The Eagles’ defensive coordinator brought the acronym with him from Indianapolis and learned the foundational principles of the philosophy in prior stops with Atlanta, Tennessee, and Minnesota.
In many ways, the traits of hustle, intensity, takeaways, and smarts are just common sense when it comes to describing winning football.
The order is somewhat pigeonholed with both Gannon and head coach Nick Sirianni admitting that the takeaway battle is one of the two key statistics that correlate the most toward winning games in the league (the other being explosive plays for those wondering).
The hustle, intensity, and smarts aspects of the equation will help any defender generate turnovers, however.
On Thursday, before the first of two joint practices with the Cleveland Browns, Gannon was asked what is the most difficult part of the philosophy for rookies to pick up one, an interesting question because Philadelphia gained two high-profile, first-year defenders from the national champions, Georgia’s Jordan Davis and Nakobe Dean, in the 2022 draft.
“Intensity, because you don’t get to do it,” Gannon said. “Intensity is kind of that last piece to the puzzle. When we talk about the ways that we measure that, that’s full tackle to the ground and hitting. So, we really made an emphasis on that in the last game and these next two games coming up.
“That’s where that shows up.”
The Eagles, like much of the NFL in the modern era, no longer have live periods in practice where you can actually tackle players to the ground. The only actual live football reps before the Sept. 11 opener in Detroit are the preseason games and those are very limited for key contributors.
Because of their status as rookies, Davis and Dean get to play a little bit more than the entrenched starters and the latter should get plenty of opportunities in upcoming games against Cleveland and Miami. Davis, however, might be scaled back.
That’s because the first-round pick is expected to be a big part of Gannon’s defense in Game 1 vs. the Lions while Dean has the luxury of a learning curve with veteran linebackers in front of him who’ve had excellent summers like T.J. Edwards, Kyzir White, and Davion Taylor.
Ironically, Dean hadn’t flashed too much in training camp in South Philadelphia but came on a bit when allowed to be physical in the preseason opener against the New York Jets, finishing with five tackles.
It was almost like a Bulldogs’ reunion tour with Davis tying up blocks up front to allow the undersized Dean (5-foot-11, 231 pounds) a free path to the football.
“I expect all our linebackers to hit the ball when it’s in between the tackles,” Gannon said. “That’s the job of a linebacker, is hit the ball. So I really thought that — and in practice you can see that happening, but, again, it’s not full go and full tilt.
“But I was not surprised how Nakobe played at all.”
Although the Eagles like their off-call linebackers to cross-train, Dean is the only one who you can project as a starting-level player at either the MIKE or WILL spots. Edwards is more of a traditional middle linebacker at 242 pounds while White, a one-time safety in college at West Virginia, and Taylor, an athletic marvel, are best suited on the weak side.
Add in special-teams standout Shaun Bradley, who has played the MIKE and WILL, and Gannon has plenty of options after starting last season with anything but.
The goal, though, is to find two standouts. In the short term that’s Edwards, who is arguably the Eagles’ most underrated player, and White, a free-agent pickup from the LA Chargers, who already flashed his coverage skills against the Jets with an interception of Zach Wilson.
Attrition is part of the NFL, however, and it’s always desirable to have the luxury of depth.
Those thinking about a rotation, though, and pointing to the start of the 2021 season are probably on the wrong path. Gannon mixed and matched at first last season because he didn’t really know what he had.
“You saw earlier in [the] year we did that a little bit and then it kind of calmed down,” Gannon said. “It really goes down to who is our best people and what we’re trying to do that week, what are our favorable matchups.”
It’s conceivable that on certain weeks you might want two coverage LBs on the field (perhaps White and Taylor) or the two best run-stuffers (Edwards and Dean) but communication plays a part in that as well with the so-called green dot which has been Edwards’ responsibility when he’s on the field.
“You have to take into consideration who’s calling the defense, the green dot, because you don’t want that guy subbing out a ton,” Gannon admitted. “We’ve done it, but you would like to [keep it conistent].”
Gannon identified that consistency at “80% of the snaps you would like to be able to just say it and that’s what gets ripped.”
That will be Edwards’ job to lose in Week 1 vs. Detroit and for the rest of the season with Dean ready to step up if needed.
“I think that process will sort out in the next couple weeks,” said Gannon. “But there is value to having multiple guys that can step in and play really good football for us and help us win games.”