Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Eagles expect Schwartz's Wide 9 to work better than last version

THE LAST TIME the Wide 9 was seen in these parts, it was helping grease the skids for Andy Reid's firing and being excoriated as a bad-awful defensive alignment that seemingly sacrificed everything else for the sake of sacks.

THE LAST TIME the Wide 9 was seen in these parts, it was helping grease the skids for Andy Reid's firing and being excoriated as a bad-awful defensive alignment that seemingly sacrificed everything else for the sake of sacks.

The Wide 9, a deployment in which the defensive ends line up near the mezzanine-level concession stands so they can burn rubber around the offensive tackles and beat them to the quarterback, was brought to the Eagles in 2011 by Jim Washburn, who was hired as the team's defensive line coach shortly after Reid came up with the really, really dumb idea to make his longtime offensive line coach, Juan Castillo, his new defensive coordinator.

The Eagles tied for the NFL lead in sacks in 2011. But everything sort of went to hell the next year. Washburn had no respect for Castillo and pretty much did what he pleased, which isn't a good way to run a defense.

Washburn's Wide 9 struggled to get sacks as quarterbacks went to quicker throws. It also left gaping running lanes that resulted in the Eagles finishing 23rd in the league against the run.

Castillo was canned in October, Washburn was sent packing in early December, and Reid followed them out the door after an unwatchable 4-12 season and a big thanks-for-the-memories hug from Jeff Lurie.

Four years later, the Wide 9 is back, this time under the direction of Washburn's former boss, Jim Schwartz, who is the team's new defensive coordinator.

The Eagles are hoping and praying Schwartz's Wide 9 will be the salvation for a defense that gave up a franchise-record 36 touchdown passes and the fifth-most points in the NFL last year. Critics of the Wide 9 have suggested that the alignment puts too much run-stopping pressure on the linebackers and safeties.

But Schwartz's defenses finished 11th or better against the run in six of the nine seasons he was a defensive coordinator in Buffalo (2014) and Tennessee (2001-08), including fifth or better four times.

"I really do like this defense, I like it a lot,'' Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham said Tuesday on the first day of the team's three-day predraft minicamp. "It's a lot different (now) than what it was back (in 2012). People are working together. Back then, it was out of whack a little bit.''

Graham is one of only four current defensive players who were on that 2012 team. All-Pro defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, who isn't attending this week's voluntary camp, defensive end Vinny Curry and linebacker Mychal Kendricks are the other three.

"A lot of people weren't on the same page that year,'' Graham said. "We were doing our own thing as a defensive line. The linebackers were kind of doing their own thing. It was just really out of sync.

"I think Schwartz is more organized. He has a certain way he does it. All the coaches are buying in to what he's done, because they've seen the finished product. He's had some real good defenses. And I want to be part of that. I want to be part of something good.''

Schwartz's attacking defense will revolve around Graham and the front four. They are the engine that makes the Wide 9 go.

"It looks like we're going to be an aggressive bunch," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "Especially up front. They're going to have the freedom to do a lot of things, to disrupt the offense. And everybody else will be pretty much playing off of them. So it starts up front."

Schwartz's Wide 9 does put more run-stopping responsibility on the linebackers and safeties. In Bill Davis' 3-4 two-gap scheme the last three years, the safeties' primary responsibility was coverage, with defending the run a distant second. That will change.

"The (safety) run responsibility goes from being a (outside) 'D' gap to a 'C' gap with the Wide 9," Jenkins said. "But everything else is pretty much the same.

"The ends will have the freedom to cause havoc and pick and choose where they want to go. Whether it's inside or outside. Linebackers and secondary guys who are off the ball, you have to do a good job of reading what's in front of you."

Graham and fellow defensive ends Curry, Connor Barwin and Marcus Smith are ecstatic over the switch back to a 4-3 and the opportunity to tee off on the quarterback.

Graham tied for the team lead in sacks when he played in the Wide 9 in 2012. He had 5 1/2 in only 420 snaps.

"It's all about going and getting the quarterback,'' Graham said. "I got more stout against the run (last year). So I'm excited to see how everything transitions for myself and for the defense as a whole.''

Schwartz told his linemen that he intends to rotate them regularly during games.

"We're going to stay fresh,'' said Graham, who played nearly 900 snaps last season. "We're not trying to play for September-October. We're trying to play for December-January-February. Having a constant rotation is going to be good for us.''

Barwin, who was responsible for much of the dirty work as an outside linebacker in Davis' 3-4 - coverage, setting the edge for the run - is looking forward to playing end in Schwartz's Wide 9. He played end in a 4-3 with Houston his first year in the league.

"The best way I can explain it is I'll be doing stuff I like to do more and stuff I don't like to do less,'' he said.

"I've been familiar with the Wide 9 my whole career. Schwartz was in Tennessee when I was in Houston. They had a ton of success in our division. I had friends who played for him in Buffalo (in 2014). And I'm from Detroit, so I paid attention to the Lions when he was the head coach there (2009-13)."

Smith, the team's 2014 first-round pick, has been a disappointment his first two seasons. He has only 1 1/2 sacks in 194 career snaps.

He played in a 4-3 his first three years at Louisville before they switched to a 3-4 his final year.

Smith said he has watched a lot of film of the 2014 Bills defense when Schwartz was there.

"I kind of see myself the same as (Bills defensive end) Jerry Hughes. He plays the 9-technique and sometimes he stands up and sometimes he has his hand on the ground. Jim Schwartz has given us the flexibility to stand up or put our hand on the ground.

"I'm looking at this as a great opportunity to get better and do some great things. The last two years have been tough, but I still have my goals. I want to be able to get sacks and make plays.''

@Pdomo Blog: