Examining the Eagles’ Defensive Surge

Is the Eagles' defensive improvement real or the fool's gold of playing poor quarterbacks?

Jonathan Gannon calls a play against the Kansas City Chiefs at Lincoln Financial Field on October 3, 2021. / Photograph by Mitchell Leff / Contributor via Getty Images

What’s real and what isn’t with the Eagles’ fifth-ranked defense?

It’s rare when you can tie up bottom-line success vs. failure in the NFL with a bow and a tidy ribbon. On the surface, at least, that is the case with the Philadelphia defense, however.

When the Eagles were facing a murderer’s row of quarterbacks that featured Dak Prescott, Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, Derek Carr, and Justin Herbert things often got ugly and when those names turned to Trevor Siemian, Zach Wilson, Garrett Gilbert, and Jake Fromm the defense shot up the charts.

The demarcation line was Week 7 in Las Vegas when Carr completed over 90% of his passes in a 33-22 Raiders win that sparked a come-to-Jesus moment with at least some veterans on the plane ride back to Philadelphia.

At that point many fans wanted first-year defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon run out of town on a rail.

Since then, Gannon has had the kind of success that would make any DC blush, and the odds of him becoming a one-and-done DC rest solely on another path: a potential head-coaching candidate around the NFL.

It’s an almost startling 180 in which the defense has turned into a top-10 unit across the board.

So what’s going on? Is the Eagles’ stop unit objectively good or is the success fool’s gold?

“That’s a good question. I mean, I might sound negligent, but I really don’t read or care about stats,” Gannon said earlier this week. “[A record of] 8-7 that’s the stat that I know, so that shows us we got a long way to go.”

While others are caught up in the macro of a large sample size, Gannon is immersed in the micro of his process and what he’s encouraged by is the improvement he’s seen.

“Am I happy that we’re improving week to week? Yes. I think the players are doing an excellent job and I think the coaches are doing a really good job,” the DC surmised. “We talk about it all the time, this is the first year in what we’re doing. We got some guys doing some new things. It’s a brand new coaching staff.”

“As you go along the season you figure out certain ways how you want to play and who you’re defending and what’s working and what’s not. I really think it’s a credit to the position coaches and the players that we’ve kept improving just a little bit each week.”

Safety Anthony Harris chalked up the improvement to chemistry.

“As time has passed, everybody has settled in a bit, really got an understanding of where we’re supposed to be, what we’re doing out there on the field, building that chemistry with one another and being able to focus more on opponents and how they’re going to attack us,” Harris explained. “I think that’s probably been the biggest thing. Just the experience. You give somebody the opportunity to go into a situation and rep it a number of times, you should be able to see some improvement with that.”

When pressed if the chemistry was more about the players getting to know each other or more about better understanding Gannon’s scheme, Harris was diplomatic.

“I think it’s a little bit of both,” said Harris. “I would definitely say that a large part of that is understanding and wrinkling out the level of details, and not really becoming somebody who understands the defense from a general level, but everybody sort of raising their play mentally, just as well as physically, to be able to make a difference. I think that’s a large part of the game, not just your physical ability but your ability to recognize different plays. Understanding the scheme, and understanding where the weaknesses are, and being able to play to the strengths and weaknesses of each defense.”

“I think over time, players have been able to adapt to that as well as building the chemistry of one another, just seeing things on the field the same way. Being able to understand how one person sees it and what we’re able to do in terms of communication among the defense.”

Defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, a Pro Bowl alternate, steered toward situational football as the difference.

“Just getting off the field on third down, or just stopping the run more. I think those are the two big things that we definitely got better at during these last parts of the season and on this run,” Hargrave said. “It’s just really getting teams off the field on the third downs.”

The physical manifestation of the tide turning has been MIKE linebacker T.J. Edwards.

Since taking over as a starter in Week 8, Edwards has dominated, grading out as the third-best LB in the NFL since then per Pro Football Focus. Meanwhile, the Eagles’ ability to stop the run went from less-than-stellar pre-Edwards at 133.0 yards-per-game to a very stingy 79.8 with him running the show.

“He’s really settled in,” Gannon said of Edwards. “He’s the green dot and he makes all the front mechanic calls with the front. I mean, he’s making the back end calls with the back-end guys, and he’s just a really good communicator. You hear me talking about being emotionally stable. He’s one of those guys that every once in a while I’ll juice him in his ear and he just gives me a thumbs-up. ‘I got you, Coach,’ or, ‘T.J., get this done,’ ‘I got you, Coach,’ and then a call comes in.’”

“He’s been a joy to be around. He’s smart, tough, physical.”

Edwards himself also points to a better-developed chemistry.

“Process-wise, I think guys are just more familiar with each other,” said Edwards, who is coming off a career-high 16 tackles last week against the New York Giants. “The chemistry is there and you can feel that from coaches to players and players to players. We’ve all just grown as the year has gone on.”

Gannon, meanwhile, is staying in the moment, something he noted when discussing those potential head-coaching opportunities.

“I appreciate the question, but guys, like come on now. We’re fighting to get into the dance,” Gannon said. “I always talk to our players about be where your feet are. What that means is I’m not thinking about the future. I’m not thinking about the past. I’m thinking about beating Washington.”

John McMullen covers the NFL and the Eagles for Sports Illustrated and JAKIB Media. He’s also the co-host of “Birds 365,” a daily streaming show covering the Eagles and the NFL, and the host of “Extending the Play” on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at or follow John on Twitter: @JFMcMullen.

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