You don’t often hear NFL coaches openly talk about emulating the schemes of their contemporaries. Jonathan Gannon didn’t exactly say that he was copying Brandon Staley’s defense. But the new Eagles defensive coordinator would certainly prefer it to be as versatile as the Rams’ system from last season.
“If our players can do it, yes,” Gannon said Thursday. “I would say that if you look at the No. 1 defense in the league last year, the L.A. Rams, they had by far the most different personnel groupings and the highest amount of different fronts.
“Not to say that we’re going to do that, but I do think that versatility in your front and coverage makes it hard on the offense.”
Gannon, of course, first needs personnel capable of handling multiple roles if he is to be as versatile. There is always a tug of war between implementing a desired system vs. scheming to the strengths of your players.
But if the first three days of Eagles training camp has revealed anything about Gannon’s desires, it’s that he wants to be as multifaceted as possible. Naturally, versatile players love it.
“I think one of the things that Coach Gannon’s scheme is really allowing us to do is just be multiple, be versatile,” defensive end Ryan Kerrigan said Friday, “and I think I fit that bill.”
The movement up front has been the most noticeable. Ends have lined up as down linemen or stand-up linebackers. Tackles have been three-techniques or five-techniques or even 3-4 noses. Some linemen have played both end and tackle.
Jim Schwartz, Gannon’s predecessor, employed various fronts and utilized versatile players in multiple roles. But he also believed in his core system -- one built off the aggressiveness of his front four -- and doing what you do best. Don’t change simply for the sake of change.
“I feel like you’re still going to be able to play fast,” Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham said of Gannon’s defense, “but you’re just going to have to know your stuff.”
Schwartz’s defenses rarely had issues up front. The problems were at the second level and the back end. And again, while Schwartz did mix it up in the secondary, his coverage calls didn’t compensate enough for what the Eagles lacked in talent.
Gannon’s playbook is apparently larger. Safety K’Von Wallace said there is more to learn than previously. Certain positions in the secondary will also have to adjust to new responsibilities. Avonte Maddox said that the slot cornerback is required to communicate more than he had in Schwartz’s defense.
Being versatile and multiple also allows for an effective pre-snap disguise. Quarterbacks, at least the best ones, need only motion to reveal a coverage. The more variables, the less chance they have of knowing the answers to the test.
But do the Eagles have personnel capable of juggling more than one role? Do they have veterans willing to play outside their comfort zones?
There are certainly candidates, especially players acquired this offseason such as the 32-year-old Kerrigan or third-round draft pick Milton Williams. The latter has practiced at both end and tackle and Gannon said the rookie could line up at five different spots across the line.
As for a returning cornerstone like Fletcher Cox, he has always been capable of moving around. But Cox has typically gotten his way, which is to mostly play as the penetrating defensive tackle.
“So far I’ve been the three-technique every time,” Cox said Wednesday. “So I’m happy about that.”
He shouldn’t get too comfortable there.
“He’s going to move around, too, because of his skillset,” Gannon said of Cox. “I think we should move him around. When you put him over the center, it’s a hard matchup for a center.”
Cox said he was willing to do whatever his coaches want. The Eagles’ lynchpin in the secondary said the same, although cornerback Darius Slay has long been associated with his press-man coverage and ability to shadow an offense’s top receiver.
“We’re going to, for sure, do what he does the best,” Slay said of Gannon. “But I think he’s really just seeing what we all can do.”
The Colts, Gannon’s previous team, ran significantly more zone than man coverage last season. But there could have been many different reasons for that, from playing to the strengths of their own personnel to countering the strength of opposing offenses.
Playing man does restrict a defense in some ways, as it would force others to play it, as well. But typically the only teams that favor man and play straight up are the ones with superior talent.
“He’s going to play some man-to-man,” Gannon said of Slay. “We’re just going to figure out how much of it we can play, if it suits us to win the game that week.”
The early portion of camp is often the time for experimentation. Gannon unfurled a bunch of 3-4 looks with edge rushers like Genard Avery and Joe Ostman as outside linebackers. Both may be better suited to those roles, but neither is guaranteed a roster spot.
At the second level, Gannon would love to have a 4-3 outside linebacker who could fill the role Anthony Barr did when he was in Minnesota working under Mike Zimmer. But if the Eagles don’t have someone who can cover and rush like Barr, then why give someone both those responsibilities?
“I think we’re still defining that role,” Gannon said when asked if he had candidates.
The Eagles defense has, for the most part, had the edge on the offense, but that is often the case early in training camp. Gannon is obviously trying to foster a mentality that will define his unit.
The defense has been physical even though the players have yet to wear full pads. Emphasis has been placed on forcing turnovers with defenders hounding ball carriers long after the whistle.
“A lot of ... offensive head coaches, they don’t want to see that,” Gannon said. “Nick [Sirianni] believes that’s the best thing for the team, the offense and the defense. So, he allows us to do that.
“Now, we got to clean it up because we don’t want guys on the ground at times, but on defense, we’re going to play with a stinger and I’m not going to take that stinger away.”
Scheme is important, and having versatile players equipped to carry out multiple calls is imperative in today’s NFL. But on defense, having a particular identity is also important. And often a unit will adopt the personality of its coordinator.
“Energy and his attention to detail,” Kerrigan said of Gannon, “I think that’s been the two things that have stood out.”
Similar had been said about Staley, now the Chargers head coach, when he first arrived in Los Angeles. The NFL buzz on Gannon is that he, too, could be the next hotshot defensive coordinator. But no matter how great his scheme may be, you win with the Jimmys and Joes, not the Xs and Os.