Solving the Eagles ‘dilemma’ of whether or not to fire Jonathan Gannon

Jonathan Gannon, Philadelphia Eagles (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Jonathan Gannon, Philadelphia Eagles (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

Even with the Philadelphia Eagles signing Linval Joseph and Ndamukong Suh this week, fans – most of whom pray at shrines to Buddy Ryan by their bedside – are still hoping to hear the news of Defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon’s firing. Truthfully, it’s not going to happen, and if we’re being honest, fans should abandon their dreams of running a 1980s-style defense again anytime soon.

Defense is based on personnel, numbers, and technique. What follows is a discussion of all three, how Jonathan Gannon uses them to help his defense, how most of the rest of the league views defense, and what Philadelphia Eagles fans should expect going forward.

Defense is numbers, personnel, and technique


Oftentimes on TV you hear commentators mention a light box, seven-men boxes, etc. The box is the area on the defense between the outside shoulders of the end man of the line of scrimmage (EMLOS) and it extends five yards back from the line of scrimmage.

Typically, defenses put six, seven, or even eight defenders in the box. Having six defenders in the box is called a light box. The purpose of this defensive alignment, pre-snap, is to help the team’s pass defense as five defenders (often called a Nickel package) can focus on pass defense. Teams that have 33 fronts, 42 fronts, or 51 fronts have light boxes – the number of men on the line of scrimmage and the number of stacked defenders in the box must equal six.

A seven-man box, a traditional alignment in the 80s and 90s is a balanced approach between stopping the run and rushing the passer, while also allowing four defenders (often called base) to defend the pass. Seven-man boxes are still popular, but with the modern focus on the pass and the rules of the game encouraging explosive passing and the best athletes becoming receivers, more teams have moved to a six-man box to help to defend the pass.

An eight-man box (a heavy box) is a team fully selling out to stop the run game of the opponent. This means a 44 defense or a 35 defense at the high school level. In college and in the NFL, teams typically send a safety – usually the strong safety – into the box before or at the snap to help with the run fit and to rush the passer.

About 10 years ago, single-high defenses – defenses with the strong safety in an eight-man box – were super popular thanks to the success of the Seattle Seahawks almost winning two consecutive Super Bowls. Gus Bradley – the defensive coordinator of the Indianapolis Colts, and Dan Quinn, the defensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys – are two of the last coaches in the NFL that consistently run a single-high defense.

In the modern NFL, teams are using a light box – a six-man box – more frequently to help defend explosive pass games. Doing this successfully requires great personnel in the box and certain defensive techniques that old-school NFL players don’t like very much. Let’s explore those right now.


While a single-high defense requires studs in the secondary (Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, Brandon Browner, and Richard Sherman). It doesn’t matter how many numbers you have and what technique you use; if you don’t have the dudes, you can’t play high-level defense. The issue for the Philadelphia Eagles – if they ever wanted to go back to Jim Schwartz’s single-high defense – is that they need a free safety with great lateral sideline-to-sideline speed.

Coach Gannon said last season that he needed his players to properly run his defense. Howie Roseman listened and the Philadelphia Eagles acquired two difference-makers in the First Round of last year’s NFL draft. Both were missing in Monday night’s game against the Commanders and that is a big reason that the Eagles lost that game. A.J. Brown is a difference-maker on offense. His YAC and physicality when high-pointing the football create cheap and easy yards for the offense. This allows Gannon to be more aggressive with his fronts, the technique of his corners, and the rotation of his safeties.

The nice thing about a single-high defense is that it is gap sound. If the defense uses proper technique the run fit will prevent a running back from sneaking through a gap. In a two-high defense, there is a gap, usually the backside B-gap, between the guard and the tackle, if the team is running a single-gap defense that is left unguarded.

Some defensive linemen are penetrators – for instance, Fletcher Cox – and it’s their job to avoid contact and get through the hole to make plays in the backfield. Other defensive linemen – think Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa from the record-setting 2000 Baltimore Ravens defense – are responsible for handling multiple offensive linemen and controlling two gaps and keeping their linebackers – Ray Lewis – clean to make all the plays.

Javon Hargrave played some two-gap when he was with the Pittsburgh Steelers and has actually performed well in Coach Gannon’s gap-and-a-half defense as a 0 Technique while Jordan Davis has been on injured reserve. The key to being gap sound in a two-high split safety defense is to have at least one defensive lineman that occupies multiple gaps. That’s why Howie drafted Jordan Davis in the First Round. He is your rim protector if you are a Sixers fan. Davis has that role in the Eagles’ defense. The Eagles have struggled to replace him.


Gannon’s defense isn’t quite a two-gap defense; technically speaking, it’s called a gap-and-a-half defense, where the defender initiates to one gap but maintains contact with the linemen so he can push, pull, and move to the adjacent gap, if necessary. This is also often called lag technique.

The lag technique, with a 2i or 4i alignment, is designed to make it difficult for teams to execute an inside zone running game and the run-pass option offense that is often run off of that play. Gannon’s favorite front, the 51 Penny front, has two defensive ends in 9 techniques, two defensive tackles (often Cox and Hargrave) in 4i techniques – on the inside shoulders of the tackles – and Marlon Tuipulotu in a 0 Technique – head up on the center. Both Davis and Tuipulotu were recently added to the Injured Reserve (IR) list, which prompted Howie to sign Joseph and Suh as defensive line depth.

The five-man front, compared to the 42 Nickel front, simplifies the run fit for linebackers and safeties and prevents double-teams at the point of attack as there are often equal numbers on both lines of scrimmage.

On Monday night, the officiating was atrocious, and the fumbles were fluky, but offensive coordinator Scott Turner called a great game and the Philadelphia Eagles were both out-coached and out-executed. Specifically, Turner used numbers, technique, and personnel to his advantage.

A five-man front is great against a five-man line but Turner used a lot of 11 and 12 personnel sets to add numbers and to flank a five-man front. While a five-man front is great against stopping the inside run, with the right personnel, it is vulnerable to being flanked by the outside run.

The lag technique is great, but no defense is perfect and its one vulnerability is gap runs. Not only did Turner call almost nothing but Power (a gap play to the 5/6 hole) but gap runs are trending upwards league-wide as more teams are using lag technique.

In terms of numbers, it was usually five defensive linemen, two linebackers, and maybe a safety against the Commanders’ offensive front. Not only did Turner use a lot of YY alignment to change the numbers and challenge the Philadelphia Eagles flank, he also used consistent pre-snap motion and misdirection to complicate the run keys of the linebackers and safeties. This meant that runs that should have been stopped at one or two yards consistently got three or four yards because the linebackers and safeties were schemed out of the run fits.

Philadelphia Eagles fans want to add more numbers to the box to feel more manly and to help the run defense. The problem with adding more numbers to the box without improving personnel and technique is that they are routinely schemed out of the run fit, much in the same way that the Eagles made Micah Parsons irrelevant by reading him in the RPO game.

Here are three things that Gannon can do this week to help the Philadelphia Eagles’ defense

Josiah Scott needs a permanent role as starting slot corner

Avonte Maddox is great, but he likely needs a different role on the team, perhaps as a third safety. Maddox is fast and aggressive, which is great, but he’s not the best tackler and that combination often puts him out of position on defense. Josiah Scott isn’t great, but he’s steady. He is a good tackler and takes time to diagnose plays as opposed to being aggressive and taking himself out of a play.

Josh Sweat needs to limit his reps to 50 front defenses

Josh Sweat is a great run stuffer and a great pass rusher but on a team with a nice rotation of similarly talented players, he should limit his reps to his best role. For example, when Brandon Graham played right EDGE in the Philadelphia Eagles Nickel 42 package, the Eagles sacrificed an opposing win rate of 44 percent. When Sweat played that position alongside Haason Reddick, Fletcher Cox, and Javon Hargrave, the Eagles sacrificed an opposing win rate of 75 percent. That means that when the Eagles used a 42 Nickel front and played Reddick, Cox, Hargrave, and Sweat, the Commanders got an above-average gain on three occasions out of four. In the Eagles 51 Penny front, Sweat was far more successful playing right EDGE, earning a sack-fumble and forcing an interception (with Graham playing a 4i technique).

The Eagles need to use press coverage, inside leverage, and a two-high shell pre-snap

Eagles fans love being aggressive and they love press coverage. They are not wrong. The major downside to press coverage is getting beaten deep in the passing game if the receiver isn’t sufficiently re-routed at the line of scrimmage. An advantage to a two-high split safety defense is that the corners have help over the top if they get beaten short.

In terms of personnel, Darius Slay loves press coverage. Many teams, including the Eagles, have one corner in press coverage while the other corner is in off-coverage. This technique is designed to trap the offense to throw the ball to the off-coverage side. With James Bradberry and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson on the weak side of the field, that is a bet that Eagles fans should be willing to take.

In terms of leverage, corners are typically aligned to the receiver’s inside shoulder (inside leverage) or the receivers’ outside shoulder (outside leverage). Inside leverage gives up out-breaking routes and outside leverage gives up in-breaking routes. No defense is perfect.

Against the Commanders on Monday night, the Eagles surrendered an opposing win rate of 48.9 percent while in outside leverage. Using inside leverage, the Eagles’ defense gave up above-average gains only 7.4 percent of the time. That means that the Eagles were more than six times more successful with one minor adjustment to the defense.

Using a true two-high split safety defense means that the middle of the field is open (MOFO). In a single-high defense, the sole high safety – also called the post safety – is often aligned between the hashes or on a hash. This means that the middle of the field is closed (MOFC).

Marcus Epps is doing a great job with his run fits and is even making plays in the backfield. That being said, he is needed more in pass defense. While the Eagles allowed 6.85 yards per pass while in MOFO alignment, they allowed almost double that (11 YPP) while in MOFC alignment.

In total, the Philadelphia Eagles gave up five explosive pass plays and zero explosive runs. The purpose of Jonathan Gannon’s defense is to encourage teams to run the ball when they are in a deficit and they are facing both the defense and the clock. The Commanders were plucky on Monday night and consistently executed a great game plan. While there are a few changes that Gannon should make both in terms of personnel and schematically, he won’t get fired, and he shouldn’t.

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