The Eagles’ Weird New Defensive Plan

When it works, it works. But when it doesn't—like in Thursday's game against the Steelers—it really doesn't

In the first half of Thursday’s easy outing against the Eagles, Steelers’ QB Ben Roethlisberger came to the line of scrimmage and saw something that he had to have believed was a trick. The Eagles’ defensive ends were deployed so wide, they were almost on the sidelines. The tackles lined up where ends usually could be found, leaving a hole in the middle so large Max Jean-Gilles could have run through it. After searching in vain for the hidden camera and realizing the Birds were indeed leaving the middle of the field completely unprotected, Roethlisberger took the snap and followed center Maurkice Pouncey for an eight-yard gain.

It was only one embarrassment in a half full of them for the Eagle defense. But, believe it or not, Andy Reid was just fine with it. You bet he was. If he can get Roethlisberger to run, instead of throwing TD passes over Asante Samuel’s fake-biting head, he’ll take it every time.

Those who have been paying attention during Reid’s tenure as head coach in Philadelphia know that the big man is in love with the forward pass. Can’t get enough of it. If you thought those old AFL coaches were crazy, they had nothing on Reid, who has no problem letting his QB throw it about 60 percent of the time–or more. The guy went to Brigham Young, for crying out loud. How many times in the past 10 years have we lamented Reid’s intractability when it comes to the ground game? The man is a passing fool.

Because of Reid’s undeniable affection for throwing the ball, it stands to reason he believes stopping the pass is the most important thing a defense can do. The old adage that defense and the ground game win championships is lost on him, even though all four of last year’s conference finalists (Green Bay, Chicago, Pittsburgh and New York) were in the top 9 in total defense during the regular season. Yes, the Eagles were one of the league’s top rushing outfits, but that was due to Michael Vick’s scrambling, not an homage to the 1972 Dolphins.

That’s why Reid hired Jim Washburn as defensive line coach before this season. He knew the cranky veteran excelled at putting pressure on the passer with the front four, even if that means sacrificing success against the run at times. Washburn likes to splay his ends out wide–really wide–the better to get an advantage over slower offensive tackles. The more room Trent Cole and Jason Babin have to gather momentum, the harder it will be for any of those dancing bears charged with protecting the QB to stop them.

Further, by pressuring the passer with just four men, the Eagles can hide their relative inadequacies at linebacker and safety with seven-man zone coverages that enable corners Asante Samuel, Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to shine. When they choose to blitz, the wide ends create large gaps through which extra pass rushers can charge and take advantage of offensive lines stretched out by greater areas they must cover.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Imagine a whole season that looks like the first pre-season game against Baltimore. Sacks galore. Plenty of pressure.

Trouble is, the next week, against Pittsburgh and Roethlisberger, showed what can happen when a balanced offense meets the wide-nine scheme. Without a pair of defensive tackles capable of stuffing things in the middle—starters Mike Patterson and Antonio Dixon were out–the young linebackers were put in difficult positions when the Steelers ran the ball. And when the Pittsburgh front line gave Roethlisberger time (which was often), he was able to carve up the Birds’ secondary.

In two weeks of football, we have seen the good and bad of the Birds’ new defensive scheme. It’s impossible to tell which result is more likely to represent the way the regular season will go. But there can be no denying Reid’s commitment to the philosophy. His off-season moves prove it. He didn’t sign a run-stuffing tackle, instead choosing Cullen Jenkins, who is more known for his ability to rush the passer. Babin is a relatively undersized (267 pounds) end, whose 12.5 sacks last year proved his ability to pressure the QB. Rodgers-Cromartie and Asomugha were acquired to stiffen a secondary that is starting two second-year safeties with a rookie in reserve. And the linebacking corps is young and shaky because Reid’s desire to stop the pass at the expense of the run means he doesn’t have to employ Pro Bowlers on the second line of defense. Since the NFL doesn’t want anybody hitting real hard anymore, perhaps Reid thinks pro football is going to become touch football.

It’s possible that as the weather cools and the games become more important, those ends will creep closer to the middle of the field, and the Eagles will become a more conventional unit. For now, though, Cole and Babin (and Juqua Parker and Darryl Tapp) will get in the starting blocks and take off at the snap after their quarry. If that means Ben Roethlisberger runs for eight yards, Reid will be just fine with that.

So long as he doesn’t pass for 80 on the next play.


  • The panic button is not an option, but three blown leads in six days and a shrinking lead over Atlanta must give Phillies fans a bit of anxiety. The object is to charge into the post-season, not coast, so it’s time to pick it up, fellas.
  • Placido’s back; Jimmy’s out. Just another week in one of MLB’s oldest clubhouses. Let’s hope the Phils aren’t burned by the lack of a trade-deadline move to upgrade their infield depth. The idea of Wilson Valdez or Michael Martinez playing regularly during the post-season is frightening.
  • Jason Kelce may be having an impressive pre-season, but is it a good idea to have a pair of rookies in the middle of the offensive line, especially if King Dunlap might be your starting right tackle? So much for Vick’s being more committed to the pocket this season. Put on the track shoes, Mike.