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Eagles’ loss to Raiders turns into referendum on defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon’s scheme

Sunday’s game dispelled any notion that the Eagles’ defensive woes were exclusive to games against elite quarterbacks.

Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr throws the football paste Eagles defensive tackle Javon Hargrave during the third quarter on Sunday, October 24, 2021 in Las Vegas.
Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr throws the football paste Eagles defensive tackle Javon Hargrave during the third quarter on Sunday, October 24, 2021 in Las Vegas.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

LAS VEGAS — Nick Sirianni didn’t trust his defense.

At the opening of the second half during the team’s ugly 33-22 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium, the head coach elected to try an onside kick to turn the momentum, partly because he didn’t think his defense could do so.

The risky choice didn’t pay off. The Raiders reeled off a six-play, 41-yard touchdown drive to take a three-possession lead en route to a convincing win, but the logic was apparent. The Eagles defense looked toothless to that point, forcing just two incompletions out of Raiders quarterback Derek Carr in the first half.

After the game, Sirianni conceded he made the decision in part because of the way the defense had played.

“It was something that we saw in the scheme that we felt good about,” Sirianni said. “We didn’t feel like we were getting enough stops in the first half on defense and I wanted to be aggressive. I’d do it again.”

» READ MORE: Eagles-Raiders instant analysis: Embarrassing, mistake-filled loss in Las Vegas leads to questions about coaching

The bleeding didn’t stop there. Carr completed 91.1% of his passes in the game, the best percentage he has had in his eight-year career. He threw for 323 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception.

Sirianni and defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon both detailed the self-scouting process the coaching staff went through during the 10-day stretch between Sunday and last Thursday’s primetime loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The chance to reflect on the first third of the season led to the offense switching things up, but it was the same, old defense in Sin City.

After the game, Sirianni conceded that schematic changes are needed from Gannon.

“We need to challenge more,” Sirianni said. “It always starts with us as coaches being able to put them in position to make plays. We need to call defenses that allow our defenders to challenge more and then our players have to be up for it. When someone is 91, 92% or whatever it is, everyone’s got a piece of that.

“Anytime you’re not playing well, you have to make changes. You have to adapt, you have to move. I don’t wanna say you have to make a completely different philosophy switch, but we gotta do different things to help our players, absolutely.”

The Raiders offense was all too happy to capitalize on underneath passes, screens, and sprint-outs to take advantage of the Eagles’ constant soft-zone-coverage looks and infrequent blitzing. The Eagles defense was bad on all levels. The secondary couldn’t force incompletions, the linebackers were targeted often and didn’t respond, and the defensive line finished the game with hardly any pressures and no sacks.

“We weren’t able to take his first reads away, honestly,” Eagles safety Rodney McLeod said. “We weren’t able to disrupt him in the pocket. That goes hand in hand, we talked about this as a defense. Secondary and defensive line goes hand in hand. We have to do our job in the back-seven to allow those guys an opportunity.”

After the game, Fletcher Cox voiced his frustration with the passiveness of the scheme, acknowledging that he confronted the coaches for a play-call he disagreed with.

“It was one of those deals where, honestly, as a player, I didn’t agree with what was called on the defense,” Cox said. “I let my frustration go. It’s part of the game.”

Cox has previously expressed concern with the philosophy changes Gannon has brought. Former Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz ran a scheme that allowed the front four to focus on one-gap and prioritized getting into the backfield over staying disciplined against the run.

“There are times where I’m aggressive and it’s good for us, there are times where I’m aggressive and it hurts us,” Cox said. “In the grand scheme of things, I just have to play what’s being called. I’m an aggressive player. That’s how I made my living, playing in the backfield and splitting double-teams. I’m not used to double teams staying on me two, three yards down the field. It’s just frustration, you get frustrated. ... Being the player that I am, you can only take so much. I’m going to do something about it, I’m going to be aggressive.”

The Raiders first three drives all traveled further than 70 yards, including a back-breaking 96-yard series in the second quarter. Avonte Maddox’s first interception of the season bailed the Eagles’ defense out on Las Vegas’ opening drive, but the Raiders reeled off 30 unanswered points after that.

Sunday’s game dispelled any notion that the Eagles’ defensive woes were exclusive to games against elite quarterbacks. The concerning showings against the Dallas Cowboys, Kansas City Chiefs, and the Bucs could each be partly explained away by the gulf in talent between those offenses and the Eagles defense.

All three of those teams were ranked in the top five of defense-adjusted value over average going into this weekend. They each have a top-tier quarterback flanked with a handful of playmakers. The Raiders offense ranked 22nd in DVOA and was without tight end Darren Waller, arguably its best player.

Waller being ruled out with an ankle injury before the game didn’t matter Sunday, though. The Raiders still exploited the Eagles’ linebackers in coverage and backup tight end Foster Moreau made an impressive catch over Eagles safety Marcus Epps for the Raiders’ first score. Carr completed passes to nine different players, including a 29-yard completion to fullback Alec Ingold.

Yes, even the fullback with just five catches this season was generating explosive plays in the passing game against the Eagles.