Eagles Wake-Up Call: On the Wide-9 Fears
Today’s question comes from reader Nilesh via email:
Why will the new wide 9 be better than previous wide 9?
The change in Mychal Kendricks is noticeable. He added 15 pounds of muscle to his frame this offseason, bumping up from his 2015 playing weight of 235 pounds to 250.
“I feel strong. I feel fast still. I’m a lot more stout than I was. I think you can tell — I’m pretty big right now,” said Kendricks. “I don’t know how I’ll feel hitting someone yet — I’m assuming I’ll feel realllly good.”
The decision to bulk up was his own, Kendricks told reporters last week. A big part of the motivation was tied to the different demands that will be presented in Jim Schwartz‘s scheme — which yes, has a fairly heavy Wide-9 element to it. A combination of how the defensive front lines up and (more importantly) how they are instructed to behave means Kendricks and the linebackers will be dealing with a number of unencumbered offensive linemen steamrolling to the second level.
“Initially [the d-linemen] are up the field so it’s not the same as it was last year — reading as opposed to the linemen getting upfield,” said Kendricks. “We may see more people in our face, which means we would have to be more physical, and I’m all for it.”
Kendricks knows the challenges well. He was a rookie in Year 2 of the Jim Washburn-Juan Castillo disaster that didn’t make it to the finish line back in 2012. He was part of the failed experiment that turned “Wide-9” into a blasphemous term among Eagles faithful.
Anybody following along back then knows that the linebackers and safeties can feel the strain in a system like this because of increased responsibilities/degree of difficulty in the run game. It seems naive to think there won’t be some rough patches this time around along those lines.
There are a couple factors to keep in mind, though, when comparing the two situations. One, the coaching dynamic is significantly better. The staff was built around Washburn in the first iteration. The DC proved to be Castillo, who remains one of the most curious hires in Eagles history. There was no flow and respect was lacking.
So was the personnel. A linebacking corps led by the likes of Casey Matthews, Moise Fokou and Jamar Chaney was ill-equipped to handle the load. Now there’s Kendricks and Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham, a group that should at least be able to hold its own. Similarly, a Malcolm Jenkins-Rodney McLeod safety duo seems better set up for success than, say, Nate Allen-Kurt Coleman.
It’s also important to remember that Schwartz is not expected to live in the Wide-9, even if he’ll use it a good amount. This is a pretty accomplished defensive coordinator we’re talking about whose Bills ranked first in sacks, fourth in points per game and third in takeaways in ’14. As is the case with all successful coordinators, a number of different elements were sprinkled in based off past experiences.
Schwartz maintains that a lot of his approach is personnel-driven, but there are some core philosophies that have been developed via trial and error over the last 20 years coaching in the NFL.
“When I first went to Tennessee, we based out of a lot of three-four,” said Schwartz, “but [the gravitation towards the 4-3] probably came from just the personnel that we had. We drafted Jevon Kearse, and there was a lot of thought whether Jevon Kearse was going to be a 3-4 outside linebacker, whether he was going to be a defensive end. We decided to try to make it as simple as we could for him. Put him in one spot and just let him attack, and let him rush the passer and let him play the edge.
“Had some success with that, and the other guys in the scheme it fit. We acquired Kevin Carter, and we drafted a lot of different guys. And philosophically, I think the thing that’s guided that has been try to make it as simple as we can. It’s a coach’s job to make a complex game simple for the players. It’s our job to make it where they can digest it. There are a lot of things that are going on on the field. Offense is running tempo now and different personnel groups and formations and there’s a million different things going on. They have to process all that stuff. Our job is to try to streamline the information, allow them to play fast, and give them confidence.
“I think that the other part of a 4-3 is when you can affect the passer with four guys. When you’re not forced to blitz to get pressure on the quarterback, you’re in a very good position on defense. And I’ve been there before where you can’t get pressure and you have to blitz, and it’s not a great feeling. You want to blitz on your terms. You want to be able to blitz when you want to when the situation is right, not, well, we can’t generate a pass rush unless we do. So allowing those guys to keep it simple, to be able to pressure with four and not make yourself skinnier so to speak in coverage can also take some of the big plays away from offenses.”
There’s no way to guarantee that this year’s version will be superior to the last. What we can say is this group seems to be better set up from a coach and player standpoint, meaning there’s a chance the “Wide-9” won’t be met with this degree of apprehension come season’s end.
WHAT YOU MISSED
“We see it differently than I guess some other people may.” Jeffrey Lurie explains why the Eagles traded up for Wentz.
NFC East Roundup: Ben McAdoo is “turning heads,” DeSean Jackson’s costly absence and more.
“Sam Bradford started the initial quarterback controversy in Philadelphia. Let’s be clear on that.” Weekend Reading.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
There will be a focus on stopping tight ends under Schwartz, writes Jimmy Kempski.
While the Eagles have made the switch from a 3-4 defense under Kelly and Billy Davis to a 4-3 under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, it appears the Eagles will still put a high priority on safeties who can cover.
The difference, however, is that Kelly and Davis used to talk about safeties who could cover slot receivers. Schwartz seems to be more geared toward safeties who can stop tight ends.
“The way offense is run now, particularly with multi-dimensional tight ends, you saw the emphasis our team put on those tight ends and some of the contracts that those guys got, you are other using them in a lot of different ways,” said Schwartz.
“You’re lining them up as wide receivers. You’re motioning them and doing all those different things. And if you have a safety that’s not comfortable playing out there like a corner, you’re going to be in trouble.
Brandon Brooks is fitting right in so far, per Bob Ford.
“He was one of the key pieces we’ve been missing,” said Johnson, who lines up next to him on the field and off. “He’s big. He’s strong. It didn’t take much time for us to hit it right off. We’re pretty good friends. He makes me that much better. He’s the complete package. He’s become one of the guys.”
Fitting in with the new team and the new city extends beyond the choice between toasted and untoasted (he goes toasted). Brooks, who graduated from Miami of Ohio with a degree in psychology, is interested in learning the world of finance. He shadows business executives on occasion during the offseason and had lunch recently with Maryellen Lamb, the deputy vice dean of admissions at the Wharton School. His plan is to earn an MBA during his time in Philadelphia.
“I wouldn’t mind living here when I’m done,” he said. “The Northeast way of life feels good to me.”
OTAs continue from the NovaCare. We’ll be there.