The introduction to Jonathan Gannon's defense began months ago in a virtual world as Gannon, through the power of Microsoft Teams, introduced the framework of his defense to his players, carefully combing through the verbiage, breaking down the concepts, and enforcing the mentality that he expected every day.
On Sunday, his defense steps onto the field for the 2021 opener in Atlanta and it's real. It counts. The goal is to get to 1-0 and do anything it takes to beat the Falcons. And the truth is, Gannon has spent the week watching game film until his eyes bleed of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and he knows this, more than anything else – Ryan isn't going to be fooled much, if at all. Ryan has seen it all in his 14-year NFL career and Gannon knows that gimmicks won't win this game.
"Going against Matt Ryan, that's a big-time challenge because there's not a lot of looks that this guy hasn't seen," Gannon said on Thursday at his weekly press conference at the NovaCare Complex. "There's not a lot of coverage – there's not any coverage that this guy hasn't seen. And he's got a very fast process, so that's why he's a top-10 guy. And he has weapons.
"So we just have to do a really good job of (saying), 'Here's how,' – we talked to the guys today like, 'Here's what we're doing, this is how we are starting the game, and here are the adjustments coming down the road.'"
There are only so many ways to play defense, right? You beat your man off the snap of the ball and you've won half the battle. The Eagles think the strength of their defense comes at the line of scrimmage, something end Brandon Graham echoes.
"I feel like every week is an opportunity, especially up front because it starts with us," Graham said. "We've got to go out there and prove it. You know they're going to come out fast and try to wear us down. Just make sure that you do your job the best that you can and make sure that whatever gadgets or whatever they're doing, that you don't get tricked by them. Just go out there and play your game.
"We're the engine that runs this team – O-line and D-line – and how we play up front, that's how this team is going to go. You want to have a running game (on offense) and you want to be able to stop the run and if you're knocking them off the ball, you're going to average 3 to 5 (yards per carry) every time. If we're the ones knocking them back on defense, it's going to be a lot of TFLs (tackles for loss).
"It starts with us every time."
What can we expect on Sunday? It's hard to know, because Atlanta has its first-time Head Coach Arthur Smith, who has a run-heavy background from his time as offensive coordinator in Tennessee, marrying his football principles with the Falcons' personnel, which includes Ryan, some big-time receivers in Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage, and a highly touted rookie tight end in Kyle Pitts, the fourth overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. What is Atlanta's game plan going to be?
So much mystery. So much intrigue.
When the Eagles' defense takes the field, Gannon wants his players to be loose and play freely. He has challenged the players through the summer with a heavy mental load, gauging how much they can handle and how much responsibility he can put on their shoulders. Now the playbook has been tapered down to a game plan, and that game plan – with in-game adjustments so essential in a Week 1 "unknown" situation so very important – is expected to be executed.
"When I say, 'Put a lot on them mentally,' like, we're not doing anything in the game that we haven't done already (in practice)," Gannon said. "I think it's – and, actually, like, the menu from the day-to-day Training Camp, what they have to execute and what we call, is actually a lot smaller. The mental part of it is now, you're playing a new opponent. And so, this is really interesting because it's our guys are looking at Tennessee (Titans) from the last two or three years, they're looking at Matt Ryan, they are looking at Ridley, they are looking at Florida tape (where Pitts played his college football). You know what I mean?
"They're looking at different things. They're looking at Chicago (Bears) tape with (Falcons running back) Cordarrelle (Patterson). So it's, how are they going to blend all these guys' skill sets together? And we know Arthur (whom Gannon shared an office with eight seasons ago when the two were assistant coaches in Tennessee) and (Falcons Offensive Coordinator) Dave (Ragone) know really well how to do that. So, we're watching a bunch of different things and look forward to the challenge and preparing. It's been pretty fun."
The fun comes Sunday when all the time and effort put in to prepare for the regular season counts. It's game time, baby, and a new-look Eagles defense with Gannon's X's and O's combined with a roster upgraded in the offseason by some veteran additions – defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, linebacker Eric Wilson, cornerback Steven Nelson, and safety Anthony Harris among them – takes the field and shows us what it's all about. Finally, it's here.