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Eagle Eye: Jim Schwartz's Attack Defense

Posted Feb 11, 2016

When Jim Schwartz was hired as the Eagles' defensive coordinator last month, many in Philadelphia felt a tingle down their spine when they heard the term Wide 9 thrown around by analysts, as the idea of a Wide 9 defensive scheme has been attached to Schwartz since his days as the defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans. Is it really a scheme, though?

The answer is no.

Every team in the league utilizes some fronts that deploy an edge player in a Wide 9 technique, meaning that he is lined up a full gap away from where the tight end would line up before the snap. The Eagles, under Bill Davis, utilized the Wide 9 technique. The Denver Broncos have done the same under Wade Phillips, the New England Patriots with Bill Belichick and the Steelers with Mike Tomlin, yes, all use defensive ends or linebackers as 9-technique players at different points throughout a game.

So if Schwartz’s scheme isn’t called a Wide 9, then what is it? He explained it best upon his arrival, calling it an "attack" defense. Regardless of what front they line up in (and after watching his defenses in 2013 and 2014 I saw pretty much every defensive front in the book), they’re going to come at you as an offense. What is the calling card of the scheme? After watching the tape, there were two main themes I came away with. First, Schwartz wants to unleash the four-man defensive line. Second, he wants to eliminate what you do best as an offense. I’m going to split this piece up under that umbrella, showing you plays that explain both central themes of this scheme. Let’s start with the attacking front.

Calling Card No. 1: Attack With A Four-Man Rush

We’re quickly approaching the start of the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine, where draft prospects are going to put their athleticism on display in front of NFL coaches, scouts and decision-makers to try and improve their draft stock. When those official testing numbers get released after the event, I want you to focus closely on the differences between the defensive linemen and the offensive linemen. What I expect you to find is that defensive linemen, on the whole, are decisively more athletic than their counterparts on the offensive line on a pound-per-pound basis. They’re more explosive. They’re more comfortable on an island by themselves, and their combined burst, quickness, change of direction and leaping ability will be better across the board.

Why is this important? Because Schwartz’s scheme is built off of that. He doesn’t want his defensive linemen up front to be reading and reacting. He wants to take the fight to the offense to better leverage their athleticism against them. Remember, not only are the defenders better athletes, but the offensive linemen are more often than not moving in reverse, expanding the gap between the two sides. Schwartz wants to keep offensive linemen on their toes and then make the most of the decided advantage he has with his four rushers. When you employ defensive ends from a wider technique, that puts even more stress on those offensive tackles.

This is a play from Schwartz’s 2013 Detroit Lions defense. It’s third-and-8, and in an obvious passing down you have two 9-technique defensive ends with a pair of 3-technique defensive tackles. This is a popular front by teams all across the league in passing situations. Look at the distance between the defensive ends and the offensive tackles on both sides. As an offensive lineman, there’s a lot going through your mind before the snap. “I can’t give up the corner on a speed rush, so I better explode out of my stance. I have to watch out for speed to power, though, so I have to maintain a strong base. I have to watch out for an inside counter move though, so even though I have to get to the corner I can’t overset or I’ll get beat inside.” These are all things that a tackle has to be concerned with against a wide defensive end.

On this play, you see both defensive ends beat their offensive tackles on speed-to-power rushes. When tackles are rushing to get to the corner, they’re prone to abandoning their technique. That means their hands may be at their sides instead of up by their chest plate. Their base may not be as strong as they kickslide outside. Both tackles fall victim to that on this play, as the defensive ends get into their pads first and drive them back into the lap of the quarterback for the sack.

Here’s a play from Schwartz’s 2014 Buffalo Bills defense. It’s first-and-goal down in the low red zone, but watch Minnesota tackle Matt Kalil overset at the snap. This allows Jerry Hughes, an undersized but athletic pass rusher, to go up and under him and explode into Teddy Bridgewater for the sack.

Later in that same season, Mario Williams is lined up out wide against the Miami Dolphins. Williams, a veteran pass rusher who knows how to attack offensive tackles, is well aware of the mind games that he can play here. He fakes the up-and-under inside counter move, gets the tackle leaning back inside, then beats him outside with a swim move on his way to Ryan Tannehill.

The wide alignments of the defensive ends don’t only impact rushers from the outside, because it allows the defensive tackles inside to flourish as well when getting after the quarterback.

