The Eagles have become accustomed to elite defensive results lately. In the Doug Pederson years, Jim Schwartz - now crafting one of the best defenses in the league with the Browns - built a fierce unit that made it very hard for opposing offenses to score. Schwartz was followed by Jonathan Gannon, a longtime Mike Zimmer disciple whose defense played well enough (sans Super Bowl) to earn him a head coaching gig with the Cardinals.
Now there’s a new face running the defense in Philadelphia. Sean Desai came over from Seattle, where he spent one year as the assistant head coach of defense. Prior to that, Desai had spent nine seasons rising the ranks within the Bears organization, eventually being named the defensive coordinator for the 2021 season and becoming the first NFL coordinator of Indian descent. In that lone season as coordinator, Desai inherited a very talented but aging defense and, for the most part, kept the momentum rolling.
With the Eagles, Desai has walked into a similar situation. The Eagles were third in defensive DVOA a year ago and returned a handful of aging stars in Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Darius Slay, and James Bradberry. However, Desai also saw some big changes to the roster shortly after coming aboard.
In total, five starters departed in addition to three other key contributors on the defensive line and secondary. Both starting linebackers and both starting safeties left in free agency, and elite run-stuffer Javon Hargrave also departed for the 49ers. The Eagles seemingly bet on their in-house talent, asking Jordan Davis to assume Hargrave’s role with Nakobe Dean and Reed Blankenship stepping into larger roles alongside low-cost free agent signings like Zach Cunningham, Nicholas Morrow, Terrell Edmunds, and Justin Evans.
The results have largely been negative. The Eagles rank 18th in defensive DVOA and 17th in EPA/play allowed. They’re also 17th in yards per play and 19th in points per game. They’ve especially struggled to get off the field or keep opponents out of the endzone, ranking 25th in third down defense and 26th in red zone touchdown rate.
So what’s the problem? Is Desai really that bad? Structurally, Desai’s scheme is very similar to what the Eagles had been running. Gannon was a Zimmer disciple who pivoted more towards the Vic Fangio style of defense over his time with the Eagles. Desai is actually a tried and true Fangio disciple, having spent four seasons under Fangio in Chicago before running the same scheme when he took over in 2021.
Schematically, that means a ton of two-deep safety shells with lots of zone coverage (mostly Cover 2 and quarters) and light boxes. The idea is to take away big plays in the passing game and rely on defensive line play to stop the run. It’s the same approach the Cowboys have faced in each of their last two games, though Desai is a little unique in that he mixes in a heavier blitz rate. Desai doesn’t go nuts with the blitz, but the Eagles have seen a noticeable uptick in blitzes so far under his guidance.
One thing that’s worked well for Desai this year, as opposed to the Chargers or Rams, is that his defensive line is arguably the best in the NFL and, therefore, capable of holding their own against the run. They’re only giving up 3.8 yards per carry and lead the league in run defense DVOA.
However, the secondary has been an issue. Veteran corners Darius Slay and James Bradberry have been beaten consistently: Slay’s 72% completion rate allowed is fourth-highest among qualifying corners, while Bradberry’s 116.3 passer rating allowed is 13th-highest. Josh Jobe, who was forced into action when Avonte Maddox was lost for the year, was just behind Bradberry with a 113.1 passer rating allowed. He’s since been benched in favor of rookie Sydney Brown, who has been the Eagles’ primary slot corner the last two weeks.
The biggest weakness for Desai’s defense, though, has come at linebacker and safety. Cunningham and Morrow have been solid in coverage at linebacker, but Dean has been abused all year. He has yet to force an incompletion on 13 targets. At safety, Blankenship has been the most reliable of the group, but Desai - a former safeties coach - cycled between Evans and Edmunds for a time before the front office pulled off the trade for former Titans All-Pro Kevin Byard. This will mark Byard’s second game with the team, so it’s hard to know yet just how much of an impact he’ll actually make.
The Eagles need Byard to be the stabilizing force, though. Desai’s pass defense has suffered greatly despite being eighth in pressure rate and sixth in sacks. Only three defenses have allowed more air yards than the Eagles this year, which is a failure of the main objective of this scheme.
Now, they’ll face a Cowboys offense that just had its best performance of the year and has faced two straight defenses with the same type of scheme. Add in the gaudy statistics that Dak Prescott has put up against the Eagles, even when they’ve been good on defense, and it’s hard to imagine a worse recipe for Desai and this defense. The cold and hostile environment of Lincoln Financial Field will play a role, but this is still a game that the Cowboys offense should be firing on all cylinders.