The Philadelphia Eagles not only have one of the league’s top offenses guided by the decision-making, athleticism, and arm of MVP candidate Jalen Hurts. They also have one of the league’s top defenses.
This is due in no small part to the successful adoption of coach Vic Fangio’s defensive philosophy. Fangio was recently hired as an Eagles consultant and his blueprint and his fingerprints are obvious watching Philadelphia’s film this season.
Jonathan Gannon’s usage of his safeties is one of the aspects of his defensive philosophy that mirror what we’ve seen Fangio do so brilliantly. As a matter of fact, the Eagles are executing Fangio’s system so much better than the eight or so other teams in the NFL who are currently running the same scheme.
Here’s a deeper dive into how the Philadelphia Eagles are using their safeties.
Like so many other coordinators who have adopted Fangio’s scheme, Jonathan Gannon uses a split-safety two-high shell on defense. Unlike a single-high defense where the post safety (the free safety) is often aligned 20 yards off of the line of scrimmage at the snap, Gannon’s safeties are aligned more often about 12 yards from the line of scrimmage at the snap.
The purpose of this alignment is to disguise what the defense is doing. From this alignment, one or both safeties can play downhill in run support (or neither of them can do it). They can also be given deep responsibility in coverage. Fangio loves to run Cover 6 or Quarter-Quarter-Half. He also loves aligning his quarters side to the strong side of the formation, i.e., the passing strength with more receivers.
This requires versatile safeties as opposed to safeties that are purely box safeties, players that play great downhill and in a ‘phone booth’. It also requires post safeties, players that have deep coverage responsibilities and are good at staying in phase with their receivers.
The Philadelphia Eagles currently carry three safeties on the active 53-man roster: K’Von Wallace, Marcus Epps, and Reed Blankenship. Their best player at the position, C.J. Gardner-Johnson is on injured reserve. There are two safeties on the practice squad, Anthony Harris and recently resigned Andre Chachere.
Gardner-Johnson is allowed to return for Week 17’s game versus the New Orleans Saints if he is cleared medically, but there are some theories that he may not be available until the postseason. In terms of roles, K’Von Wallace is more of a box safety. He was the Eagles’ dime weak safety, meaning he had deep coverage responsibilities until recently, but he is far more effective as a third safety in the red zone as he has shown the ability to make key point-saving and game-saving PBUs (pass breakups) in the endzone.
Marcus Epps looked pretty versatile last season but is likely better suited as a box safety as he is great downhill and is an absolute enforcer. In games where the Eagles use a lot of Cover 1 and Cover 3 defense, Epps should be the safety rotating into the box after the snap.
Reed Blankenship is physical but has shown competency in coverage as well. Blankenship is likely the second-best weak safety (post safety) when healthy. The Eagles cross-train their slot corners as safeties and Josiah Scott has been excellent as a weak safety recently and is a good choice to fill in for the next few weeks or so.
Gardner-Johnson was a slot corner in New Orleans with the Saints but has been a great weak safety in Gannon’s system this season. CJ GJ is likely a fixture in the defensive backfield going forward if he is extended at season’s end.
Anthony Harris, like K’Von Wallace, is a pure box safety that has made great plays in the red zone. While Harris has played both weak safety and strong safety, he is much likely better as a strong safety depth behind Wallace and Epps.
Andre Chachere is a massive question mark on defense. This week would be a great week to elevate him and give him reps in both roles and see how he does. The Bears’ offense is mostly run-based though Fields can throw a nice-looking deep ball from time to time.
In terms of the coming NFL Draft, the free-agency period, and any offseason trades that may occur, there’s a chance that the Philadelphia Eagles could target someone with equal versatility as Reed Blankenship and/or Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.
Chachere, Wallace, and Epps have current roles on this team. Harris will, no doubt see snaps in C.J. and Reed’s absence, but each is likely more situational as a role-player. Outside of CJ GJ and Blankenship, none of these guys figure to start next season.