Eagles’ emphasis on stopping big passes leads to another problem

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Fearing big pass plays springs another problem for Eagles’ defense originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

It makes sense in theory.

The Eagles faced a Chiefs team with a high-flying offense so the plan was to limit huge passing plays from Patrick Mahomes that could have ruined the game.

The problem: By playing heavy Cover 2 (two deep safeties) it opened up the middle of the field for the Chiefs compile 200 yards on the ground.

One clearly led to the other.

Defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon acknowledged as much.

“A little bit, because when you're taking away big plays in the passing game or you're trying to take away people that they're trying to get the ball, you're going to be light at times in the run game,” Gannon said.

“But the first critical thing for myself is, how can I call the game a little bit better at a little higher percentage to say, ‘Well, they're really not trying to attack down the field in these certain spots. Let's be better in the run.’”

Yeah, a little more balance might help.

It’s a tricky position for a defensive coordinator who is calling plays for a unit without much top-notch talent outside of Javon Hargrave. The Eagles’ defensive line lost Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox isn’t playing up to his normal level and we’ve seen only flashes from the other linemen. Meanwhile, the linebacker position has been neglected for far too long. And the back end isn’t good enough to suddenly hide those blemishes.

Gannon won’t use any of that as an excuse; nor should he. But the lack of talent is clearly playing a role.

Nick Sirianni on Monday explained how he and his staff define “explosive plays.” The Eagles count passes of 16+ yards and runs of 10+ yards in that category.

The Eagles want to win that differential week-to-week, but the way it has been working out on defense through the first quarter of the season is notable and relatively predictable.

When it comes to passing plays of 16+ yards, the Eagles’ defense has given up 11, tied for the second-fewest in the NFL.

But runs of 10+ yards? The Eagles have given up 19, which ranks dead last in the NFL.

So the Eagles are cutting off their nose to spite their face.

“When you're playing a little bit more middle field open coverages like we're playing, we got to be able to do some more things with the front, be able to change some things on the front and create a couple of issues for the offense so they can't just run it when you're in those middle field opens,” head coach Nick Sirianni said.

“Because, I think you guys see, when you're in some of the middle field open coverages that we're in, the big pass play gets limited, right? The big pass play gets limited. But, if you're not doing some of the right things in the front with what you're doing in the front, then the run game can be susceptible, right? You give a little, you get a little.”

Against the Chiefs, the Eagles eventually gave up four explosive passing plays but they gave up eight explosive running plays and all eight resulted in first downs for the Chiefs.

Since his arrival in Philadelphia, Gannon has proclaimed he doesn’t have a scheme but we’ve seen some tendencies from him early this season. He would probably argue they’re personnel and game plan driven. But the Eagles play a ton of Cover 2 with their safeties playing very deep and they are in their nickel sub package an awful lot. Gannon on Tuesday said he doesn’t see his unit as a dime (six defensive backs) team right now, which might have hurt them on the touchdown where Tyreek Hill ended up 1-on-1 with linebacker Eric Wilson.

And the constant deep safety zone looks are clearly hurting them in the run game.

Perhaps the alternative is worse. …. But the Eagles’ defense did just give up 76 points in back-to-back games.

Maybe some of this will change. After all, the Eagles just faced the Cowboys and Chiefs, who have two of the most explosive passing offenses in the NFL. The Eagles aren't equipped to stop those offenses and Gannon’s goal -- a valid one -- was to limit those big chunks through the air. But if that’s the plan, you still need to stop the run.

They didn’t do that.

“But, again, that kind of goes into each week is a different game plan and you call the game differently each week,” Gannon said. “So, you know, again, it comes down to, let's put our players in a little bit better position to be successful.”

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