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Fan-Demonium: Bring On The 4-3

Posted Feb 9, 2016

When I think about Eagles defense, I see Reggie White overwhelming blockers to get into the backfield and punish the quarterback. Maybe I see William Fuller storming off the left side to come up with another sack. Or that could be Clyde Simmons, Hugh Douglas or Trent Cole flying off the right side to get the quarterback. Maybe it's Jerome Brown flying up the middle to ruin a play, or Andy Harmon or Corey Simon.

All of those players were defensive linemen who thrived in the 4-3 defense. They attacked when the ball was snapped and made it their mission to get to the running back or quarterback.

New Eagles coach Doug Pederson hit a major home run when he hired Jim Schwartz to run the Eagles' defense. Schwartz is going to have the Eagles move from the 3-4 scheme Bill Davis ran back to the 4-3. That's the scheme Schwartz has run throughout his career, which has included several units that were among the very best in the league. As recently as 2014, Schwartz saw the Buffalo Bills finish fourth in yards and points allowed. The last time the Eagles had a defense that good was 2008, when Jim Johnson ran the 4-3.

Lawlor

Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He is the Editor of IgglesBlitz.com and was a contributor to the Eagles Almanac.

The 4-3 isn't some magic formula. The Giants finished dead last in yards allowed this year while running the 4-3. They even had a Jim Johnson disciple, Steve Spagnuolo, running the unit. The 4-3 is a defense built on defensive linemen. The Giants didn't have a good line and that made the scheme ineffective. Go back to 2008 and the group that Johnson had that year with the Eagles. Cole was the star pass rusher and he finished with nine sacks. Juqua Parker was the starter at left end. He wasn't great as a run defender or pass rusher, but was a tough, relentless player that did the dirty work well. Brodrick Bunkley and Mike Patterson were run stuffers in the middle. They were the anchors of the league's fourth best run defense.

The beauty of the 4-3 is that you can mix and match players off the bench very effectively. Darren Howard was the top backup at defensive end. He also played on the inside in passing situations. Howard's quick burst used to give interior linemen fits in pass protection and he led the team with 10 sacks in 2008. Chris Clemons was a situational rusher and had four sacks. Trevor Laws provided depth at defensive tackle. Victor Abiamiri was a good backup at both end and tackle. He was also a good inside rusher.

Johnson had good pieces and he knew how to use them. The players were a good mixture of size, shapes and skill sets. They were tough to run on and could also get after the quarterback.

Schwartz takes over a defense that was up and down in 2015. While the results weren't good, it doesn't mean the unit lacks talent. One of the problems with running the 3-4 in the past few years is that it never seemed to be an ideal use of the Eagles players. It limited how much a talented pass rusher like Vinny Curry could be on the field because he didn't have a natural position in the base defense (too big for linebacker, too small for end). It forced Fletcher Cox to read blocks instead of firing off the ball and wreaking havoc. Brandon Graham was busy learning how to cover instead of perfecting pass rush moves. These players were all drafted to attack off the ball, not read and react.

The move back to the 4-3 will be much easier. All of the players in the front seven have 4-3 experience and most of them have played very well in that scheme. This will be like "the good ol' days" for many of the players.

The foundation of the defense will be Cox. He developed into a star lineman in the past two years despite playing in a scheme that wasn't an ideal fit. Now he can settle in and become even better. He will play the three-technique defensive tackle. It will be his job to fire off the ball and go get the quarterback. The 4-3 should bring out the best in him. Bennie Logan will be the nose tackle. He played that position for Davis, but this will be different. He will line up over the center at times, but also over a guard or in the gap between the center and guard. His job will be to defeat double-team blocks rather than engaging them. Logan was disruptive even in the 3-, and I'm really excited to see just how good he can be in the new defense.

Schwartz has to decide how to use his ends. Graham, Curry and Connor Barwin are all talented pass rushers. All three can play the right or left side. All three of them can rush from the inside in nickel or dime looks. Curry has the least experience of the trio, but might actually be the most talented. Figuring out who starts and how to rotate them is a good problem for Schwartz to have. Most teams don't have enough good pass rushers.

Ideally, you want eight linemen that can play on a regular basis so you can rotate everyone and keep them fresh. Schwartz and the Eagles have some depth issues to work out. If Schwartz thinks former first round pick Marcus Smith can be productive in this scheme, that would be a big help. Guys like Beau Allen, Taylor Hart and Travis Raciti will be under consideration for backup jobs inside. Cedric Thornton is a free agent. If the Eagles could get him to re-sign, that would strengthen the team up front and give them flexibility on filling other roles.

The Super Bowl showed just how important having a strong defense is, especially up front. While the Broncos run a 3-4, it is an attacking one-gap version. Coach Wade Phillips once was an assistant for the Eagles and helped Buddy Ryan run his famous 46 defense. You can bet that Phillips learned a lot about blitzing and attacking the quarterback from Ryan.

When Phillips left the Eagles, he was replaced by Jeff Fisher. Fisher eventually became the head coach of the Titans (Houston Oilers back then) and in 1999 he hired a young assistant named Jim Schwartz. Fisher and Schwartz then coached together for a decade. Through Fisher, Schwartz learned many of Ryan's ideas on how to run the 4-3 defense and to get after the quarterback. If you put the right group of players in the right scheme, they can absolutely dominate a football game. Ryan did this in the Super Bowl with his 1985 Bears. Phillips did it with his Broncos. Now Schwartz will try to use those similar ideas with the 2016 Eagles.

I'm really excited to see the Eagles moving back to the 4-3 and letting players attack off the ball. Schwartz has enough talent to work with up front that he should be able to field at least a solid defense next season. He knows how to get the most out of his players so it won't shock me to see the Eagles make a big jump and have a strong defense. There are some personnel issues to address, but having the right scheme and a proven coach should help the Eagles defense improve.


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