If, during Sunday's game, you find yourself wondering why the Lions' defensive line looks so similar to the Eagles, know that it's not just you. It's because the two men who brought the wide-nine defense to the NFL will square off for the first time this weekend.
It all started nearly a decade ago when Lions head coach Jim Schwartz and Eagles defensive line coach Jim Washburn were colleagues with the Tennessee Titans. Back in those days, Washburn was the defensive line coach and Schwartz worked with the linebackers before moving to defensive coordinator. The coaches hit it off immediately.
"We shared a lot of similar philosophies, going back to the very first meeting we had," Schwartz said in a conference call Wednesday. "I think he's one of the best coaches in the NFL ... He's passionate about football, passionate about the performance of his group, the performance of the team. I see him a few times a year and stay in contact with him a couple times a year. I certainly have a lot of respect for not only him as a coach but him as a person."
It was with the Titans that the seeds for the wide-nine (called the over defense by players and coaches) were sown. According to Washburn, the idea for the scheme was taken from former Florida State defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews. But, Washburn said, it was he and Schwartz who turned it into the scheme it is today. Both still use it, and Washburn was hired by the Eagles in 2011 to bring it to Philadelphia.
Running the wide-nine involves more than simply moving players around on the field. Getting the most out of the scheme means having natural pass rushers who can consistently get after the quarterback. And when it's clicking, Schwartz knows how successful it can be.
"If you have personnel that it fits then it's very good," Schwartz said. "You can get tremendous pressure on the outside. It limits a lot of play-action pass game. It can eliminate outside runs ... It's just like any other scheme; there's plusses and minuses with it. If it fits your personnel; if it's coached well it's proven that it can be an effective defense."
Last year it proved to be extremely effective for both squads. The Eagles notched 50 sacks in 2011, tied for the league lead. Meanwhile, Schwartz' Lions put up 41 of their own.
Since both the Eagles and Lions use similar schemes, it's not surprising that both defenses have had similar starts this season. The Eagles defense has only managed seven sacks, while the Lions have nine. The Eagles rank 12th against the run; the Lions 13th.
"You look at Philly's personnel with (Jason) Babin and Trent Cole, they have nine deep on their D-line," he said. "They're doing a good job on third down. You can't always get a sack, but you can pressure the quarterback. You can make him throw before he's ready; before the wide receivers can get to the sticks. And he's able to keep a lot of players fresh by rolling guys through. We're going to have our work cut out for us on our offensive line, protecting the passer and opening up holes in the run game."
Sunday's game will be more than a battle between two of the league's explosive offenses. It will also be the first time the two NFL innovators will face one another. Both teams are hungry for their next win, so pass rush and aggressive defensive play figure to play an important role.
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