Eagles fans love defense, and it’s been that way since the days of Reggie, Seth, Clyde, Jerome, Wes, Andre, Eric and B&E. It will probably be that way forever.
Eagles fans like offense just fine, but they go freaking bonkers for defense, and the reality is with just a couple exceptions, this franchise recently hasn’t had a defense that anybody could go freaking bonkers for.
Let’s break it down:
From 1999 through 2008, Jim Johnson’s decade leading the defense, the Eagles ranked sixth in the NFL in points allowed.
Since 2009, they rank 21st.
That’s not just a coaching stat. More than anything, it’s a talent stat. And other than 2017, the Eagles haven’t had enough of it on the defensive side of the ball. That was the Eagles' only top-10 scoring defense in the last nine years.
Which brings us to today.
I’m under no illusions that this defense is stocked with ascending young superstars. It’s not. The best players on the Eagles’ 2021 defense are Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Darius Slay, Rodney McLeod, all in their 30s. I’d put 28-year-old Javon Hargrave in that category, too.
But two things stand out about this group.
There’s no real weak link. That guy who makes everybody cringe. That guy who you can't believe is getting snaps. Honestly, I don’t feel like typing their names. You know who I mean.
If they’re healthy, the Eagles have 11 guys ranging from solid to exceptional. Depth is an ongoing concern, but the 11 starters — 12 if you include nickel — are all decent at worst.
The Eagles have gotten better across the board. Milton Williams and Ryan Kerrigan up front. Eric Wilson at linebacker. Steve Nelson at corner. Anthony Harris at safety. Avonte Maddox at nickel. And remember, Alex Singleton wasn’t even getting regular snaps on defense until Week 6 last year.
But the big addition and I suspect the real star of this unit is Jonathan Gannon, the Eagles’ first-time defensive coordinator.
Now, Jim Schwartz got as much as he could out of what he had. His system made sense considering the Eagles’ strength up front, weakness at linebacker and constantly revolving group of practice-squad corners. And Schwartz was at his best in the postseason, allowing 17 points per game in six playoff games, even with the Patriots’ 33 in the Super Bowl.
All that said, Gannon seems like the perfect guy to lead this defense into a new era.
You never really know until you see it all come together on game day, but based on what we’ve watched and heard this summer, Gannon has a keen sense for matching scheme with talent, for understanding how to keep offenses off balance, for adjusting the game plan when it needs to be adjusted, for continually moving players around to keep offenses guessing, for teaching players how to think on their feet when they see the unexpected and for communicating his message quickly and clearly to his players.
Now, it’s a huge jump from theory to practice. Gannon has never been an NFL defensive coordinator on a regular-season NFL Sunday. Heck, he was an assistant position coach just four years ago.
And there are a lot of questions that need to be answered, starting Sunday in Atlanta.
Do the Eagles have enough true playmakers in the back seven to be an elite defense? Have all the newcomers developed the kind of chemistry they need with the returning guys after just a handful of preseason snaps? Will the older veteran nucleus stay healthy and continue to be effective? Can the youngsters Gannon is counting on play up to expectations?
A lot of questions. And there will be bad plays, bad games, bad losses.
But overall I like what I see. This is a defense headed in the right direction, and it’s hard not to believe in the guy running it.
And a couple days before the start of a new era of Eagles football, it just may be OK to go bonkers again over the defense.
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