You only need to watch a few minutes of an Eagles training camp practice to see the emphasis that new defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon has placed on takeaways.
Miles Sanders takes a handoff from Jalen Hurts, and it looks like he’s being attacked by an octopus as multiple arms punch at the football and/or try to wrestle it from the running back’s grasp.
Somebody catches a pass from Hurts or one of the team’s other two quarterbacks, Joe Flacco or Nick Mullens, and linebackers and defensive backs descend on the receiver and repeat the armed assault.
“Look at my knuckles already, man,” Eagles cornerback Steven Nelson said, showing reporters his discolored right hand. “That’s from trying to punch at the ball.”
Welcome to Gannonball.
“Yeah, we have a very defined language with how we talk about takeaways,” Gannon, the Eagles’ new defensive coordinator, said this week. “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. So we’re going to coach that up.”
Every defense places a high value on takeaways. Some just place a greater emphasis on it. Gannon wants it to become an obsession with his unit.
“We have very distinct language with how we force fumbles, how we scoop and score, how we block [on] interception returns,” Gannon said. “It just puts a very clear picture of what the standard is, what the expectation is, of how we conduct our business.”
The Eagles’ defense hasn’t been very good at forcing turnovers lately. The last three years, they finished 23rd, 21st, and 24th in takeaways. Their eight interceptions last season equaled the fewest in franchise history.
NFL teams can’t begin full-pad practices with contact until next week. But head coach Nick Sirianni clearly gave Gannon and the defense the green light to be aggressive and go for the football this week.
“That’s just part of how we’re going to play,” Gannon said. “It’s actually awesome because we obviously have an offensive head coach and he believes in it.
“A lot of people out there that are offensive coaches, they don’t want to see that. But Nick believes it’s the best thing for the team, the offense and the defense. So, he allows us to do that.”
That’s because Sirianni is as focused on protecting the football as Gannon is on taking it away. Sirianni was the offensive coordinator in Indianapolis last season when the Colts had a league-low four lost fumbles.
Every day at practice, the Eagles’ running backs participate in an agility drill with a football that has a cord attached to it. While they run the drill, a coach tries to pull the ball away from them.
“I think it brings a good culture to the team and just what to expect [from us] for the season,” Nelson said. “It’s going to be physical whenever you play this team. You know you’re going to get a fight when you play us.”
The Eagles haven’t had a positive turnover differential since their 2017 Super Bowl season, when they finished fourth in the NFL at plus-11. Since then, they’ve finished 25th, 22nd, and 29th with a combined turnover differential in those three years of minus-19.
Last year, the Colts, where Gannon was the defensive backs coach, finished fifth in takeaways (25) and second in turnover differential (plus-10).
“You want to get the ball out,” said cornerback Avonte Maddox. “Forcing turnovers is huge. The more times we get the ball back to our offense, the more chances they have to score.
“[The coaches are] forcing it hard right now. [They are saying] punch at it, get it out, get it out. On offense, they’re saying, protect the ball. It’s helping the offense just as much as it’s helping us.”
Takeaways are part of Gannon’s HITS principle, which stands for hustle, intensity, takeaways, and (play) smart. Again, there’s nothing there that every other defensive coach in the NFL isn’t teaching or stressing. But sometimes the marketing is as important as the message.
There is a fine line, however, between being aggressive and going for the football and being reckless and missing tackles because you were too focused on stripping the ball.
“If you’re the first guy going in, you want to secure the tackle,” Maddox said. “But there’s a time and place where you can punch at the ball, too. If he’s falling, you can stab it. Boom. Fumble. Or maybe he catches it and is just turning around. You can punch it then.
“But you definitely want to secure the tackle first. Then the second and third guy coming in can rake the ball and strip it and things like that.”
Cornerback Darius Slay said if he gets to the ball carrier first, his No. 1 priority is making the tackle. The second and third men in can go for the strip.
“I’m going to make sure I got him secure because I don’t like missed tackles,” he said. “Then we’ll make a play on it.”