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New Eagles defensive line coach likes to 'run to the quarterback'

C hris Wilson has scraped and primed the walls, but the new defensive line coach for the Eagles has just begun to paint.

C hris Wilson has scraped and primed the walls, but the new defensive line coach for the Eagles has just begun to paint.

Wilson is teaching not only a new scheme, one that is the opposite of predecessor Jerry Azzinaro's 3-4 base front, he's changing the defensive line's mentality from reactive to aggressive. He's had to strip the players down and build them back up.

And that takes time. That takes repetition.

"When you're going to change mentality, you change foundations," Wilson said on Monday. "Coaches put paint on the wall. Changing the foundation is consistently hammering away at the foundation of who we are in our wide-nine concepts.

"How we want to play blocks and how we want to attack certain personnels. That's what we call our EDDs, our 'Every Day Drills.' And it creates a mentality."

Azzinaro could be tough on his group. All defensive line coaches have a certain intensity about them. But there was a bookish quality to Azzinaro. He took a cerebral approach to coaching the line, and it was hard to argue with the results. His unit was probably the most productive during Chip Kelly's tenure as head coach.

But Azzinaro is gone, having followed Kelly to the 49ers, as is his two-gap, read-and-react system. The Eagles have returned to a 4-3, one-gap penetrating front, and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz recruited Wilson to teach it.

Several of the linemen previously played in a similar system, but it has been four years since Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham apprenticed under former defensive line coach Jim Washburn. It has been four years since they toiled in a meeting room where your mistakes were specifically pointed out.

"It is different, and it is a [180-degree] turn in comparison to what the guys were most recently doing," Wilson said. "But it's pretty straightforward. I don't want to say we're a tight ship, but we run a pretty tight ship. I believe in that. The skirmishes should be harder than the war."

Aside from three separate stints as a one-year intern in the NFL, Wilson has spent the majority of his coaching career in college. But he had a cup of coffee in the pros after the Bears drafted him in 1991. And he said the transition has been an easy one because the players are more mature.

He's seen the evolution from both ends because of his relationship with Cox, whom he coached at Mississippi State for two years. But Cox doesn't receive preferential treatment because of his history with Wilson, and he doesn't avoid his criticism because of his $100 million contract.

"He'll get on me like the other guys, but that's what you need," Cox said. "Honestly, I think that's what was missing, especially in that [defensive line] room, a coach that will get after guys."

The room has also taken on a different character because 3-4 outside linebackers such as Connor Barwin, Marcus Smith and Graham have been brought back into the fold. Graham, like Cox and Curry, played in Washburn's version of the wide-nine, but the environment of the room has chanced since he was last there.

Washburn's room felt like a frat house. He liked to watch film to Jimi Hendrix. He had a mini fridge and coffee machine plugged into a corner. He had posters on the walls of each of the quarterbacks the Eagles were to face that season. Some were marked with various inscriptions or were defaced.

"I'm not that guy," Wilson said. "I think that's awesome, though. That's cool. There's nothing wrong with that."

But the scheme will essentially be the same. The four linemen will be aggressive, and they will penetrate, whether it's to sack the quarterback or catch a running back in the backfield. And the spacing up front will be wide.

"That's who we are," Wilson said. "We are a nine-technique team, and we want to play to run to the quarterback."

Washburn generated more than 50 sacks during his first season with the Eagles, but they often came at the expense of team defense. The personnel at linebacker and safety wasn't equipped to clean up, but some of Washburn's henchmen, particularly defensive end Jason Babin, had little interest in situational football.

The Eagles were thus susceptible to misdirection plays and screens.

"I would say understanding situations are key," Wilson said. "Knowing personnel and down and distance are obviously huge. And so, I think the biggest thing is preparation. We're geared for this for how to line up."

The Eagles, on paper, should have the personnel with linebackers Jordan Hicks, Mychal Kendricks and Nigel Bradham and safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod to fill run gaps. But the focal point of Schwartz's defense is up front. And the scheme is designed to play to most of their natural strengths.

Cox can thrive in any scheme, but he could explode returning to a one-gap 4-3. Curry and Graham should flourish more than they did in a 3-4. The jury is still out on whether defensive tackle Bennie Logan and possibly Barwin will have as much success.

"I think guys who like playing in space and have good short area quickness and are athletic, they love this scheme," Wilson said. "It still requires you to be physical, but it requires you to do it on the run."

The defense is a simpler one. There aren't as many gaps to monitor. There's only one speed. The mental approach is as important as the technical one. And Wilson is here to put them in the right aggressive frame of mind.

"If they could coach themselves they would. But they can't," Wilson said. "They need guys to help them and be critical and honest. They want to know if you're competent."

The paint is far from dry, but Wilson's wide-nine could look different than the Eagles' first version.