At the beginning of training camp, first-year coach Nick Sirianni called defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon into his office and told him he wanted to increase the level of aggressiveness in practices.
This message served as a follow-up to a disappointing 2020 season, in which the Eagles recorded the third-fewest interceptions, eight, in the NFL. Philadelphia ranked 29th in turnover differential, minus-10.
“We have a very defined language with how we talk about takeaways,” Gannon said last month. “You guys are going to see that in practice, hopefully, a lot. We know the value of the ball, and we put a high importance on it. We’re going to coach that up.”
With less than one week remaining in the preseason, how have players responded to the coaching staff’s message?
In two exhibitions vs. Pittsburgh and New England, the Eagles have forced one fumble and picked off one pass. Following last Thursday’s game against the Patriots, Gannon approached Sirianni and told him, “we need more strip attempts.”
“It’s a fine line of being fundamentally sound,” Sirianni said. “While keeping what Jonathan and his defensive staff is going to say, ‘Keeping the cup,’ right, and keeping them inside the cup while also getting a strip attempt. One, it comes to keeping the cup first and then get a strip attempt after you’ve kept the cup.”
When Sirianni says “keeping the cup,” he’s referencing a defensive player making contact and wrapping up the ball carrier. Once the defensive player has stopped the ball carrier’s momentum, he’s instructed to attempt to punch the ball out as he makes the full tackle to the ground. Throughout camp, coaches have also stressed for incoming defensive players in cleanup duty to strip the ball away.
However, the No. 1 priority remains to be securing the tackle.
“If you just stress just taking the ball away or just punching at the ball, you could take yourself out of position,” Sirianni said. “But the first thing to stress is keeping the cup and then it’s the strip attempt.
“We need to continue to get those strip attempts. We didn’t get quite as much as we wanted [against the Patriots]. But what you are seeing is that we are getting one or two a game. I thought there were two out the other day. One was judged out, the other one wasn’t. Then there was two out the week before, so that’s great.”
In nearly 20 practices, the defense has looked crisp and a step ahead of the offense.
It has become a frequent occurrence for the defense to record at least one turnover. While that production hasn’t necessarily translated during the team’s two exhibitions — mostly because of limited playing time for the starters — Sirianni believes the team is headed in the right direction in regards to forcing more turnovers.
Sirianni has been adamant the aggressiveness on defense has helped with the offense’s approach to ball security. Through two games, the Eagles’ lone fumble occurred on a bad snap by backup center Nate Herbig. Backup quarterbacks Joe Flacco and Nick Mullens also have thrown a combined four picks.
“On the other side, and I’m not saying this is going to be perfect throughout the year, but what you’re seeing is the way the defense is with our offense,” Sirianni said. “Yes, we have some interceptions, but the ball security, the fundamentals of ball security is paying off on the offense, because we haven’t got one out there yet.
“That’s what our goal is. You get some out there for the defense, and you don’t get them out for the offense. That’s the habits that we create as we practice.”
Less than 20 days remain until Philadelphia’s regular-season opener on Sept. 12 at Atlanta. The coming week will serve as a crucial period for general manager Howie Roseman and the front office as they finalize decisions and construct a 53-man active roster by next Tuesday. Leading up to cut day, the Eagles will hold two joint practices with the Jets in Florham Park, N.J., followed by the final preseason game Friday at MetLife Stadium.
With the regular season looming, the Eagles will continue to stress forcing more turnovers and taking more chances.
“The intensity is high,” linebacker Brandon Graham said. “[Joint practices] are very valuable. Whatever Coach wants you to do going into the [preseason] game, whether you play or don’t play, most of that call is to make sure you don’t injure yourself because they’ve seen what they needed to see during the week.
“There’s nothing else to prove other than just making sure we’re ready for Game 1.”