The need to force more turnovers was a point that Dawkins heavily emphasized in his analysis of the 2021 defense. The Eagles finished tied for 26th in the NFL with just 16 takeaways last season. The buzz during training camp last August about ball disruption and stripping opposing ball carriers faded quickly once the season began, but the new additions just might be able to help build the type of identity that the defense lacked in 2021.

White had two interceptions and two forced fumbles for the Chargers last season, and Dean finished with an identical stat line in 15 games at the NCAA level last season. Reddick finished second in the NFL with six forced fumbles in 2020.

Slay led the Eagles with three interceptions last season. His biggest contributions came when he scored three defensive touchdowns in four games from Weeks 8-11 when the team finally began to show some swagger after a 2-5 start. His new counterpart Bradberry finished with a career-high four interceptions in 2021.

The addition of five starting-caliber defenders could help form a new identity of a unit that can turn momentum with game-breaking plays like the ones Slay made in 2021. With better personnel now in place, Gannon will look to instill a better-defined mindset for a defense due for improvement in 2022.

Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire