Hustle. Intensity. Takeaways. Smart.
Jonathan Gannon calls it the "HITS Principle" and says this Eagles defense will use those core values to "hold our hat on" as the team moves into a new era on that side of the football. No matter who is on the field in a defense that is changing by the day, it seems, the "HITS Principle" is what Gannon is preaching to his players.
As we all wonder just how the X's and O's will look for Gannon's defense, his message has been in the "how," not the "what."
"The main thing for us is it's not what we play, it's how we play it," Gannon said on Thursday in his first press conference since being named the team's defensive coordinator after serving as the Colts' defensive backs/cornerbacks coach from 2018-20. "If you ask our players that, they know that from the jump as far as, 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.
"It's not what you do, it's how you do it."
Gannon will introduce his own personality and his own wrinkles to a defense that has added veteran pieces in free agency – safety Anthony Harris, linebacker Eric Wilson, pass rusher Ryan Kerrigan – that hopefully will make a difference, but his point is that the schemes in the NFL aren't all that very different, that coordinators predicate their concepts based on the personnel the team employs. With the Eagles in Phase Two of the modified offseason program, Gannon and his defensive coaching staff are still learning who the players are and what they are capable of doing, a process likely to continue into the meaty part of Training Camp and the preseason schedule when the pads are on and the players' skill truly show.
Influenced by the teachings of some great veteran coaches like Emmitt Thomas (Atlanta), Jerry Gray (Tennessee), Mike Zimmer (Minnesota), and Matt Eberflus (Indianapolis), Gannon believes there is no "one size fits all" approach to coaching players.
"We're not going to box ourselves into one scheme," Gannon said.
What do the Eagles have on defense in terms of personnel? And how does that mesh with the principles of Gannon's scheme, one that intends to be multiple with its blitz and coverage scheme? This is so early in the building portion of the defense, but Gannon's obvious enthusiasm and love for teaching have created a trusting relationship with his players. They're all in it together, racing toward September and the start of the regular season figuring each other out along the way.
"It just goes back to they have to understand where they fit within the call, and from there, we give them a little flexibility to move around pre-snap," Gannon said. "Now, when we first line up and play, we won't do that, but as we get going, I see it going that way because I truly do think that it's hard for the offense and it's good for our guys because it gives them – it allows them to use some of their tools in their tool belt.
"I could tell you right now, just from being in meetings with these guys, like I've been extremely pleased with the mindset of our guys. All of them were here this whole week, so we had the attendance or whatever – I'm not counting numbers, but they're all there when they don't have to be, which is awesome. It speaks to the character of the team and the defense. I told them today that I was thankful for them being here because the best part about our jobs is the players. It was really cool this week, and I'm looking forward to the next two weeks of what we can get done before we get back here at the end of July."
Having added some key veterans helps, too. Kerrigan, signed this week, brings onboard a 10-year NFL standout who has what Gannon wants on the field and also offers everything the Eagles want in the locker room and off the field.
"I wanted to get Ryan here a lot. The number one reason is the person that he is. We have a very good, strong locker room of really good character guys, I feel. The pieces that we added, him being one of those pieces, is the first thing Nick and I talked about with Howie is, we want to bring really high-character guys in here, whoever that might be – draft picks, coaches, free agents. That was appealing to us about Ryan because of the type of person he is," Gannon said. "Super excited about the versatility that he brings and the production that he brings. He's got (95.5) sacks in his career. He's a hard guy to block. He's extremely intelligent and so I'm looking forward to getting our hands on him and working with him."
Harris brings a wealth of knowledge and an understanding of the defense to the secondary and Wilson blossomed last season in Zimmer's scheme in Minnesota. Both are critical pieces in Gannon's defensive puzzle.
"They've both very intelligent, so that was appealing to me when those guys became available to add those guys to the groups that we had," Gannon said. "Eric can play all three spots, but for us, we're going to start him at MIKE and WILL and see where it goes. We think he's a good complement to the people that we have already on the roster."
In the very basic form, the defense starts at the line of scrimmage and extends three levels. Gannon thinks a lot, a whole lot, of the ability the defensive front has to wreak havoc this season. If the Eagles win up front, everyone benefits.
"Our defensive line is very strong, in my opinion. We're going to let those guys be free and play," he said. "It's typically a strength that you have over any offense that you go up against is the defensive line versus the offensive line and I told those guys in the meetings that there are going to be times when you're going to have to take some stress on to take some stress off of the back end.
"I would say the first trait that we look for on the back end is smart. We want guys to be able to think. Obviously, with the outside guys, coverability. … There's a lot of different ways to play corner, a lot. Within the same scheme, there's a lot of different ways for guys to function out there and play winning football. So that goes into figuring out what our guys can do and then how can we help them and play a certain way. I'm very comfortable with that room right now. (Defensive Backs Coach) Dennard Wilson, (Assistant Defensive Backs Coach) D.K. McDonald, they're doing an excellent job. They're two really good DB coaches. I've learned a ton from those guys in the last few months. It's been awesome. So very comfortable with that room. Excited to see them get out there and compete. I think (cornerback Darius) Slay can go to another level. I think everybody in that room can elevate their game and play winning football for us."
In this period of discovery, Gannon brings all the energy and the enthusiasm and the open-minded approach that the players embrace. We don't yet know the specifics of the scheme – that is going to take weeks, if not longer, to learn – but we know that Gannon has a "HITS Principle" that forms the foundation of his defense. It starts there. Where it goes, and just what the Eagles do to get there, that's going to be part of the fun watching and seeing how it all comes together on the defensive side of the football in 2021.