How the Philadelphia Eagles changed C.J. Gardner-Johnson’s game for the better

Through his first three seasons in the NFL, all with the New Orleans Saints, defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson had a total of five interceptions. The Saints traded Gardner-Johnson to the Philadelphia Eagles on August 30 for a fifth-round pick in 2023 and a sixth-round pick in 2024, giving a 2025 seventh-round pick back in 2025.

Through his first eight games in the Eagles’ secondary, Gardner-Johnson has… five interceptions, which leads the league. He got the fifth on Thursday night in Philly’s 29-17 win over the Houston Texans, which kept the Eagles as the league’s only undefeated team.

The pick came with 8:23 left in the third quarter, and at that point, the game was tied at 14. Houston quarterback Davis Mills made an ill-advised throw under pressure, and Gardner-Johnson made a great play to turn the ball over.

The Eagles had been playing with their food before that, but after Gardner-Johnson’s interception, they scored touchdowns on their next two drives, putting the game out of reach.

In conjunction with star cornerbacks Darius Slay and James Bradberry, Gardner-Johnson has become a fulcrum in a defense that ranked second in the NFL in DVOA (behind only the Denver Broncos) through Week 8. They also ranked second in Defensive Passing DVOA through Week 8, behind only the Denver Broncos. Quite an uptick from ranking 24th in overall Defensive DVOA and Defensive Passing DVOA in 2021.

One reason the Eagles found Gardner-Johnson so attractive is that they had a safety problem last season. Outside of Rodney McLeod, who signed with the Indianapolis Colts in the offseason, they didn’t have a legitimate pass defender at the position(s). It’s the primary reason this defense in 2021 allowed 18 catches on 43 targets of 20 or more air yards for 580 yards, one interception, four touchdowns, and an opponent passer rating of 110.4.

In the first eight weeks of the 2022 season, on those same types of deep throws, the Eagles had allowed four completions on 22 targets for 136 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 68.0. Their EPA per play allowed on deep throws dropped from +0.28 to -0.35.

That’s why they got Gardner-Johnson. What they did with him to change the arc of his career was even more interesting, and has a predecessor in Pennsylvania’s other NFL team.

The Eagles put Gardner-Johnson on the Minkah Fitzpatrick plan.

(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

When the Pittsburgh Steelers traded their 2020 first-round pick to the Miami Dolphins in September, 2019 for defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Alabama alum was well on the same path he’d ridden with Nick Saban at Alabama. Both with the Dolphins and the Crimson Tide, Fitzpatrick was capable of playing just about anywhere in the second and third levels of a defense — from slot to box to outside cornerback.

The Steelers saw something else in Fitzpatrick — they saw a potential top-five free safety based on the player’s traits, and they were absolutely correct. In 2018, his one full season with the Dolphins, Fitzpatrick played 379 snaps in the slot, 281 at outside cornerback, 166 at free safety, 95 in the box, and 23 on the defensive line. In his four seasons with the Steelers, Fitzpatrick has seen 809, 852, and 911 snaps at free safety, and 369 in 2022. That’s who he is now.

The Eagles wanted Gardner-Johnson to do the same thing, and that’s played out on the field. He was primarily a slot defender with the Saints (my second-best slot defender based on his 2021 tape), and he’d never played more than 69 snaps at free safety in any season. This year, through eight games? He’s at 258. And Philly’s coaches saw this before they made the trade.

“Just looking at his tape, the skill set that he brings, he basically played a lot in the slot, but he has played safety before,” defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon said of the switch on August 6, a few days after the trade happened.  “We’ve talked about a modern-day safety is doing it all, coverage ability, being able to play in the box, having range, playing post closed, post open, covering, tackling, communicating, being smart.

“I feel like he’s going to integrate well into the defense.”

Well, that’s certainly been the case.

Winning as an intermediate and deep eraser.

(Michael Chow-USA TODAY Sports)

Gardner-Johnson has interceptions in all kinds of coverages — everything from single-high (Cover-1, Cover-2) to split safety (Cover-4, Cover-2) His ability to lock things down as the sole deep-third guy gives Gannon and his staff all kinds of other coverage options, because they don’t have to make up for anything. It also allows the Eagles to play all the different coverages they went, and they’ve been mucg more multiple in that regard this season.

“To have a guy who is a ballhawk back there in addition to other guys that are ballhawks with our corners, man, that’s huge,” Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni said after the Thursday night win. “You shift a game at any time. That shifted that game. That catch shifted the game and our momentum. It wasn’t an easy catch. He’s looking at me like, ‘You need to put me on offense.’ We’ve got some good wideouts, so I don’t know if we’re there quite yet. But I know he’s going to catch it. That’s what you fear as an offensive coach, when you make a mistake, a guy can make you pay. We got a bunch of those guys out there. And Chauncey is definitely one of them.”

The interception against the Texans came out of Quarters coverage. Two of his picks this season have come from deflections by other defenders and Gardner-Johnson being in the right place at the right time, but there’s value in that, too. His first of two Cooper Rush interceptions against the Cowboys was one such play.

And if you’d like a safety who can backpedal to the really deep third… ask Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray how this attempt to Marquise Brown worked out.

When Sirianni talks about “ballhawks,” this is what he means.

Where he can get even better.

(Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

Pro Football Focus has debited Gardner-Johnson with four touchdowns allowed this season; among the three I found, the common denominator seems to be late movement to the ball. And it’s not happening at deep safety.

Back to the Cowboys game, and Dallas offensive coordinator Kellen Moore did a nice job of throwing Philly’s defense off in the red zone by putting running back Ezekiel Elliott and guard Matt Farnick in the backfield. This was first-and-goal from the seven-yard line, so you can understand why linebackers Kyzir White and T.J. Edwards were reading run all the way. But in taking that extra split-second to ensure that the run wasn’t coming outside right, Gardner-Johnson left himself late to cover tight end Jake Ferguson. This was the difference in that particular touchdown.

The Eagles run a lot of five-man fronts, and in their sub-packages, they’ll run Penny defenses, with five linemen, one linebacker, and five defensive backs. That puts the onus on the underneath defensive backs to take care of business, and as Gardner-Johnson has already played 131 snaps in the box this season, the Eagles have already made it clear that they want him to be that guy, as well.

The Eagles now have a jack-of-all-trades, and a master of one.

(Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

Every NFL team has flaws from major to minor, but it’s hard to pick too many nits with the Eagles right now. Even when they don’t let Jalen Hurts bomb enemy defenses with the deep ball, their body-blow offense is highly effective, if maddening at times. They have the best offensive line in football, and a run game that can tear you up in multiple directions.

We have not talked enough about the defense. But when playoff time comes around, that defense will matter even more when it does now, and it will also mean just as much when Philly has their in-season rematches with the Giants and Cowboys in Weeks 14 and 16 respectively; each of those NFC East foes currently stand at 6-2.

The trade for C.J. Gardner-Johnson wasn’t the biggest splash move made by general manager Howie Roseman over the last season, but it’s provided as many positive dividends as any other. Imagine the Eagles facing the Kansas City Chiefs or the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl LVII. Now, imagine that happening without a true deep safety to tie a defense together against any explosive passing game.

In that instance, Gardner-Johnson might make all the difference, as he already has.

Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire