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October 08, 2021

What they're saying: Nick Sirianni rips Eagles DC Jonathan Gannon; Sanders vs. Gainwell

Eagles NFL
Nick_Sirianni_6_Eagles_49ers_Frese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni.

The Eagles will try to snap their current three-game losing streak on Sunday when they travel to Carolina for a Week 5 matchup against the Panthers. For the fifth time in as many games, Nick Sirianni's team will enter the game as an underdog, although the line for Eagles vs. Panthers has been shrinking as the week's gone on.

That could change on Friday when the final injury report comes out, as Philly could again be without its two starting offensive tackles in Lane Johnson (personal matter) and Jordan Mailata (knee). The Panthers, meanwhile, could be getting Christian McCaffrey back from a hamstring injury that kept him sidelined against the Cowboys a week earlier, leading to Carolina's first loss of the season. [UPDATE: McCaffrey is listed as doubtful for Sunday, which is good news for Eagles fans.]

For the Eagles, Sunday's game will likely come down to their defense, which has allowed an almost unfathomable 83 points in the last two games, albeit against two of the NFL's best offenses. Still, it doesn't matter how well your own offense plays when the defense can only make one stop in an entire game... 

That's led to a lot of concern over the D, and specifically new defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, whose defense remains without an identity through the first month of the season, largely because he doesn't want it to have one. 

On multiple occasions, the first-time D.C. has stated that the Eagles don't have a specific defensive scheme, preferring instead to tweak his coverages from week to week based on that particular opponent. So far, the results have been mixed to say the least. Against two lesser offenses in Atlanta and San Francisco, the defense played much better. Against Dallas and Kansas City, however, they looked like a college team lined up against a Pro Bowl squad. 

And it turns out the fans aren't the only ones furious over what's been happening on the field. Sirianni's apparently had enough as well. 

That's where we'll start this Friday edition of What They're Saying... 

A 'toothless, amorphous scheme'

Marcus Hayes |

Not all is well at the NovaCare Complex, as frustration over the current losing streak appear to be boiling over.

According to Marcus Hayes of The Inquirer, Sirianni chewed out Gannon during staff meetings earlier in the week. 

League sources said Thursday that, after Sunday’s blowout loss to the Chiefs, Eagles rookie coach Nick Sirianni blistered his defensive coaching staff in meetings early this week.

He targeted rookie coordinator Jonathan Gannon in particular. Sirianni is frustrated at Gannon’s toothless, amorphous scheme; Gannon’s timid calls; and Gannon’s poor utilization of star players like defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and Darius Slay.

“It was some tough conversations in the defensive room this morning,” Sirianni said Monday. This, according to the sources, was an understatement.

Sirianni was mad. But it sounds like Gannon didn’t get the message.  []

Hayes says Gannon didn't get the message because on Tuesday, presumably after these tense meetings, Gannon reiterated that he didn't have a defensive scheme, defended Fletcher Cox's sub-standard play, and offered up this answer when asked if the team needed to change something schematically to help the struggling run defense, an area that was always a strength under the previous regime:

"Yeah, I would think -- we always first look at the coaches," Gannon said. "You know, when we come in on Monday, critically, how can we help our players a little bit more to put them in better position to win the game.

"I think we're all pissed off about the last two games. We haven't played great on defense. That's evident. And that starts with me and starts with the coaches. So it always comes down to self-evaluation, ‘Hey, what can we do to help our players? What did we say the three things are to win this game? Did we get those three things done?’

"And the last two weeks, we have not done that. So, you look at -- if we get these three things done, are we putting ourselves in a position to win the game? You look at those first. The three things we said, are they the right things? Then from there, you look at execution and what we're asking our players to do and how can we help them and serve them better to put them in better spots. And that starts with me, to the coaches, right down to the players."

We'll see if anything changes by Sunday... 