On this play, Miami is choosing to slide the protection in the direction of Marcell Dareus (wise choice). You have a 9-technique out wide in Hughes to the left as well, and Mario Williams to the offense’s right. This leaves Kyle Williams, the nose tackle, one-on-one with the Miami right guard. Look at how much room Williams has to operate. By expanding the offensive line out as wide as this front does, this allows your four-man front to, as Schwartz likes to say, "go play." Williams easily beats the guard and pulls Tannehill down for the sack. Again, you’re taking advantage of the athletic mismatch of the defensive line against the offensive line, that’s the idea here.

One of the other ways that Buffalo takes advantage of that mismatch is with the use of stunts up front. Schwartz isn’t a big blitzer when it comes to the number of 5- or 6-man pressures he calls. He picks his spots (more on that later), but he isn’t a high-volume blitzer as a playcaller. In fact, his Buffalo defense in 2014 ranked last in the league in number of blitzes called, but they led the league in sacks. While I didn’t see a ton of blitzes I did, however, see a lot of two-, three- and four-man stunts.

It’s third-and-25, and with the Dolphins in an obvious passing situation you see the Wide-9 front here from the Bills, with Hughes standing up in a two-point stance off the edge to the offense’s left. This is a T-E Stunt, or what is also called a times a "Me" Stunt. The tackle gets upfield first as the penetrator and the defensive end loops inside, using his athleticism to stay free and get the sack. We’ve seen the Eagles' front seven have a ton of success using stunts over the last few years, and I would expect that to continue with Schwartz at the helm.

Stunts don’t have to just come from the defensive ends, though. Here, you see the athletic duo of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley combine for a sack on third-and-long, with Suh giving himself up as the penetrator and Fairley as the looper, coming around the corner and destroying the quarterback for an 8-yard loss. Again, how do you best leverage the athleticism of your front four against a five-man rush? Schwartz almost always manages to find a way to do that.

Those two plays were examples of two-man stunts, but this rep against Chicago is an example of a four-man stunt. What you have here is two separate two-man stunts (E-T Stunts, to be exact), with the defensive ends giving themselves up so that the tackles loop outside. Suh gets home for the sack, knocking the ball loose for Fairley to pick up and run in for a touchdown.

As Jim Schwartz said in his in-studio interview with Dave Spadaro, his attacking scheme is all about forcing turnovers, and the best way to force turnovers is to pressure the quarterback. His focus isn’t necessarily on yards allowed or even points allowed, but can you get after the quarterback? Can you be successful on third down? Can you be stout in the red zone? Those are his gauges for defensive success.

One thing I haven’t touched on yet is the impact that a strict four-man rush has on the rest of your defense. When you rush with just four and are able to impact the quarterback consistently with those numbers that gives you a decided advantage on the back end of your defense because it, in essence, becomes seven against five in space. Remember, you have five offensive linemen and a quarterback, leaving just five eligible receivers to go up against seven defenders who aren’t worried about rushing the passer. Whether you play man or zone on the back end, you have a lot of flexibility as a playcaller and as a gameplanner with how you can defend opponents if you know you’re going to be able to count on a consistent four-man rush.

On this sack against the Lions, look at the advantage Buffalo has on the back end. Quarterback Matthew Stafford is ready to throw the football on a quick three-step drop, but he has nowhere to go because the Bills have four defenders over three receivers to his left, and three defenders over two receivers to his right in a matchup zone concept. The result?

Is this a coverage sack or a pressure sack? It’s a mix of both, but probably more of the former. Stafford is ready to pull the trigger, but with a linebacker in the passing lane against the crossing route, he’s forced to hold the football and takes the hit for a 10-yard loss.

That was a zone coverage concept from the defense, but there are plenty examples of forcing mistakes with a four-man rush man concept as well, and one of the more popular ways is by playing Cover 2 Man (a coverage I analyzed in our preview of the New York Jets last fall).

In Cover 2 Man, you’ve got two high safeties splitting the field deep with straight up man coverage underneath against the eligible receivers. With two safeties deep, though, the man defenders can be a lot more aggressive in how they attack receivers. You’ll see more press coverage in that scheme, and you’ll see corners take more chances with the ball in the air.

The Bills' cornerback on this play trails his receiver downfield, and when he reads the route break as a corner route to the sideline, he undercuts it. In other coverage schemes, this is a very risky move because if he misses, the receiver has nothing but grass on his way to the end zone. But with the split safety over top of him, the corner can jump the route and he pulls in the interception. When you can count on a four-man rush, you can use those second- and third-level defenders in a multitude of ways, and Cover 2 Man is one of the many tools Schwartz has in his toolbox.

