What have we learned about Jonathan Gannon's Eagles defense?

What have we learned so far about the Eagles' defense? originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

It’s still too early to really know what the Eagles have on defense, but Jonathan Gannon’s unit is off to an encouraging start.

Could they have gotten a stop somewhere on the 49ers’ three long scoring drives? Could they have held onto one of those near interceptions? Could they have limited the penalties and mistakes? Could they have finished a sack or two? Could they be more consistent against the run?

Yes to all the above.

But here we are two weeks into the season, and the early returns are promising.

The Eagles’ defense has allowed 23 points and two touchdowns, and from a small sample size it looks like they’ll have the ability to keep the Eagles in most games.

The Falcons game was no contest, and that’s not much of an offense, but when you hold any NFL team quarterbacked by a future Hall of Famer to six points that’s good work.

The 49ers game is a little harder to figure out. The defense allowed two touchdown drives of 90 yards or more, dropped three interceptions, didn’t record a sack and allowed the 49ers to get a late third down to clinch the win.

But 17 points is 17 points. It wasn’t a stellar performance, but when you allow 17 points, you should win. The Eagles held the 49ers to 306 yards, 4.5 yards per play and 3.1 yards per rush. It was only the third time in Kyle Shanahan’s five years as head coach the 49ers have been held to those numbers.

And thanks to the ineptitude of the offense, the defense had to play 35 minutes Sunday, and it’s tough for any defense to hold it together for 35 minutes. Felt like a Chip Kelly game from that standpoint.

And not surprisingly, this was the first time since Kelly’s first year – 2013 – that the Eagles allowed 17 or fewer points in a game where the opponent had a 10-minute time-of-possession edge. It actually happened in consecutive weeks in 2013 in losses to the Cowboys (17-3) and Giants (15-7).  

Only once in the last 40 years have the Eagles allowed fewer points through two games, and that was 2005, when they allowed just 17. Only the Panthers (21) have allowed fewer points this year.

Two games in, a few things stand out regarding the defense:

  • They have to start creating turnovers. This is only the third time in franchise history the Eagles haven’t had a takeaway through two games (also 1996 and 1998). They’re only the third team in NFL history to allow 23 or fewer points through two games despite not getting a single takeaway. Over the long haul, you’re not going to keep holding teams to 17 points without takeaways. Anthony Harris had six INTs two years ago. Darius Slay once had eight INTs in a season. Eric Wilson had three INTs last year. The Eagles desperately need takeaways. 

  • The pass rush has to be better. The Eagles had three sacks in Atlanta – all from interior linemen – and none against the 49ers. Only four teams have fewer sacks. And now with Brandon Graham out for the year, the Eagles are missing their best edge rusher. Derek Barnett, Josh Sweat, Ryan Kerrigan and Tarron Jackson need to find a way to make life uncomfortable for opposing quarterbacks. Are they up for it? 

  • They haven’t allowed big plays, but they also haven’t made big plays. The Eagles have allowed only two 20-yard plays, fewest in the league so far. But three combined takeaways and sacks is also fewest in the league. Weird combination. 

  • The secondary is better. The Eagles have only allowed just one pass play longer than 20 yards so far. It was a damaging one, setting up the 49ers’ TD just before halftime Sunday. But the NFL average is six. No other team has allowed just one.  

  • Overall, the Eagles have allowed just 4.29 yards per play in their first two games, which is 3rd-best in the league (Panthers 3.69, Bills 3.74). That’s a really impressive number. The last time the Eagles allowed fewer yards per play over a full season was 1991 with their historic top-ranked defense.

It’s too early to draw any real conclusions, but it’s safe to say the defense is on the right track, and if it can start creating some turnovers, getting sacks and giving the offense some good field position it will make the Eagles a more dangerous team.

But over the next six weeks, the Eagles face four top-10 offenses – the No. 1 Chiefs, No. 7 Bucs, No. 8 Raiders and No. 9 Chargers. In addition to the Cowboys next Monday in Arlington and the 2-0 Panthers. 

If this defense can hold up against that onslaught, then it will be safe to be impressed.

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