Following the Philadelphia Eagles‘ most recent win versus the Tennessee Titans, fans found some newfound appreciation. They’ve long believed in their quarterback, Jalen Hurts. Another solid performance by Jonathan Gannon‘s defense has won over a few supporters on his side of the ball as well. Still, as many of you are aware, it’s impossible to make everyone happy.
At several junctures of the current regular season, we have heard the widespread desire for his firing, so we debated whether he should be. More recently, we debated whether or not the criticism is deserved. To adequately address those items, we must first understand the premises of the argument before we can adequately evaluate its conclusion.
Fans are emotional. It is a core part of fandom. Before addressing the intellectual and objective points, it is smart to point out that Gannon’s defense may never be seen as being good enough to some of the Eagles’ longer-tenured fans and/or hot-take artists like Seth Joyner. They’d most certainly agree with some of what follows.
- Jonathan Gannon isn’t aggressive enough.
- He isn’t creative enough.
- He isn’t reactive enough and too slow to adapt his game plan.
Fans often poorly define their terms, if they define them at all. Let’s attempt to do so now. The obvious reason is a simple one. Last season, those aforementioned frustrations were valid. This season, it isn’t as clear if they still are.
Let’s definitively answer those questions about whether or not Jonathan Gannon is aggressive enough.
The criticism we most often hear from fans is that Jonathan Gannon isn’t aggressive enough. What they are likely to mean is they’re dissatisfied with his defense’s inability to stop the run and/or the infrequency with which he brings the blitz. They are rarely discussing how well the Eagles are excelling in coverage.
With that being said, let’s analyze what ‘aggression’ likely means. From there, we can define how fans should interpret what they’re seeing and how Jonathan Gannon has adapted to become more aggressive (if that is indeed the case).
The results that fans are seeking can be accomplished via fronts, box stack, cornerback cushion, cornerback leverage, and safety rotation. Let’s take a look at each of these.
Typically, teams align in either 40 fronts – four linemen in the tackle box and on the line of scrimmage – or 50 fronts – five linemen. Less common, teams align in 30 fronts with three defensive linemen and two outside linebackers in place of the five linemen of the 50 front.
50 fronts are preferred and are increasingly common as they simplify the run defense by preventing double teams on the defensive linemen and giving each defender one gap.
In Gannon’s 50 front, the zero technique nose tackle – likely Linval Joseph for the remainder of this season – is responsible for controlling both A gaps (on either side of the center) – so both safeties can focus on coverage as opposed to prioritizing run fits.
A split safety two-high defense popularized by Vic Fangio has become increasingly popular league-wide to stop X-factor quarterbacks such as Pat Mahomes, Jonathan Allen, Joe Burrow, and Justin Herbert.
These defenses aren’t gap-sound and are vulnerable to the run unless a defensive lineman can be trusted to control two gaps. Jordan Davis was selected in the First Round of last year’s NFL Draft precisely for this purpose and has been an absolute difference-maker when he has played.
The advantage to 40 fronts, and why Jonathan Gannon lived in them for the first four games of the season, is that they free up a defender for coverage. Coverage is important to him both because Gannon is a defensive backs coach and because giving up big plays is the quickest way to lose games.
In the Week 3 matchup against the Washington Commanders, Gannon called 50 fronts 52 percent of the time. In the primetime rematch – the Philadephia Eagles’ only loss of the season – Gannon called 50 fronts 57.1 percent of the time.
Fronts are just the first part of an aggression analysis, but at least on this front, a coach that is intelligent and analytical and not inherently aggressive has shown the ability to be aggressive when he needs to be.
This is honestly the core complaint of many fans that worship to shrines of Buddy Ryan before bedtime, that Jonathan Gannon doesn’t want to be aggressive and is only aggressive when he has to be.
The box is the space between the tackles and five yards into the defensive backfield. It is occupied by defensive linemen, linebackers, and occasionally defensive backs.
