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Eagles’ Jonathan Gannon-led defense stifles Lions with season high in quarterback hits

Jonathan Gannon’s defense came up with the right answers vs. the Lions after getting embarrassed the previous week against the Raiders.

Eagles defensive end Derek Barnett (center) celebrating his second-quarter sack, on Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff, with defensive tackle Fletcher Cox on Sunday in Detroit.
Eagles defensive end Derek Barnett (center) celebrating his second-quarter sack, on Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff, with defensive tackle Fletcher Cox on Sunday in Detroit.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

DETROIT — Fletcher Cox knew exactly what he was doing.

One week ago, it was Cox — followed by fellow team captain Rodney McLeod — who stood from behind a podium located in the deepest part of Allegiant Stadium’s tunnels, and used his platform to deliver a much-needed message.

Cox, the Eagles’ third-longest tenured player, publicly expressed his frustration with his usage within first-year defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon’s scheme. At one point, he even voiced his objection to the coaching staff’s play-calling, which had been viewed as soft as much as it was vanilla throughout the first seven weeks.

“I get paid to sack the quarterback,” Cox said out of frustration.

Somewhere inside the adjacent visitors locker room, Gannon was listening.

» READ MORE: Eagles-Lions analysis: A slice of redemption for Nick Sirianni, Jonathan Gannon in 44-6 Eagles win

Facing the winless Lions on Sunday at Ford Field, Gannon made noticeable changes while unveiling new wrinkles to his scheme and personnel. The adjustments resulted in a defensive clinic put on by the visiting Eagles, who routed the Lions 44-6.

Said quarterback Jalen Hurts: “The defense played their ass off.”

Thus far, we’ve learned Gannon’s zone-based scheme is primarily built around limiting big-yardage plays. He has enjoyed some success in that department by regularly deploying two deep safeties. It’s also a numbers game inside the box, where Gannon had been reluctant to blitz.

Leading up to Sunday’s contest, the Eagles blitzed just 14.3% of plays, which ranked third-lowest in the league behind only the Texans and Raiders. For contrast, the Bucs lead the league in blitz percentage at 39.4%. It appeared Gannon had grown content with sending just his base front to pressure the quarterback, while keeping others back in coverage.

But against the Lions, Gannon dialed up more blitz shots — especially on third- and fourth-down scenarios. He showed different looks in coverage — with one-deep safety calls and more man-to-man — which led to repetitive success for a team that was starved of the feeling.

» READ MORE: Eagles’ Nick Sirianni, Jonathan Gannon, Jalen Hurts save their jobs against hapless Lions | Marcus Hayes

Altogether, the Eagles produced a season-high 10 quarterback hits, including six sacks, versus Lions quarterbacks Jared Goff and David Blough.

“We changed it up a little bit,” cornerback Avonte Maddox said. “We played a little bit of man, a little bit of everything. [Gannon] did a great job with the scheme. Whatever he called — we trusted it and we dominated throughout the game.”

In regards to personnel, starting linebacker Eric Wison was a healthy scratch for the first time this season. Genard Avery was awarded the start in Wilson’s place, and backup linebacker T.J. Edwards maximized the most of his uptick in playing time. Edwards led the Eagles with 13 tackles, including two tackles for loss.

“We just did a good job of showing similar coverages and then bringing pressure from those looks,” Edwards said. “We were able to rush and let our D-line get after them.”

After spending the first four seasons of his career with the Vikings, Wilson signed a one-year, $2.75 million deal with the Eagles in free agency. While his signing could be considered somewhat of a bargain, Wilson’s performance — particularly in coverage — has left much to be desired. He played just 22 defensive snaps versus the Raiders.

» READ MORE: Nick Sirianni lessens Jalen Hurts’ load and runs the ball in an Eagles win. Is that a sustainable identity? | Jeff McLane

Asked earlier in the week if he has the proper personnel to effectively run his defense, Gannon said: “Do we have the right people in the building? Yeah. We have to coach better...Our guys have proven — we can be more consistent with it — that we can play winning football.”

As the season has progressed, it’s become evident the front office needs to address improving the defense in the off-season. The team will surely be in position to make a couple of potential franchise-altering moves as it is currently projected to have three picks inside the top 10 of the 2022 NFL draft.

But for now, Gannon would be wise to continue to build off his approach to Sunday’s victory. The 38-year-old assistant coach worked around his players’ strengths and created consistent pressure in high-stress situations.

Other beneficiaries across the defense included defensive ends Josh Sweat (two sacks),Barnett (two quarterback hits), and rookie Milton Williams (two quarterback hits). In his homecoming, Maddox punched the football loose from Lions running back D’Andre Swift’s hands; fellow cornerback Darius Slay capitalized on the moment with a poetic scoop-and-score versus his former team.

» READ MORE: Eagles’ Avonte Maddox, Darius Slay connect for ‘Detroit on Detroit’ touchdown recovery

“What I appreciated about Jonathan was his dawg mentality,” first-year coach Nick Sirianni said of his defensive coordinator. “He’s – we’ve been having to answer a lot of questions. We put a little bit more pressure on them. We got to the quarterback more than what we have. It started up front.

“If you win up front the way we won up front, we’re going to be able to win football games.”

It wasn’t until garbage time, with the third-string defense on the field, that the Lions finally managed to score. As for the rest of the game? Detroit finished with three punts, one missed field goal, one fumble and three turnovers on downs.

“Everybody had a fire under them,” Edwards said. “The leaders — Rodney and Fletch — they were getting things going. I thought all week, we had guys flying around who weren’t happy with the results.”