All-22 Wake-Up Call: The Eagles’ New Defense
Jim Washburn had a problem. The year was 1999, and he was the Tennessee Titans’ defensive line coach, but they weren’t getting enough sacks.
Washburn had difficulty determining how his defense could be more aggressive without overhauling the scheme, so he approached a defensive quality control coach in a trailer one day. It was especially tough figuring out what to do with the defensive lineman who lined up in front of the tight end, so Washburn suggested the lineman should shift outside the tight end, or from a 6-technique to a 9-technique.
“Hold on a second,” Washburn said. “Look, we’ve got eight guys to defend eight gaps. Why can’t one of my guys’ gaps be the edge? Be the nine technique? Let all you other a—holes cover those other gaps. Why can’t I have that one?”
“Well, why don’t you draw that up for me?”
The defensive assistant, who figured out the unit’s run fits, showed Tennessee’s defensive coordinator — Gregg Williams — what he came up with.
“That’s a pass-rush front,” Williams said. “That’s not good versus the run.”
The idea was quickly discarded, but the defensive assistant who made Washburn’s vision a reality became Tennessee’s linebackers coach the following year, and the team’s defensive coordinator the season after that.
After Jim Schwartz’s quick ascension up the ladder to lead the defense, the Titans kept revisiting his old idea. Before long, Schwartz ironed out the kinks in the proposal, and his wide nine was born.
COMBINING THE 4-3 AND 3-4
Despite somewhat popular belief, the wide nine isn’t a defense. It’s a technique, and in Schwartz’s system, he doesn’t use it every play. But it’s a notable element in a scheme that helped him rise from an unpaid internship under Bill Belichick in Cleveland to being Detroit’s head coach at just 42-years-old.
Before struggling in his five-year tenure leading the Lions, the Eagles’ new defensive coordinator made a name for himself when he ran Tennessee’s defense, and he reminded the NFL what he could do last season in Buffalo in the same role.
In 2014, the Bills ranked first in points allowed per drive, according to Football Outsiders, and in 2008 — Schwartz’s last year in Tennessee — the Titans ranked third. (Schwartz did, however, have an up-and-down tenure before his extreme success at the end of his time in Tennessee.)
The wide nine seems particularly adept at accomplishing its initial goal: putting players in a better position to sack the quarterback. Buffalo ranked first in the NFL in sacks in 2014, and the Titans ranked fifth and seventh in Schwartz’s last two seasons in Tennessee.
Although critics of the wide nine say the technique makes it easier for offenses to run the ball up the middle, that seems to be why Schwartz implemented it in the first place. When he started out as the Titans’ defensive coordinator, he had difficulty stopping the Colts’ stretch run plays.
When he watched film of Indianapolis playing New England, however, he noticed how the Patriots were stout against it.
“We took that, and we said, ‘Sh-t, New England never has to play the stretch. It’s all inside zone. That’s all they run,'” Schwartz said at a coaching clinic last year, where he recalled the origin of the wide nine. “They eliminated a lot of runs, and we said, ‘What if there’s a way we can somehow play 3-4 principles in a 4-3?’”
According to Schwartz, this strategy was instantly successful. He carried the technique with him to Detroit, and again to Buffalo.
To illustrate how the defensive end’s wider alignment makes it difficult for running backs to reach the edge, we pulled a play from a 2012 Lions game (h/t James Light). Detroit hosted Houston, who ran the stretch against them several times, including the play below.
“That was what we needed to do to funnel things back to guys like Albert Haynesworth, to guys like Ndamukong Suh, to guys like Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams,” Schwartz recently told the Eagles’ website. “Our philosophy was we’re going to eliminate something that you do – we’re not going to let you run outside, so come on slug it out inside with us.”
In the wide nine, Schwartz also likes his defensive ends to angle their body inwards.
Of course, Schwartz’s technique has its weaknesses. In 2011, when Washburn was the Eagles’ defensive line coach and employed the tactic, Chris Brown, one of the best X’s-and-O’s football writers there is, critiqued it.
