Eagles film: Jonathan Gannon is blitzing more successfully — sorta
The Eagles' blitzing over the past four games has shown that it's a work in progress.
Buddy Ryan liked to blitz. That alone has forever endeared him to many Eagles fans.
“If they made a first down, [Ryan] said, ‘Blitz!’” former Eagles defensive coordinator Wade Phillips once recalled. “He said, ‘Blitz ‘em!’ OK, Coach. Any time they made a first down, he was going to blitz them.”
Ryan’s predilection might have allowed for an explosive play allowed here or there, but Philadelphians would often pass it off as mere misfortune. The blitz played to their senses and Ryan was infallible in their eyes, even if he was imperfect as a head coach.
It helped that his defenses were consistently good and that he had top personnel. But sending extra rushers was often unnecessary because Ryan had the benefit of a dominating D-line. Why send more than four when Reggie White and company would often apply pressure?
Jonathan Gannon prefers not to blitz — at least the current defensive play-caller didn’t in the Eagles’ first seven games this season. Only the Raiders, among NFL teams, blitzed less than the Eagles over that span.
But Gannon has dialed up more pressures over the last four games (24.7% on quarterback drops) vs. the first seven (14.7%), per Pro Football Focus. The results, for the most part, have been better.
Head coach Nick Sirianni said the recent aggressiveness was a byproduct of both his and Gannon’s assessment that the Eagles weren’t challenging offenses enough following the loss in Las Vegas.
More blitzing, though, can be circumstantial. There could be myriad reasons for the usage — down, distance, formation, opponent, quarterback, etc. — beyond Ryan’s almost instinctual response to his defenses allowing a first down.
“It’s all off of looks,” linebacker T.J. Edwards said Wednesday. “We have stuff in every week, and it’s just getting to those looks and getting to the right down-and-distance. Doing a good job on first and second down so we can get to the things we want to [on third down].”
The Eagles have done a better job on first and second down in three of the last four weeks. It helps that the quarterbacks in those games were middling starters in Jared Goff, Teddy Bridgewater, and Trevor Siemian. Many of the others the Eagles faced scorched them, which could partially explain why Gannon didn’t blitz much early on.
Dak Prescott, Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, and Derek Carr completed 18 of 22 passes (81.8%) for 192 yards and four touchdowns combined when the Eagles blitzed. Only four total pressures were applied, only Prescott was sacked (once), and the Eagles lost convincingly in all four games.
In the Eagles’ last three victories over the Lions, Broncos, and Saints, though, opposing quarterbacks completed 12 of 25 passes (48%) for a higher number of yards (241). But no touchdowns were scored, and 13 pressures and two sacks were generated.
The risk-reward of blitzing is often higher than it is when defenses play it straight. Gannon had his reasons for employing soft zones and four-man rushes, but five quarterbacks — the elite four aforementioned and Justin Herbert just three weeks ago — each completed more than 80% of their passes against the Eagles.
So while his scheme might not be aesthetically pleasing to some fans, what mattered most was its ineffectiveness. But it wasn’t as much the lack of blitzing, as it was suspect and misused personnel, run-defense leakage, and unoriginality in coverage and rush packages that accounted for the struggles.
Gannon has made adjustments, not as drastic as Sirianni’s on the offensive side, but enough to stop the hemorrhaging. The lower level of competition aided his efforts, but the tighter coverages, more complex blitz packages, and execution have been relatively better over the last month.
An argument could be made for sending extra rushers at Daniel Jones in Sunday’s meeting. The New York Giants quarterback is among the lowest-rated passers, having tossed four interceptions and been sacked seven times vs. the blitz.
Eagles fans would love it.
Here’s a closer look at the Eagles’ blitz over the last four games, its successes and failures, and how, like many parts of the team this season, remains a work in progress:
As Edwards noted, the Eagles have blitzed more because they’re creating blitzing situations on third down. Defensive coordinators can certainly send more rushers on early downs, but when an offense is in third-and-6-plus, as the Lions were here, it increases the odds for passing.
