Bent and broken early, the Eagles defense came to life way too late | Marcus Hayes
They faced the G.O.A.T, and they bowed down instead of blitzing.
Jonathan Gannon’s moment in the sun was as brief as it was refreshing.
It was almost cruel. After four weeks of bland performances, Gannon’s defense stifled the Panthers in Carolina. Suddenly dynamic and daring, it recorded three sacks and three interceptions, but Gannon only got three days to savor adoration and approval.
Now Gannon’s got 10 days to endure more hate.
Terrified of Tom Terrific, Gannon reinstated his bend-and-then-break defensive scheme.
He wouldn’t blitz, again. His safeties lined up behind the back judge, again. His defensive linemen didn’t lay a paw on the quarterback, again — not a whiff for the first 20 minutes, and very little thereafter. After 40 minutes the Eagles trailed, 28-7. It was not that close.
The Bucs didn’t score again. They still won, 28-22, and dropped the Eagles to 2-4. Why did things change? Why did the defense stiffen?
Gannon grew some guts.
“We started mixing up calls,” said veteran safety Rodney McLeod. “Tried running our disguises a little bit, give them just a different look. Create some indecision for Tom.”
Too little, too late.
To be fair, Brady and the Bucs entered as the NFL’s No. 3 offense in terms of yards (431.4) and points (33.4). They finished with 399 and 28, but could have had a few more of each at the end.
To be fair, the defense got little help from quarterback Jalen Hurts and head coach/play-caller Nick Sirianni. But then, Hurts, in his 10th career start, is a backup in starter’s clothing. Sirianni has never before called plays — or head-coached, or press-conferenced. They’re both underqualified and undermanned, what with a makeshift offensive line, an inexperienced receiving corps, and starting tight end Dallas Goedert sidelined with COVID-19. Still, Sirianni and Hurts managed 22 meaningful points.
To be fairer, the defense was awful early. The Bucs converted 5-of-8 third downs by the middle of the third quarter. By the end of the quarter, the Bucs had possessed the ball slightly more than 30 minutes, more than twice as long as the Eagles.
Not good enough
Gannon and his defense should, simply, be better. He was the Colts’ defensive backs coach last season, was courted by three other teams to be their coordinator. Gannon lost Pro Bowl defensive end Brandon Graham in Game 2, but that’s about it. The rest of his defensive line is well-paid and pedigreed, as is most of his starting secondary.
It’s also true that general manager Howie Roseman’s distaste at signing and drafting good linebackers puts Gannon in a tough spot. What’s more, Gannon’s getting little out of veteran tackle Hassan Ridgeway and he’s gotten nothing from end Ryan Kerrigan, a pair of low-budget Roseman specials.
But they are all reasons why Gannon should be blitzing early; why he should be playing his safeties closer to the line, using players like linebacker/end Genard Avery in unusual positions, and daring even quarterbacks like Brady to beat him.
He’s got nothing to lose.
Gannon finally figured that out after the Bucs scored four touchdowns in their first seven significant possessions (they ran the clock out to end the first half). Too little. Too late.
Consider Gannon’s goal-line solution at the end of the Bucs’ first drive: Kerrigan dropping into coverage. Kerrigan is a hard-ridden 33 years old. Brady, 44, knows this. That’s why, from the Eagles’ 2-yard line, he lofted a little rainbow pass over Kerrigan to tight end O.J. Howard. Kerrigan gamely dropped his cane and leapt, but it was futile and slightly pathetic.
The Patriots’ second touchdown drive featured repeated abuse of linebackers Alex Singleton and Davion Taylor.
Leonard Fournette ran through Taylor’s tackle and turned a 3-yard gain into an 18-yard gain. Howard stiff-armed Singleton to the ground and gained 10 yards after that contact. Fournette ran through Singleton at the line of scrimmage and converted third-and-1 as the clock hit the 2-minute warning. On the ensuing play, Taylor found himself in the end zone long before Fournette trotted in behind a blocker.
It continued all night. One memorable instance: Fournette carried Eric Wilson the last 5 yards of a 20-yard run early in the third quarter — a play egregiously telegraphed by formation on third-and-3. The telegraphing didn’t matter. Brady could have given Gannon the diagram and his players wouldn’t have stopped it.
Again, Gannon doesn’t have good linebackers.
That’s precisely the reason why you don’t put the onus on your linebackers against the likes of Thomas Edward Patrick Brady.
Nowhere to go but down
Defense-centric cities like Philadelphia lavish love on their football teams when the D plays well. Like Bears fans, Vikings fans, Giants fans, Ravens fans, Eagles fans make heroes of safeties and linemen, and gods of their defensive coordinators.
Gannon glimpsed Olympus when he returned from Carolina, where he exposed quarterback Sam Darnold.
Then along came Brady, and Gannon tumbled to the bottom again.