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Wide-nine defense could suit these Eagles

Typically, when a sentence starts, "When I was playing high school football . . .," it draws a blank stare or an eye roll. When Jim Schwartz uttered the phrase on Tuesday, however, he wasn't about to recount the glory days of his youth.

Typically, when a sentence starts, "When I was playing high school football . . .," it draws a blank stare or an eye roll. When Jim Schwartz uttered the phrase on Tuesday, however, he wasn't about to recount the glory days of his youth.

The Eagles defensive coordinator was anecdotally illustrating a point about his scheme.

"When I was playing high school football, the coach would always say, 'Hey, everybody stay in your lane. Everybody stay in your lane,' " Schwartz said. "Nobody covers a kick that way in the NFL anymore or college football because [if] one guy is out of his lane, it's gone for a touchdown.

"You attack in levels."

"Attack in levels" may be the best-ever explanation of how the wide-nine - the system Schwartz has become synonymous with - works. It is an aggressive defense, but most of what has been written about the scheme focuses on the defensive line, in particular the ends who often line up in the nine-technique (wide of the outside shoulder opposite a tackle or tight end).

While the defensive linemen are the linchpins - they, after all, have first dibs on ballcarriers and the quarterback - it is the linebackers and safeties who have more responsibility within the scheme.

There will be one lineman, in some cases, who must eat up a blocker, likely tackle Bennie Logan among the starters. But, for the most part, ends Vinny Curry, Brandon Graham, and Connor Barwin and tackles Fletcher Cox and Logan will be unleashed to penetrate through gaps.

That's the first wave, or in Schwartz's parlance, the first "level." If the offensive play is a run, for instance, and the rusher slips through, there is a second level of attacking defenders. This next wave - comprising linebackers and safeties - should be moving downhill and plugging holes to avoid blocks.

"You have guys that are disrupters, guys that attack the blocks, and other guys that play leverage off of them," Schwartz said during his first news conference of training camp. "If we are going to play attack up front, and we are because we want to put those guys in position to be able to rush their passer and play the run on the way to the quarterback, the linebackers have to be tied in, and the safeties have to be tied in."

The 3-4 two-gap scheme that the Eagles played under Chip Kelly ideally built a wall up front that strung running backs out as lateral-moving linebackers and safeties shot gaps and made tackles. In essence, the 4-3 wide-nine is a vertical defense while the 3-4 two-gap is a lateral one.

The Eagles, of course, ran a version of the wide-nine in 2011 and 2012 after luring defensive line coach Jim Washburn away from the Titans, but the execution was subpar.

Washburn was given the tools up front, but neophyte coordinator Juan Castillo - who was charged with implementing the scheme - was shorthanded at the just-as-important second and third levels.

The Eagles should be stronger at both positions. Schwartz has already made the bold statement that Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod could be the best safety tandem in the NFL. The threesome of Jordan Hicks, Mychal Kendricks, and Nigel Bradham at linebacker is a solid one on paper, but injuries have plagued the careers of the first two, and there isn't much depth.

Hicks played in a similar scheme at Texas, and Kendricks was originally drafted to play in the wide-nine, although he initially played the strong side. The athletic Kendricks should - after five seasons it's tough to say anything certain about the linebacker - thrive on the weak side.

Schwartz has refrained from making anything close to a definitive statement, save for perhaps his assessment of the safeties, about talent level or the unit's grasp of his defense. The scheme is a work in progress. Schwartz will cater some of it to the personnel.

He said that is how he schemed his defenses at previous stops, particularly at defensive end, in Tennessee (with Jevon Kearse and Kevin Carter and then Kyle Vanden Bosch and Antwan Odom), Detroit (with Cliff Avril and then Ziggy Ansah), and Buffalo (with Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes).

While there were differences at each stop and many subtle ones that only the coaches and players would recognize, the elemental parts of the defense have been consistent throughout.

"We want to be an attack defense. We want to put pressure on the quarterback," Schwartz said. "Like anything, it's very difficult to defend the entire field. So what we want to try to do is defend the things that are easiest for the offense to capitalize on and try to make them do what is most difficult."

Philosophically speaking, that means empowering the defensive front and simplifying the roles there. That is why "attack" satisfies both their run-stopping and pass-rushing responsibilities. Curry, Graham, and Cox all have at least one year of experience in the scheme, and Barwin played in a similar defense during his first two seasons, in Houston.

"I think if you ask them, they would rather attack than read," Schwartz said. "It puts us in a little better position to rush the passer. It puts us in a little bit better position to set hard edges."

During the Washburn-Jason Babin days, that aggression often left the edges susceptible to the run and screen passes. But having stronger second and third levels should compensate. Schwartz doesn't want to overly rely on blitzing.

"If you can get there with four," Schwartz said, "you have a big advantage."

It's a safety-in-numbers defense.