There is a lot of excitement about what the Eagles' defense will look like this season – a defense that has been infused with some potential difference-making players. Some out there are guessing about the approach Defensive Coordinator Jonathan Gannon is going to take in Year 2, the fronts he's going to have schemed, and the way he plans to use some of the new faces on that side of the line of scrimmage. Last year, Gannon spoke often about how his philosophy centers around what his players do well and what is the best approach against that week's opponent. It will be very interesting to see how all of that takes shape over the course of the next few months.
"The more you can do with a defense and the pieces that we have, the better," defensive end Brandon Graham said recently. "I think it's exciting to see how it's all going to come together."
It's going to take some time, of course, as Gannon looks to integrate veteran free-agent additions at the linebacker position – Haason Reddick as a go-get-the-quarterback edge player and Kyzir White as an off-ball, sideline-to-sideline player – and top draft picks tackle Jordan Davis (first round) and linebacker Nakobe Dean (third round). Everything the Eagles are doing now is a "concept" in the classroom. The pads don't go on until Training Camp and even then, there are only three preseason games before the regular season begins on September 11 at Detroit.
So, it's a work in progress. And it could be that way for some time, maybe even into September as Gannon learns how much his players can handle from a mental and physical standpoint. Gannon spoke about interchangeable pieces last year and about moving players within the scheme and the defense cobbled together impressive numbers in some key statistical categories despite the loss of Graham (torn Achilles tendon) in Week 2, some movement at safety throughout the season, and the normal war of attrition that a 17-game season produces. To refresh your memory ...
1. The defense allowed 18-or-fewer points in 10 games, tying Buffalo and Denver for the most such games in the league. Not since the 2004 season (11 games) had the Eagles accomplished that feat.
2. Philadelphia allowed only 117 explosive plays (16-plus yards in the passing game, 10-plus yards on the ground), the fewest in the NFC and tied for fifth-fewest in the NFL.
3. With five touchdowns scored, the Eagles were tied for second in the NFL in that category and they ranked 10th in the NFL allowing just 328.8 yards per game.
It was a good building-block season for Gannon and for the Eagles, who addressed some very specific areas in the offseason. Adding Reddick, a double-digit sack producer who called himself a "weapon of mass destruction" on the field a few days ago, helps the pass rush. The Eagles want to find ways to give Reddick space to use his burst and unleash his relentless nature.
With respect to White and Dean, what can Gannon do to allow them to use their speed and find the football? The linebacker room has been re-made in this offseason, and that's not even taking into account the anticipated jump from third-year man Davion Taylor, who was on the right path in 2021 before his season ended early because of injury. Nor does it factor in the next-level step for T.J. Edwards, who has a second season in the defense to elevate his game.
With Davis on board, the Eagles have a space-eating tackle inside to work with Fletcher Cox, Javon Hargrave, and Milton Williams. How does Gannon and Defensive Line coach Tracy Rocker rotate that group up front? Can he move pieces to the edge in a "heavy" package? What kind of "jet" personnel grouping will the Eagles employ up front in pass-rushing situations?
If it sounds like a lot of questions for the Eagles' defense, yes, you are right. There are a lot of questions. But some of them are by design as the Eagles want to A) keep offenses guessing for as long as possible; B) Gannon needs to find out as much as he can about his players before the season begins; C) The Eagles know that this is a game-to-game deal, and that they're going to adjust to match strengths against an offense's weakness every week, so the more multiple the players can be, the most options Gannon can employ.
That's the good news here – Gannon has more pieces with which to work in his second season. He didn't blitz a lot in 2021 and instead challenged offenses to dink-and-dunk down the field to score points and the strategy, based on the entire body of a season and the statistical categories mentioned above, worked pretty darn well. Now the Eagles want to take it up another level – any way and using every player they can use.