Starting slow

Zach Berman | The Athletic

Speaking of the defensive struggles — and the personnel vs. coaching debate — there are two players in particular (aside from Cox) who have drawn the ire of fans on weekly basis: free agent LB Eric Wilson and fifth-year DE Derek Barnett (you can read Jimmy Kempski's film breakdown of Barnett, here). 

It's no shock that both those players found their way on to Zach Berman's list of three players who have surprised in a bad way. What was somewhat more surprising is that Miles Sanders made this list, mainly because his lack of involvement in the offense has more to do with the coaching and play calling than it does with his actual play — he's still been incredibly productive with the ball in his hands. But, as Berman points out, there's a reason the team seems to be going with rookie Kenny Gainwell so much... 

• Eric Wilson: I thought Wilson would be the best linebacker the Eagles have had since Nigel Bradham and Jordan Hicks. The league knew more than I did; he has underwhelmed through four games, hasn’t been good enough in coverage and is not a sure enough tackler.

• Derek Barnett: Penalties aside, I thought Barnett would at least be a steady edge rusher. He’s 25, in a contract year and playing on the fifth-year option. It’s kind of been like Nelson Agholor on his fifth-year option — not nearly enough production for the opportunities and not enough improvement for such a key player.

• Miles Sanders: A big part of this is usage because I still believe Sanders can be a home-run hitter in this offense. If a slugger is in a platoon, there’s likely a reason. The coaching staff isn’t putting Kenny Gainwell on the field because they have his fantasy shares. They like Gainwell in those situations better. That surprises me because Sanders has talent.  []

Backfield battle

Tim McManus | ESPN

Nick Sirianni's penchant for passing has certainly hurt Sanders' production, but it's perhaps how evenly the splits with Gainwell have been that's most surprising. The last two games, Sanders has just two more total touches (15-13), but Gainwell is getting more and more targets in the passing game each week, and on Sunday he had twice as many targets and receptions as Sanders. 

That might not seem like the most important thing, but Sirianni's history suggests that he loves running backs who can catch out of the backfield, and he likely sees those plays as an extension of the run game, which is part of the reason his run-pass ratio is so skewed. 

Here's more from Tim McManus over at 

Sanders' plummeting opportunities and Gainwell's efficiency have folks wondering if the Eagles have cooled on Sanders and are eyeing a changing of the guard -- or at least more of a timeshare situation.

As is always the case with life's riddles, the answer can be found in running back Danny Woodhead.

Coach Nick Sirianni was on the Chargers' staff during Woodhead's four seasons in San Diego. Those were some of Sirianni's formative years and he watched Woodhead, the 5-foot-8 speedster, carve up defenses game after game, particularly as a pass-catcher. When Indianapolis Colts coach Frank Reich and Sirianni took control of that team's offense in 2018 they drafted a similar style player in running back Nyheim Hines, who was a great fit for their system. It should be no surprise, then, that the Eagles selected Gainwell in the fifth round of the draft this past April.  []

Giving up on Sanders?

Reuben Frank | NBC Sports Philadelphia

So where does this leave Miles Sanders, who was picking up yards at a historic rate for the Eagles but now seems to be slowed both by the play calling and the emergence of a rookie at the same position? Reuben Frank of NBC Sports Philly pondered this exact question recently... 

Does Sanders have a future here? 

He’s only 24 and was a second-round pick just two years ago. In the 49ers game, he became the fastest Eagle ever to 2,500 scrimmage yards, doing it in his 29th game. So in a way it seems crazy to wonder how long he’ll be an Eagle.

It’s not unusual for teams to move on from running backs early in their career, but the thing about Sanders is that he’s still a very productive player — when he’s allowed to be. He’s averaging 4.6 yards per rush, fifth-highest among NFC running backs, and 9.6 yards per catch, 10th-highest among all running backs.

But it’s hard to ignore the sense that the Eagles feel that Gainwell, with his speed, elusiveness and receiving ability, is just a better fit for this offense than Sanders, who’s a holdover from the Doug Pederson days.  []

If the Eagles give away another talented running back from Pennsylvania... 

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