“Obviously there’s no magic to this: it’s just telling your defensive ends to pin their ears back and to rush on passing downs,” he wrote. “Indeed, moving those defensive ends out that wide opens up all manner of attendant issues, issues that the Eagles opponent’s have routinely exploited this year. Specifically, by aligning the defensive end so wide, the end has farther to go to get to the quarterback.
“[It also] obviously opens up all kinds of issues in the run game: the defensive end aligns so wide the interior offensive linemen can quickly get up to the second level defenders like the linebackers, and the defensive ends are easy marks for traps, draws and counter plays as they sprint upfield.”
‘WE GOT TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT’
In Schwartz’s second season as the Titans’ defensive coordinator, Tennessee ranked in the top-10 in the NFL in points allowed per drive and sacks. But after his defense gave up 41 points in the AFC Championship game to the Raiders, he noticed a problem.
“Jevon Kearse was a blistering b-tch off the edge,” Schwartz said at the coaching clinic. “I mean, nobody could block him. He was 6-5, 6-6, long-ass arms. Just a blur on the outside. He was wearing [Raiders offensive tackle] Lincoln Kennedy out with speed rush.
“But the problem was he couldn’t get to the quarterback. Because f—king Rich Gannon was under-center and he was dropping five yards deep. Lincoln Kennedy knew that if Jevon went wide, it didn’t matter because Gannon was getting rid of the ball.”
After that game, Schwartz eschewed the traditional way defensive coordinators employed a pass rush. A long-held belief in football, which many — including Billy Davis — still subscribe to, is that your defensive linemen should occupy four or so lanes and collapse the pocket on the quarterback.
When dialing up a pass rush, defenses consider the offense’s personnel groups, the offensive line’s protections, and down-and-distance, among other variables. Schwartz, however, began to tie the quarterback’s tendencies in the pocket into his week-to-week game-plans.
That meant instead of trying to collapse the pocket on Peyton Manning, they wanted him to escape the pocket because he didn’t like moving around. As for Michael Vick, they tried to ensure he only escaped the pocket to his right because it was harder for him to throw the ball than when he ran to the left.
Schwartz also said that Washburn, whom he called one of the best position coaches in NFL history, would pester him after every game the Titans didn’t generate a good pass rush.
“If we didn’t get sacks on Sunday, by the time I got to work on Monday morning, I had a list of every pass thrown on my desk and how fast it was thrown,” Schwartz said. “1.2 seconds. 1.3 seconds. 1.1 seconds. .78 seconds. We don’t have a chance. We can’t get a sack. The ball’s coming out too fast. Well, rather than keep b-tching about that, we started trying to develop a system to say, ‘Okay, well look, we got to do something about it.’
“So in establishing our rush plan, that’s where we started. We started with the quarterback. Where can he escape? Is he a step-up-in-the-pocket guy? Is he an escape guy? Where do we need to keep contain? Because we didn’t keep contain on both sides.
“We wanted to give our guys free reign to make inside moves, particularly the right defensive end working that left tackle. Most right-handed quarterbacks have a hard time escaping out to the [defense’s] right side. We said, ‘Look, we want him out there.’”
In five of the eight seasons Schwartz was Tennessee’s defensive coordinator, the Titans finished top-10 in the league in sacks, including three of the last four years. When the Bills ranked first in sacks last season, Schwartz said they blitzed just eight percent of third downs, which was the lowest mark in the NFL.
Part of that success also seemed to be because of the wide nine. In 2011, Greg Cosell and Adam Caplan explained on the Eagles’ website how the technique helped defensive ends reach the quarterback. Cosell pulled a play from the preseason, when Trent Cole recorded a sack against the Browns.