Presnap, Edwards (No. 57) nosed up over the “A” gap as fellow linebacker Alex Singleton (No. 49) lined up over the “B.” The former dropped into coverage, which helped take away Goff’s first read. Singleton timed his blitz perfectly and was able to generate enough heat — along with defensive end Josh Sweat (No. 94) — so that when the Detroit quarterback bailed, he stepped into defensive end Derek Barnett (No. 96).
Singleton, who has been relegated to mostly third-down duty over the last five games, didn’t time his blitz as well on this play, though. Goff knew where his outlet would be if the linebacker came, and when he did, he simply threw to the releasing running back for an 18-yard gain.
Singleton has blitzed more than most Eagles defenders. As with most rushers, he is more effective when he takes a direct line to the quarterback. He was ultimately able to get to Bridgewater here, but the Eagles’ coverage likely had more to do with Bridgewater’s throwaway.
» READ MORE: Eagles’ Jonathan Gannon-led defense stifles Lions with season high in quarterback hits
While the Eagles had a higher rate of blitzes against the Chargers than in any other game (29.3%), they were unable to slow Herbert, who completed 8 of 11 passes for 73 yards and a touchdown. He also scrambled for a score vs. extra rushers (see below).
The Eagles have a five-man front in their base defense. When offenses throw against that unit, it often results in five-on-five blocking and a lack of creativity to free up rushers. Sweat did well to turn the edge, but outside linebacker Genard Avery (No. 58) has been unproductive in one-on-one situations.
The Chargers effectively made most of the Eagles’ blitzes predictable.
“I think I can set it up a little bit better when teams are doing that,” Gannon said then, “just be a little more creative how we are aligning our pieces and what we are doing to generate more pressure, so teams can’t say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re going to do, so you have to play a certain way.’”
Some of Gannon’s attempts to disguise who was coming and who wasn’t were not effective, though. On this play, the outside linebackers dropped into zone coverage, while Singleton rushed. But Herbert took advantage of a mismatch — Barnett awkwardly backpedaled and was late to cover — and picked up a first down.
The players have freedom to check out of some blitzes based on formation or what they see presnap, but Gannon said that there are calls in which there is no flexibility.
“There’s a blend of that because you can’t put too much mental stress on the players of always checking out of something or checking into something,” Gannon said a few weeks ago.
The Chargers quick snapped on this play, so safety Rodney McLeod’s (No. 23) blitz from the post was late, but it stood to reason why he would come from that deep on third-and-5. The Eagles forced a fourth down, but it wasn’t because Herbert was pressured.
Siemian did little against the blitz on Sunday. He completed just 1-of-8 passes for 21 yards and that one came late. The Eagles, again, got into favorable third downs early on, and Gannon wasn’t reluctant to play single-high man or zero coverage when he blitzed.
He sent six here, and cornerback Avonte Maddox (No. 29) hit the quarterback and affected his throw.
The Eagles didn’t hit Siemian on this third-down blitz, but he rushed his throw and had no receivers open against another single-high man coverage.
Singleton’s best pressure came later, again on third-and-long. He timed his blitz through the “A” gap and forced Siemian to throw a dirtball.
Singleton said an earlier blitz by McLeod set up his free rush here.
“When [McLeod] showed ‘down’ to that side again, we knew they were going to slide the protection that way,” he said Wednesday. “And so, instead of me reading what the center was going to do … I knew it was going to open up right away and the guard wasn’t going to see that they slid the other way.”
The best route is typically point A to B. Singleton stunted here, but the Saints picked it up.
Many other quarterbacks would have either hit that pass or seen the open receiver on the crosser. Not every blitz is going to work. But the above example is a reminder that even though the Eagles have blitzed more and had a modicum of success, it doesn’t mean they yet have a Ryan at the controls or personnel capable of executing his calls.
It’s unlikely Gannon will ever automatically blitz on first down. But that might be a good thing, even if Eagles fans can never have enough of longing for the return of those blitz-happy days.