There are typically three box counts: six men in the box (a light box), seven men in the box (a balanced box), and eight men in the box (a heavy box).
A heavy box is designed to stop the run; a light box is designed to stop the pass; a balanced box is designed to allocate resources to stop both at the same time.
The more that a defense stacks the box – uses a heavy box as opposed to a light box – is a measure of aggression as it is worse to be beaten by the running game than it is to be beaten by the pass. This is particularly true with last year’s Philadelphia Eagles offense that couldn’t get as many big plays over the top. It is arguably less true this season.
Looking at the data, Coach Gannon used a light box 68 percent of the time against Jacksonville. Against the Houston Texans, Coach Gannon used a light box only 44 percent of the time. Dameon Pierce still broke off big runs against the Philadelphia Eagles’ heavy boxes but in terms of play calls, it’s a substantial improvement from Gannon in terms of aggressiveness in run fits.
Cornerback Cushion and Cornerback Leverage
The purpose of any defense is to get the opposing offense off of the field. It is a question of risk versus reward. How crucial is it to get a third-down stop on this snap versus the risk of getting burned over the top?
Because of this, Gannon plays his corners with a soft cushion – often six to eight yards off the line of scrimmage and this can be situationally difficult when offenses are often in third and short or third and mid and quick-breaking routes against this cushion can consistently move the chains.
Similarly, Gannon often puts his cornerbacks in zone alignment and gives them outside leverage on receivers – align them to the receivers’ outside shoulders to take away the fade routes and make life easier on the safeties. This alignment gives up the slant route but sending traffic to help is a key tenet to defense.
A major advantage of off-coverage and outside leverage is that it gives his cornerbacks more vision on the quarterback and makes interceptions more likely.
A big reason for the conservatism of Jonathan Gannon last season was the personnel. While Steven Nelson, Rodney McLeod, and Anthony Harris are great playing downhill and toward the line of scrimmage, each struggles to stay in phase with receivers, especially on deep routes.
While Howie Roseman’s one-year contracts last season were mostly given to players who flopped, this season Howie hit triple 7s on the slot machine and James Bradberry, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, and Kyzir White are playmakers.
This combined with the aggressiveness of the Philadelphia Eagles offense under Jalen Hurts should allow Gannon to play his corners more aggressively more press coverage as opposed to off coverage; and inside leverage as opposed to outside leverage.
The purpose of defense, especially a defense protecting a lead in the fourth quarter is to take away the easy stuff and make the quarterback make more difficult plays. In this regard, press coverage and inside leverage are preferable to off coverage and outside leverage.
In the second game against the Commanders, Jonathan Gannon called plays with at least one corner in press coverage 53.2 percent of the time. In the Green Bay game, Coach Gannon only called press coverage 24 percent of the time. The Commanders game was a loss and the Packers game was a win, but Gannon was arguably more aggressive against the Commanders.
In terms of cornerback leverage, Gannon called inside leverage plays 33.7 percent of the time against the Commanders. Against the Packers, Gannon called inside leverage 12 percent of the time. Like cornerback cushion, cornerback leverage is designed to focus on pass coverage as opposed to optimizing run fits and Jonathan Gannon was more conservative in both cases, which led to a win.
In addition to corner cushion and corner leverage, safeties also rotate post-snap both to disguise post-snap looks and to be more aggressive in run fits. In some cases, Jonathan Gannon has a safety close to the box pre-snap, a middle-of-the-field closed look (MOFC), and this is designed to take away easy looks for the quarterback, i.e., it’s more aggressive.
In the game against the Houston Texans, Jonathan Gannon had his safeties rotate into MOFC looks 36 percent of the time. Against the Commanders, Jonathan Gannon called for safety rotation into MOFC looks 53.2 percent of the time.
In short, while Gannon adapted to become more aggressive in terms of run fits using more 50 fronts and fewer light boxes, he used more off-coverage and more outside leverage against better passers to create more turnovers. Jonathan Gannon may not be aggressive, but he is situational.