The four-man rush not only gives you flexibility as a gameplanner. It gives you the ability to be creative too, especially when it comes to eliminating a team’s top threat from the passing game.

Calling Card No. 2: Take Away What You Do Well On Offense

Here’s a play from Week 2 of the 2013 season. It’s third-and-3, and Carson Palmer wants to get the ball to (surprise) Larry Fitzgerald.

Palmer drops back and pumps not once, but twice, to Fitzgerald before going down. Why couldn’t he get rid of the ball?

He couldn’t get this pass to Fitzgerald on the slant route because Detroit bracketed him with a corner and a linebacker inside, taking away the quick throw and forcing the sack.

Schwartz is all about trying to erase what you do well as an offense, and there’s a lot of ways you can do that from a pass game perspective. One way is with bracketing and doubling primary targets like Fitzgerald. The other way is to harass the quarterback by continually moving him off his spot. Some coaches look at that as an idea and everyone says it. “Yeah, we want to impact the quarterback and move him off his spot and make him feel uncomfortable.” Does everyone game plan for it though?

Schwartz spoke at a clinic last year (James Light took some great notes off of it here) and talked about affecting the quarterback and how keeping contain isn’t always the most important thing when it came to rush lanes.

Conventional thinking with defensive coaches for as long as I can remember was that you always want to contain a quarterback in the pocket. With every defensive play call, the rushers had to be disciplined in their gap assignments in order to maintain the pocket and not let the quarterback escape. Obviously, this is especially important when you’re facing mobile quarterbacks like Cam Newton, Russell Wilson or Tony Romo. What about when you’re facing Peyton Manning or Joe Flacco, or any other prototypical pocket passer? Are you as concerned about him breaking contain and hurting you outside the pocket with his arm or his legs? Probably not, and Schwartz works off of that.

Against Tom Brady, one of the top pocket passers in the history of the game, you want to do whatever you can to get him out of his comfort zone. You can blitz him, sure, but by sending extra rushers on a pressure scheme you’re creating voids in the defense for him to pick apart. Schwartz’s plan is to take away the pocket and force him out of his nest inside to get him on the run. By slanting both Kyle Williams and Jerry Hughes inside, he creates a wall up front, trying to keep Brady from stepping up in the pocket. With Dareus providing pressure off his right side, Brady slides to his left. Thanks to the tight coverage on the back end, Mario Williams has enough time to loop around and get Brady down for the sack. Notice the wide angle that Williams took to the quarterback, and notice the amount of space to Brady’s right. A mobile quarterback would’ve taken off and picked up yards with his feet. Schwartz knows that’s not Brady’s play, and he used it against him to pick up the sack on third down. This was something I saw consistently watching Schwartz’s defenses in Detroit and in Buffalo.

Listening to Schwartz at that clinic, I was really intrigued to hear about the origins of the Wide 9 front. Many people around the country, particularly here in Philadelphia, think of the front as a strictly pass rushing front that abandons the run responsibility. If you are one of those people, you will be very surprised to hear that the front was created initially to stop the run game.

When Schwartz was with the Titans, the Indianapolis Colts were the cream of the crop offensively with Peyton Manning in his prime. He had Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne and he attacked teams all day through the air. People forget, though, that Edgerrin James and that stretch run game would crush people on the ground. Colts offensive line coach Howard Mudd orchestrated that stretch run game and gashed teams with the outside zone, and the Titans had a lot of issues with it twice a year. As Schwartz would game plan for the Colts, he would notice that whenever they played New England, he never saw the outside stretch play. Instead, it was almost all inside zone. That made him think, “What is New England doing to deter the Colts from running outside?” He would watch the tape, and he would see the Patriots' 3-4 front with their big outside linebackers, Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel, lined up far out wide setting the edge, and Manning didn’t want to run into it. So how could he mix his 4-man, attacking defensive front with some of the 3-4 principles run by the Patriots? Simply put, just slide that defensive end out another gap or two, adjust some of the run fits inside in terms of responsibility between the linebackers and safeties, and you have your answer. Now, Schwartz felt like he had the necessary tool to keep Manning and the Colts from running their favorite run play, the outside zone stretch, against him (going back to the theme of taking away what you do well on offense).