“Look how far outside [Jason] Babin and Cole are in their initial position, and look at their stance,” Cosell said. “They’re essentially in a track stance, just to take off. What the wide nine does — look how much space it creates between the defensive end and the [offensive] tackle. These guys have the chance to gain speed and velocity as they attack.
“Even a player like Trent Cole, who’s not 290 pounds, he can develop speed and velocity and transition that to power as he does here. Look at him. [Browns left tackle] Joe Thomas weighs 50, 60 pounds more, but look at how Cole is able to get underneath Thomas’ pads and win.”
HOW THE PERSONNEL FITS
Regardless of where he’s been, Schwartz insists there’s always been one hallmark of his defenses: they attack. He seems to preach aggressiveness over anything else, and although Doug Pederson wouldn’t confirm whether the Eagles would play a 4-3, the team will likely discard the 3-4.
How does the personnel fit into that? Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan would probably be the two defensive tackles, and they’d form one of the best duos in the NFL. Schwartz likes his linemen to attack, not read and react, so Cox will likely be even better next season.
Connor Barwin told the Eagles website he’d “probably” play defensive end in a 4-3, and Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry — if he re-signs — would likely join him.
Jordan Hicks seems set to play middle linebacker, while Kiko Alonso and Mychal Kendricks would fit on either side of him. However, Alonso did play weak side linebacker in Buffalo, and Kendricks has experience as a strong side linebacker, so those appear to be natural fits.
It’s unclear who will return in the Eagles secondary, but the team would probably feel fine if Nolan Carroll walked and Eric Rowe started at cornerback opposite of Byron Maxwell in his sophomore season. Walter Thurmond potentially leaving, however, may be a tough blow.
Regardless, after having a defense that regressed each year under Davis, the signs seem to point upward with Schwartz at the helm.
“I’m excited to have [Schwartz], his track record and his defenses that have led the National Football League,” Pederson said at his introductory press conference. “I’ve had a chance to coach against him and I’m glad he’s on our team now.”
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WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
Jeffrey Lurie got what he wanted in Doug Pederson, at least so far, says CSN Philly’s Reuben Frank.
3. As for Pederson, I thought he acquitted himself well Tuesday. He seemed a little nervous at the start, but that’s understandable considering he was facing probably 10 times more media than he had ever faced in his life. I liked what he said. He came across as clear and no-nonsense with absolutely no BS, which was a nice change of pace from Kelly, who sometimes seemed more interested in playing games with the media than actually answering questions with substance. It’s clear Lurie was looking for the anti-Kelly in a head coach, and Pederson is certainly that. No ego, no nonsense, no BS. Just an old-fashioned football coach who gets along with people, doesn’t make enemies, doesn’t play games. It’s a breath of fresh air.
I had a longer conversation with Pederson Tuesday after his presser than I had in three years with Kelly. And I was one of the few writers Kelly actually liked. But again, being a nice guy doesn’t win football games. Pederson is replacing a coach that won 10 games in two of his three seasons. Once September rolls around, being a nice guy won’t win football games. He’s got very limited coaching experience for an NFL head coach, and there will be plenty of challenges along the way. But if Lurie wanted somebody who comes across as a polar opposite to Chip Kelly, he nailed this hire.
Howie Roseman will have the Eagles’ hammer, writes the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Bob Ford.
Unless he’s had a change of heart, that’s still the way it will go, and Roseman is going to be the boss. Regardless of what Lurie says in a news conference, that is also the way NFL people perceive the job opening. Among the player personnel executives around the league looking to climb someone’s ladder, is it more attractive to work under Roseman, whose reputation as a boss is spotty, or to work over him, having just observed his role in sending a pretty powerful man down a slippery chute?
That’s a reasonable question, and one prospective candidates will ask themselves. The reality is that the job will almost certainly be slotted below Roseman’s rank, but saying so out loud would make it less likely that anyone with established credentials would take it. So, the company line is that decisions will be made in an atmosphere of “collaboration,” as if the front office will be a self-governing collective deciding what strain of organic bulgur to plant.