It does not take a football genius to figure out that the wide-nine has been ineffective for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2012. Jason Babin and Trent Cole, once feared sack specialists, have a combined five sacks thus far. One year removed from combining for 29 sacks in Jim Washburn’s wide-nine scheme, these two, along with the rest of the Eagles’ defensive line, have struggled against the run and pass. Why is the wide-nine failing after experiencing so much success in 2011? New defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is sticking with it, so he obviously believes it still gives him an edge over opposing offenses. Let’s take a look inside the wide-nine scheme and why the Eagles should stop using it, or at least not use it every down.
The term “wide-nine” refers to the nine technique on the defensive line. The nine technique instructs the lineman to line up on the outside shoulder of the tight end. For more information on these defensive line techniques, observe the figure at left. Being this far outside gives the end an extra few yards to get up to full speed before contact with the offensive tackle, and allows him not to get sealed by the tight end. The tackles are in a 31 front, which means that the strong side tackle is in a 3 technique and the weak side tackle is in a 1 tech. Most wide nine teams use a 33, but the Eagles favor the 31.
Flaws Against the Pass
The wide-nine is supposed to help the end get upfield quickly and force the quarterback to step up in the pocket. Last season, it created 50 sacks for the Eagles. But it seems that quarterbacks and offensive coordinators have figured out how to effectively stop the wide-nine. In the October game against Detroit, when the Birds recorded no sacks, the Lions showed us how the wide-nine is slowed.
On most plays, the Lions would go with one tight end and one back. After Stafford would drop straight back or give a play action fake to him, the running back would go to the side opposite the tight end. There, he would chip Cole or Babin who at the time, had the outside edge on the offensive tackle. When the RB chipped him, the end would be knocked off-balance, and be forced to go inside. This plays right into the hands of the offense, as the tackle now has leverage to hold off Cole/Babin. On the other side, the tight end would take an outside step as the defensive end bull-rushed to his inside. Once there, the TE and the offensive tackle would double-team the end and seal him off from the QB. The tight end could now either stay in and block or leak into the flat as a checkdown route.
As far as the defensive tackles were concerned, they have to go up against the guards and the center, so the offense has them outnumbered.
Another easy way to beat the wide-nine is the screen pass. As the ends sprint upfield like a bat out of heck, they do not notice the lineman blocking downfield or the running back slipping into the flat. If Washburn taught these talented lineman to play their keys and stay focused, the Eagles would not be so susceptible to the screen. The Lions, Falcons, and Saints all took advantage of this flaw.
To combat this, the Eagles should move their defensive ends to a 7 or even a 5 technique. If they were to to this, Washburn should teach his ends to get outside leverage, and push their opponent inside. This minimizes the pocket of the quarterback, gives him more pressure quicker, and prevents him from scrambling. It also makes it more difficult for the halfback to chip the lineman because he is at a bad angle. Also, running more defensive line stunts would help, as it seems Bowles and Castillo have been scared to do so. These things would thow a major curveball at teams who think they have the Eagles figured out.
Flaws Against the Run
Even last year, the wide-nine was incredibly susceptible to the inside runs. Why? Because the defensive ends just sprint upfield and nearly take themselves out of the play. Countless times do the average Eagles fans see Jason Babin run upfield and the running back dash underneath him with little resistance. The wide-nine makes the ends easier to block, and it makes the gaps for the linebackers to fill way too big.
This scheme makes the Eagles extremely vulnerable to a few common plays. The first is just is simple power-I wham. As you can see in the figure at left, the end flies upfield and is easily kicked out by the fullback. The defensive tackle is double-teamed by the guard and the tackle, while the tight end shoots up to the linebacker. The center moves up to the middle linebacker, and the running back has plenty of room to work with. To counter this, Washburn should start by, again, moving his ends inside the tight ends (see right). Now, the blocking scheme for the offense must change. The tight end and the tackle must double team the defensive end, and which lets the tackle easily fill the B gap. The outside linebacker wraps around to the D gap and now the fullback must block either the tackle or backer. Whoever he does not block, is free to make the stop.
Another play that can blow up the wide-nine is the halfback counter. In this play, demonstrated at left, involves every lineman blocking down except for the strong side guard, who pulls and kicks out the weakside defensive end. The fullback goes right, and the tailback gets the ball left with lots of room. The weakside tackle and linebacker are sealed off by the left guard and tackle, respectively, and the last line of defense is the strong safety. The Eagles can prevent this from hurting them if the end steps down and takes on the pulling lineman in the path of the tailback. This will spill the play outside where the rest of his teammates can have enought time to get off their blocks and make the play.
Also, quick draws can be effective against the aggressive wide-nine because they take advantage of the ends flying upfield.
These are just three run plays out of the thousands executed across the NFL, but they are the base of the ground game for many teams. If the Eagles scrap the wide-nine, they can stop these plays. If they stop these plays, maybe their defense can return to prominence. Being in a nine technique occasionally, especially in passing downs, is not a sin. In fact, offering a variety of looks from the D-line will make offenses think a little more. When Bowles refuses to move his lineman around is when the Eagles defense is exposed as frauds.