Back in the Billy Davis days, the Eagles strategically placed big orange tackling dummies holding footballs around the NovaCare Complex. Whenever a defensive player walked past one, they were supposed to punch at the football. A constant reminder of the importance of takeaways.
It was silly.
We bring up this story to point out that defensive coaches emphasizing takeaways is nothing new. Every defensive coordinator in the NFL will tell you that it’s important to take the ball away from the offense.
But not all of them will tell you this:
“There's a lot of times we don't want that guy, the first guy in, to make the tackle,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon said recently. “We want him to punch the ball. What goes into takeaways for me is the more opportunity you have for takeaways, it comes down to the guys being in the right position.
“And all 11 being in the right position because there's different things that come alive where we have population to the ball, everyone's taking the right angles. We have more than one guy hitting the ball carrier and that's when you see those plays start to happen.”
Of course, this staff under Nick Sirianni has placed a renewed emphasis on fundamentals since its arrival. It just means the fundamentals might sound slightly different in this case.
Right or wrong, this teaching point goes against basic football groupthink: Secure the tackle and then go for the football.
It’s not like Gannon is discouraging the first player to tackle all the time, but he was simply admitting that there are certain cases when he wants that first guy to go for the strip.
If you’re looking for an example, Gannon gave one. In the fourth quarter of the Eagles’ second preseason game, defensive tackle Raequan Williams chased down a ballcarrier from behind and in one tackle/punch motion, popped the ball free.
“He plays his block and the ball creases through, and he runs to the ball, which is what we want, and then the ball carrier doesn't see him and he was ball aware and violent,” Gannon said.
“So what we talk about is once you get there, if you either are the first guy in making the tackle or the second or third or fourth guy hitting a guy, you have to know where the ball is, and you have to be violent with how you try to take it out and that's what you saw with Raequan.
“He came up from behind him and punched the ball and it came right out, and the guy never saw him. So that was a good example for our guys to see that as, ‘Hey, we've got to be ball aware and violent. Has to be on our mind. If you're going to take the ball away, it's got to be on everybody's mind constantly all the time.’ And that's why we practice the way we practice.”
If the Eagles were able to force more turnovers in 2021, it would certainly help.
Over the last three seasons, the Eagles have just 56 total takeaways, good for 25th in the NFL during that span.
If you look closer at the numbers, fumble recoveries haven’t been as big of a problem as interceptions. In those three years, the Eagles have just 29 interceptions, which ranks 28th in the league. Last year, the Eagles recovered 11 fumbles; just three teams had more.
But in that three-year span, the Eagles have a turnover margin of -19. It’s hard to be a good team with a disparity like that so any little bit will help.
“At the end of the day, a turnover is a turnover,” said Darius Slay. “My mindset is, shoot, I’m trying to get the ball and tackle. I’m trying to do both of them at the same time. … If I’m the first one there, I’m trying to strip and tackle. We practice that. I don’t he means not tackling a guy. Our goal is we practice how to tackle and strip at the same time.”
Conventional wisdom says there has to be a fine line. Of course teams should try to force turnovers but sometimes becoming too obsessed with it can ruin fundamentals and create negative plays. It’s just about finding a balance.
But Gannon cares about it, seemingly more than most. It’s even part of his HITS principles, which stands for Hustle, Intensity, Takeaways, Smart.
It’s clear Gannon views takeaways as another opportunity for a big play and he wants his guys to be day to take advantage.
“We have very distinct language with how we force fumbles, how we scoop and score, how we block interception returns,” Gannon said. “It just puts a very clear picture of what the standard is, what the expectation is, of how we conduct our business.”
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