Imagine that you are looking at the NFC East through the eyes of new Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon. What are the biggest challenges you would see? Do you worry more about the opposing passing or rushing games?
Let’s start with the aerial attacks.
The most dangerous of these is obviously belongs to the Dallas Cowboys. Mike McCarthy’s squad has a potential top-five quarterback in Dak Prescott and a hyper-talented trio of wide receivers in Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup. They also have a solid pass catching tight end tandem (Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz) and one of the better receiving running backs in the league in Ezekiel Elliott.
Now shift to the Giants. They have a ton of passing game question marks. Their offense finished 31st in pass pressure rate allowed last season (per Pro-Football-Reference), and their preseason performance in 2021 suggests they might even be worse at pass blocking this year. Daniel Jones is a turnover machine, as he has a career interception rate of 2.4 percent and has led the league in fumbles in each of the past two years. Kenny Golladay was a touchdown maven in 2019, as he racked up 11 scores in that season, but he has posted only one solid campaign outside of that and may not be quite as motivated this year after getting $40 million in guaranteed money. If Golladay doesn’t live up to his big-dollar potential, the Giants wideouts will be made up of mediocre pass catchers.
Washington’s receiving corps doesn’t look as one dimensional as the Giants’, as they have a superb downfield threat in Terry McLaurin and added Curtis Samuel in the offseason. Samuel may be a good fit here, as he played for Washington offensive coordinator Scott Turner in Carolina, but Samuel is battling a groin injury, has never posted more than 105 targets in a season, and averaged only 6.0 yards per target in his single campaign in the Turner offense.
The Washington Football Team is also taking a page from its history book and going the Billy Kilmer route by asking Ryan Fitzpatrick, who will turn 39 in November, to pilot the team through a 17-game stretch. If Fitzpatrick follows his historical pattern and plays great for a few games and then runs out of gas, Washington will be forced to put Taylor Heinicke, who has all of two career starts, under center.
Now ponder the rushing attacks of this division, again starting with Dallas.
Elliott is in the best shape of his career, and the Cowboys have a potential impact change of pace rusher in Tony Pollard. Dallas also has a set of offensive blockers that finished eighth in my good run blocking rate (GBR) metric last year despite Zack Martin and Tyron Smith missing a combined 20 starts.
In addition, McCarthy’s track record in Green Bay strongly suggests that he may decide to make the Cowboys a ground-heavy team. McCarthy’s Packers won 10 or more games on eight occasions and in only four of those seasons did those teams finish higher than 16th in pass attempts. In his last two years as a head coach, including his final campaign in Green Bay and his first in Dallas, McCarthy’s teams finished third and second, respectively, in pass attempts and yet posted a combined record of 10-17-1. McCarthy has seen how much more effective pounding the rock is than throwing all the time and thus he may be apt to get back to a ground-based approach in order to get this ship righted.
The Giants have Saquon Barkley, who broke all manner of rookie records for them and looks to be on track to pull off an Adrian Peterson-like comeback from a combined ACL/meniscus tear that cost him nearly all the 2020 season. New York is better at run blocking than it is at pass blocking, as it returns three of five offensive line starters from a group that placed tied for 13th last year in my good blocking productivity (GBP) metric that tracks overall rush game production.
Washington weighs in with Antonio Gibson, who took a big durability step forward last year by leading the team with 206 scrimmage plays. Ron Rivera has visions of turning Gibson into a pseudo–Christian McCaffrey and aims to find out if Gibson can take on a full bell cow workload this year.
Given the relative strength of this division’s rush game elements, it would seem that Gannon should prioritize stopping the run, and that’s before considering Prescott’s shoulder injury. It is enough of a concern that ESPN’s Adam Schefter opined that it could be a performance hindrance for Prescott all year long, thus providing McCarthy with even more motivation to lean on Elliott and Pollard.
What this all means is that Gannon may be spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to keep the rush game in check. The good news for Gannon is he has the personnel to do this, as the Eagles return six of the seven starting defensive linemen and linebackers who led them to rank fifth in GBR allowed last year.
The problem for that group, and what will be one of the main areas to consider upgrading for Gannon, is Philadelphia’s defense ranked 29th in my good blocking yards per attempt (GBYPA) metric last season. This statistic gauges how productive a platoon is when the offense has good run blocking, and the Eagles allowed a ridiculously high 10.0 yards per carry in these situations.
The key to fixing the high GBYPA is to understand that Philadelphia’s defense under Jim Schwartz made heavy use of a one-gap system that asks linemen and linebackers to get up the field quickly to defeat blocks. The Eagles were very good at this, which is why their GBR was near the top of the league, but the downside is when the aggressive upfield tactics didn’t work, it led to huge gaps and large ground gains that vaulted the Eagles GBYPA mark to near worst in the league.
Gannon has the capacity to fix this issue, as he has repeatedly said he wants his defense to be very adaptable and versatile, thus offering him many solution paths to any problem. He is certainly going to take full advantage of the run-stuffing talents that Fletcher Cox, Javon Hargrave, Eric Wilson and Alex Singleton bring to the table, but Gannon is also likely to mix in more two-gap fronts that slow down certain types of runs and thus allow additional time for tacklers to close in on the ballcarrier. It may be just the type of thing to add more consistency to the Eagles rush defense. If it works, it could be a major factor in Philadelphia improving upon its 2-4 division record last season.