Jonathan Gannon’s last time coaching against Calvin Ridley and the Atlanta Falcons is likely a good memory.
In 2019, the Eagles’ new defensive coordinator was in charge of an Indianapolis Colts secondary that held Ridley to just one catch for 6 yards and secured a win at home.
When asked about Ridley on Thursday, though, Gannon mentioned only the lone catch the former first-round draft pick managed against his defense: a third-down conversion against Kenny Moore, the Colts’ top cornerback that season.
“We had our best cover guy on him on a third [down],” Gannon said. “He beat him pretty good.”
Gannon has kept most of the intricate details of his newly implemented scheme close to the vest during training camp, so Sunday’s season opener against the Falcons will be the first indication of what to expect from him.
Ridley is the top wide receiver for the Falcons and quarterback Matt Ryan after Atlanta traded star wideout Julio Jones to Tennessee in the offseason. The 26-year-old caught 90 passes for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns last season, and also ranked eighth in the league in yards per route run.
Gannon said Ridley’s ability to challenge defenses both as a downfield threat and on short routes makes him difficult to scheme against.
“He’s definitely a top-10 guy,” Gannon said. “I always look for the guys that can beat you vertically and horizontally, and he’s proven over the course of his career that he can do that. ... He’s a really good player, he’s a weapon that they have that they’re going to use. We have to be aware of how they’re deploying and using him.”
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Eagles cornerback Darius Slay followed each opposing team’s top receiver often last season in a man-coverage-heavy scheme. Neither Gannon nor Slay’s position-mate, Steven Nelson, would say if that would be the case Sunday.
Slay mentioned he was looking forward to going against Ridley during a news conference Wednesday, noting that Ridley had earned his respect.
“He’s a very talented guy, man,” Slay said. “He’s a guy that can go get it, he has speed, and I honestly think he’s one of the best route runners in the league.”
Even though Slay has expressed a desire to follow receivers often both during his tenure in Detroit and last season with the Eagles, Gannon comes from a more zone-heavy background and could continue utilizing that approach.
During the preseason, the Eagles played very little man coverage, instead using plenty of soft zone coverages. It’s possible Gannon was trying to stay as vanilla as possible to preserve the mystery around his intentions during the regular season, but the limited use of man coverage is still noteworthy.
Against Atlanta, going with a heavy dose of man coverage would present challenges because of rookie tight end Kyle Pitts, whom the Falcons took with the fourth pick in the draft. The 6-foot-6, 240-pound Philadelphia native will have a size advantage over most defensive backs, as well as the athleticism to beat most linebackers.
“There’s a reason that guy went as high as he went,” Gannon said. “There’s a reason all the defensive coaches, when they’re talking before the draft, they say this is the best guy they’ve seen in the last 10 years. We’re gonna have to be smart in how we defend him. And the people who end up on him, they gotta know what he brings to the table. And hopefully we have help around us when we’re defending him.”
Pitts, an Archbishop Wood graduate from Abington, was widely considered the best non-quarterback prospect in this year’s draft. He had 43 catches for 770 yards and 12 touchdowns in eight games as a member of the Florida Gators last season, with Eagles quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson as his offensive coordinator.
Nick Sirianni said earlier this week that his staff has used Johnson as a resource not only in studying Pitts ahead of this weekend, but also during the predraft process.
“Brian has been able to give us a ton of insight on him,” Sirianni said. “So, the one thing that keeps coming back is he’s a really good player. We know we’re going to have to handle him and things he can do.”