When last we saw the wide-nine alignment along the Eagles defensive front, line coach Jim Washburn was being escorted out of town late in the season by Andy Reid, accompanied by a large civic following bearing torches and pitchforks.
It was 2012 and, to be fair, there was quite a run on torches and pitchforks that year. Reid himself was at the front of the final parade as the team and his era finished with a 4-12 record and everyone agreed it was time for something new.
Of course, new didn’t work out quite as well as planned for the next three seasons, and here we are, back to the future with Reid protege Doug Pederson and his defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who favors – you know what’s coming – the wide-nine.
Until Sunday’s loss in Washington, in which the defense was gashed for 230 rushing yards, it was easy to accept Schwartz’s affection for the alignment in which the four linemen are spread in such a manner that the ends are well outside the opposing tackles. Schwartz had two big things going for him – he is a hip-shooting wise guy who preaches aggression and he isn’t Billy Davis – so overlooking the wide-nine was like overlooking a best buddy’s habit of cracking his knuckles.
The alignment is designed to allow the ends to vector toward the quarterback in the pocket and create all kinds of havoc, but their distance from linemates can also leave big gaps for running backs to exploit if the defensive tackles aren’t really solid and if the linebackers don’t charge the line to fill the holes. That’s what happened at FedEx Field as the Redskins had 14 runs that went for 5 yards or more, not even counting a 9-yard Kirk Cousins scramble.
“I would agree that we got our tail kicked up front this game,” Pederson said Monday. “That’s obvious. It’s a pride thing. It comes down to each man taking ownership in their jobs, in their assignments. … It’s surprising that a team could run the ball for that many yards against us with the way we play and attack on defense.”
By the time Matt Jones sealed the game with a third-down, 57-yard romp that gave Washington the first down it needed to run out the clock, it didn’t seem that surprising at all. The Redskins owned the front most of the afternoon and the Eagles’ second line of defense, the linebackers, didn’t do much to stem the tide that rushed through the cracks in the seawall.
“Sometimes linebackers get caught falling behind blocks. Sometimes we don’t get the penetration we need up front,” Pederson said. “We pride ourselves on getting up field. That’s where you can disrupt blocks is by getting up field. It creates space for your linebackers to come downhill and flow. When that’s not synced up all the time, that’s where you can get behind blocks and that’s where your big running lane is going to come from.”
It wasn’t as if the Redskins took advantage of understandable aggression on obvious passing downs, though. Nine of the 14 runs for distance came on first down, and four on second down with 6 or fewer yards to go. The Jones run at the end was the only third-down carry that broke and that one came when everyone in the stadium knew Washington was going to run.
That means most of the big gainers came when the Eagles were in their base defense, with three linebackers on the field. It’s a perplexing thing, and not just because the Redskins were ranked 25th in the league for rushing offense before the game.
Still, it’s just one game, and the same scheme used when the Eagles won their first three of the season, but it provided some thought-provoking film for upcoming opponents. Washington pinched in to bottle up Fletcher Cox in the middle, pushed out to take the ends even wider, and the running backs were sprung free. After the game, end Connor Barwin said the Lions had beaten them a few times the week before with runs around the edge, so perhaps the wide-nine was even wider to adjust for that. It could be that the injury to tackle Bennie Logan, which limited him to just 17 of 74 snaps, left the middle vulnerable.
Maybe all of that, but whatever the causes, Schwartz needs to tighten things up.
“There’s no panic. I talked to Jim this morning,” Pederson said. “We kind of went through it and I watched the defensive side of the ball … The players are disappointed. They know how they played and they felt it after the game. But by no means have I or will I, at this point, make any decisions on that side of the ball right now.”
Well, that must be a comfort to Schwartz, although “at this point” and “right now” are qualifiers a head coach always keeps in his back pocket. The suspicion is that scheme wasn’t a factor, though; that the Washington offensive line was that much better than the overall Eagles defensive line and the linebackers weren’t good enough to balance the equation.
The rest of the season will tell that tale, but Sunday’s wide-nine was like a bad flashback, a sweat-soaked dream in which torches illuminate the tines of a thousand pitchforks and Jason Babin cackles somewhere in the distance of the night.
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Bob Ford is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.