Eagles Insider

Why Eagles' defense wouldn't work without smart players

Eagles Insider

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Sure, you have to be fast and you have to be big and you have to be tough.

More than anything, if you’re going to play in Jonathan Gannon’s defense, you have to be smart.

Because without guys who are smart enough to truly understand all the multiple coverages and disguises and adjustments you have to know, the whole thing just doesn’t work.

For example?

The Eagles were up 14-0 on the Giants in the conference semifinal playoff game late in the first quarter when James Bradberry picked off Daniel Jones on the way to a 38-7 Eagles win.

That play happened because of Bradberry's mastery of the defense.

“It didn’t matter the call,” Gannon marveled. “He understood that with this split with a jet motion coming to him in the gun with the back offset it’s spot or stick. That’s it. And I’m going to play spot or stick until they throw a bleeping go on me. So he’s squattin’ all over it, and, ‘I’m going to jump the bleep out of it.’

“So it’s not, ‘OK, this is how I fit in, this is my coverage responsibility,’ it’s just understanding (what the offense is doing) and making a play. It's thinking of that. And it’s cool to be around guys like that because it doesn’t handcuff you as a coordinator.”

That’s one play in a season of big plays by a defense that finished just 15 yards out of the No. 1 ranking in the league, recorded the third-most sacks in NFL history and has allowed just 14 points and 391 yards in two playoff games heading into the Super Bowl Sunday against the Chiefs.


What’s truly remarkable about the Eagles’ defense is how quickly it came together with so many new pieces – Haason Reddick and Kyzir White arrived in March, Jordan Davis and Reed Blankenship in the draft in April, James Bradberry in May, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson in August. Marcus Epps is a first-time starter, Brandon Graham only played one game last year.

The only opening-day starters this year who started the playoff game against Tampa last year are defensive tackles Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave, linebacker T.J. Edwards, cornerback Darius Slay and slot corner Avonte Maddox.

How did it all come together so quickly and so thoroughly with so many new pieces?

Because when you have smart guys, everything is easier.

“There are certain positions where they have to be intelligent,” Gannon said. “They have to. 

"Like the stuff we ask Marcus Epps to do? Fifty percent of the starting safeties couldn’t do it. They just can’t. Are they better players? Maybe. Are they more talented? Yeah, maybe. But that position for us is a thinking position, so that has to be right or he won’t be a good player in what we ask him to do.

“And you can say, ‘Well, you have to coach the guys you have,’ and that’s true, but for how I want to play, how we want to play, there are certain positions where it’s critical for those guys to be smart, and we have that.”

This is where synergy between the coaching staff and the general manager is crucial. And that's something the Eagles haven’t always had.

You can’t have a GM giving huge contracts to a bunch of big-name guys who don’t have the mental capacity to grasp Gannon's concepts or don’t have the football character to learn them.

“Howie’s done a great job bringing in smart guys,” Gannon said. “We brought in Kyzir, the guy’s intelligent … But there’s other guys who can’t even conceptualize why I have to be inside out because of this formation and this route. He understands that. Nakobe (Dean) understands that. T.J. (Edwards) is unreal and understands everything. 

“And then the back end. The corners don’t have to be as smart as the safeties and the nickel, but we have two smart corners. There are great corners out there who probably couldn’t live in this system. Now, you have to maneuver around to fit your guys, but Slay and Bradberry, they can tell you everything that’s bleeping going on. Everything. 

"That’s huge and not just because of the volume of coverages that we play but the adjustments that you make, and that’s how Slay and Bradberry make a bunch of plays.”


Gannon’s defense will face its toughest challenge by far Sunday when the Eagles take on Andy Reid’s Chiefs in Super Bowl LVII at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.

Gannon said when all the new pieces arrived, he prioritized what they needed to learn first and made sure they mastered those fundamental concepts before moving forward.

“I would tell Denard (Wilson, secondary coach), ‘Hey, Chauncey, he has to know this, Denard. I don’t care about this, this and this, but he can’t get this wrong. If we’re in this coverage you have to play this right.

“That’s like 101. Then there’s 221, then there’s 301, then there’s pre-med, then there’s calculus. So make sure we get that right with him, don’t have him jump in with everything we have on Day 1.

“It’s all our guys. (Linebackers coach) Nick Rallis with Kyzir. I don’t want Kyzir to be worried about this, have him get the nuts and bolts of it, and then when you get that done, you can start feeding him more and more and more.

“Really, the process Nick has in place to get the players better, you could talk about that for three days. It’s nauseating. But it works.”

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