Here’s the Wide 9 rush defense at it’s core. This is Buffalo against the Dolphins back in Week 2 of 2014. Miami is going to run their outside zone stretch (a favorite of former Eagles quarterbacks coach and then Miami offensive coordinator Bill Lazor) to the defense’s left, right at Williams. The former No. 1 overall pick sets a hard edge (watch him drop his anchor and lock out his arms against the tight end), and forces the action back inside. First, look at the nose tackle Dareus. Look at linebacker Preston Brown. Finally, look at 3-technique Kyle Williams. All three players defeat their blocks and flow to the football. This is what makes the run defense from the Wide 9 work so well. If you can set the edge outside (something that’s important in any defense, regardless of whether it’s a 3-4 or a 4-3), you need to have disruptive players inside who can beat blocks and rally to the football. Look at players who have thrived in this scheme wherever Schwartz has been, whether it’s been players like Albert Haynesworth and Keith Bullock in Tennessee, Suh and Stephen Tulloch in Detroit, or Dareus, Williams and Brown in Buffalo. All of them are able to defeat blocks quickly and get to the ball. That’s why with players like Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan and Jordan Hicks as well as Mychal Kendricks at linebacker, Schwartz has to like what he sees in this front seven.

That being said, not every defensive end in this scheme needs to be 290 pounds like Mario Williams when they’re out on the edge holding up at the point of attack. Much like we’ve seen in the past here, smaller players like Hughes can also set the edge. All they have to do is flash their jersey into the gap, and they can force that runner back inside toward the teeth of the defense. Hughes does a good job here against Houston and their stretch run game, as Brandon Spikes and Dareus do a good job collapsing on Arian Foster.

Coaches will try to game plan against this, as all coaches do with every scheme (if there was a perfect defensive scheme, everyone would run it). One of the ways you’ll see them attack it is with draws and screens to suck the attacking defenders in before taking advantage of the void they leave behind. Against the edge setters, you’ll often see some crack blocks from the outside as well.

The Browns are running a crack toss play here to the outside, with a receiver "cracking" Hughes as the edge setter for the defense, thus allowing running back Isaiah Crowell to get to the corner. The offense can’t account for everyone though, as you can see Brown and the safety Da’Norris Searcy "replace" Hughes outside and flow to the ball, with Brown getting the tackle for loss. That’s why fast-flow players (like Hicks, Kendricks and Kiko Alonso) fit so well in this scheme.

I mentioned before that there’s not much blitzing with Jim Schwartz’s scheme, and while that’s true, that doesn’t mean they don’t pop up from time to time. Watching both the Bills and the Lions, I saw a lot of different zone pressure looks that would see from a Dick LeBeau or a Jim Johnson defense, with players coming from all levels of the defense to pressure the quarterback while defensive linemen dropped out into the voids, still allowing for a four- or at most five-man rush.

This is going to be a Triple A-Gap blitz from the Bills against Green Bay. Typically what you’ll see with that pressure is man coverage on the back end, specifically Cover 0, with no safety help and everyone on an island in coverage.

Schwartz won’t have any of that, however, as he just expands his two defensive tackles and drops out his two defensive ends to create a 5-man rush and a three-under, three-deep zone pressure look on defense. The pressure gets home, and Aaron Rodgers is forced to throw an incomplete pass.

Different pressure scheme, but same idea with this play against Cleveland. Nigel Bradham is going to blitz the B gap, but Kyle Williams is going to drop in coverage as an underneath zone defender. This is still a four-man rush, but the deception of where the fourth man is coming from creates a one-on-one with a running back, and the full allotment of defenders in coverage forces the quarterback to hold the ball long enough for the blitzer to get home for the sack.

You can see on the back end, with Williams, a defensive tackle, dropping underneath, the Bills have just a four-man rush with a version of Cover 2 behind it, enough to confuse the quarterback and deter a throw, leading to a sack.

In closing, you expect the Eagles' front seven to be in full-on attack mode. Remember, Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry were both drafted to play in this front. Brandon Graham played for Schwartz at the Senior Bowl and had a huge week of practice and a productive day rushing the passer in the game that helped vault him into being a first-round pick. Connor Barwin registered 11.5 sacks playing as an open side defensive end in a 4-3 scheme back in 2011 with the Houston Texans. Bennie Logan has proven to be successful here in Philadelphia whenever the Eagles played 1-gap principles up front in nickel subpackages. Schwartz is going to unleash these players and get them after the quarterback while also setting the edge in the run game, allowing him to be creative on the back end from a coverage and pressure standpoint. I, for one, am very, very excited to see it all come together.

Fran Duffy is the producer of “Eagles Game Plan” which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices and opponents.

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