When the Eagles and Lions slam helmets Sunday, they will be showcasing a somewhat controversial defensive philosophy that each team lives and dies by: the Wide 9.
These two teams, because of Eagles defensive line coach Jim Washburn and Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham, carry the Wide 9 torch for the league.
The Wide 9 refers to aligning the defensive ends three feet wider than usual. Usually defensive ends in a four man front line up in a seven technique, which puts them on the inside shoulder of the tight end. But in the Wide 9, they line up in the nine technique, which is on the outside shoulder of the tight end.
While the Eagles and Lions major in the Wide 9 (they may use it about 80 percent of the time), many others minor in it, using it selectively based on situations. The Giants, for instance, used it extensively against the Packers in the NFC Championship game last January. The Vikings dabble in it. So do the Titans.
There are two primary benefits to the Wide 9. One is it makes it difficult for offenses to run outside. But the real reason teams use it is it gives the defensive ends excellent angles to get to the quarterback.
“It puts the fear of God into the offensive tackles if you have guys like Jason Babin, Jared Allen, Tamba Hali, Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Lawrence Jackson and Willie Young,” Cunningham told me. “All these guys were some of the top speed guys coming into the draft and when you align wide, the OTs have to double kick on pass protection to block the edge. The double kick went out a few years back and now everyone is straight line dropping in the pass, meaning the OTs are holding space to stop the three technique, so the DEs that are wide have a straight line to the 7 ½ yard spot for the QB’s five step drop.”
Getting a twitchy pass rusher like Cliff Avril in space is the primary benefit of the Wide 9.
The Eagles tied for the league league in sacks last year. Their sack numbers are down so far this season, but they are not wavering from their alignment. “The Wide 9 allows speed rushers to be speed rushers, every snap,” Eagles Andy Reid told me. “If that’s their strength, you have to exploit their strengths.”
The knock on the Wide 9 is it can leave a defense vulnerable to the inside run. In order for the Wide 9 to work, a defense needs a solid Mike linebacker and a good strong safety, because those two players often are going to be responsible for the B, C and D gaps. That’s why the Lions went after Stephen Tulloch last year, and why the Eagles traded for DeMeco Ryans this year.
“You really need great linebacker play for that to work,” said ESPN analyst and former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi.
“It forces the run inside,” said a coach who has been affiliated with the Wide 9. “You have to have some people behind it like [Louis] Delmas and [Stephen] Tulloch in Detroit—that made the difference for them. The front four messes things up, the linebacker and safety clean it up.”
Reid puts it this way, “You have to make sure you are gapped up all the way around.”
Like most football trends, the Wide 9 has been around awhile. But it’s relatively new to the NFL. Washburn, who many consider the finest defensive line coach in the business, picked it up when he was a college coach from Florida State defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews. He brought it to the Titans in 1999. Initially, he moved one defensive end out to the 9-technique. Five years later, he moved the other end out. It went from a nickel front to a front for three downs.
Meanwhile, Cunningham started using it in Kansas City when he was coaching Derrick Thomas and Neil Smith. When Cunningham and Washburn came together in Tennessee in 2001, they fine tuned the front. And each continues to fine tune it.
Sunday, they’ll get a chance to show each other how good it can be.
Things I Didn’t Used To Know
*It appears the Redskins dodged a bullet with Robert Griffin III’s health this time, but they might not be so lucky next time. And that explains why the Redskins quietly made a strong push to sign Kyle Orton in the offseason. Given RGIII’s playing style and his size, the Redskins knew they would need a strong backup. One front office man said the Redskins offered Orton more money than he was paid by the Cowboys ($10.5 million over three years), but Orton preferred the Cowboys in part because he didn’t want to be beaten out by a rookie, which he knew would have been inevitable.
*Part of the reasons the Vikings have turned around is the front office and the coaching staff appear to be more in sync than before. In the offseason, general manager Rick Spielman and the scouting staff held meetings with coaches to increase the understanding between departments. The scouts wanted to know exactly what coaches were looking for at each position. The coaches wanted to know how scouts sought out their types of players. These types of things go on all the time in front offices, but a stronger emphasis on it has made an impact in Minnesota. It should be noted that the Vikings are getting significant contributions from multiple rookies, including Matt Kalil, Harrison Smith, Josh Robinson and Blair Walsh.
My Sunday Best: Fearsome Foursomes
NFL Network premiered an episode of A Football Life last week about the Rams’ legendary Fearsome Foursome from the 1960s--Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen, Rosey Grier and Lamar Lundy. The show is well worth your time if you love the game and the game’s history. It got me thinking about the best foursomes in the game today. There aren’t any like those four, but these are my Sunday best four man fronts. Teams that use a 3-4 were not considered.
1. Lions. For volume of talent , as well as effort, the Lions front four of Kyle Vanden Bosch, Ndamukong Suh, Corey Williams and Cliff Avril is the best in the league. They are made better by the league’s best second string in Willie Young, Nick Fairley, Sammie Hill and Lawrence Jackson.
Jaren Allen is the primary force behind the Vikings' defensive lines, one of the best in the NFL.
2. Vikings—Jared Allen, who led the NFL with 22 sacks in 2011, is the motor that makes this line go. He has had more sacks since 2004 than any other player in the game. But he isn’t the only Vikings defensive lineman opponents have to worry about. Fellow end Brian Robison is a fine complement. Kevin Williams long has been one of the league’s better interior rush men. And Letroy Guion has come on this season as a stout nose tackle.
3. Giants—They have only eight sacks this year (only five teams have fewer), but this remains a talented, dangerous defensive line. The Giants’ defensive end trio of Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora is the best in the NFL. Linval Joseph and Rocky Bernard provide an inside presence.
4. Bears—They probably have the best defensive end/defensive tackle pass rush combo in football in Julius Peppers and Henry Melton, who has really come on this year. And the two have a lot of help. Aside from starters Israel Idonije and Stephen Paea, the Bears get contributions from Corey Wootton, Shea McClellin, Amobi Okoye and Matt Toeaina.
5. Eagles—The Eagles front four is off to a slow start, but the team had 50 sacks last season, which tied the Vikings for most in the NFL. They need to step it up and certainly are capable with Jason Babin, Cullen Jenkins, Derek Landri and Trent Cole. Reserves Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham can bring it too.
6. Seahawks—No defensive end duo comes at offenses with more speed than Chris Clemons and rookie Bruce Irvin. And fellow end Red Bryant complements with power and technique. Interior players Alan Branch and Brandon Mebane can be tough to move.
7. Bengals—They are tied for the league lead in sacks with 18. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins has developed into one of the finest interior rushers in the league. Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap bring the edge rush, and Domata Peko is the muscle in the middle.
One Man Yelp: The Last Headbangers
With the way the NFL has changed so much in the last few years, the era of the Steelers dynasty and great Raiders teams seems like so very long ago. Of course it was long ago; it just seems like even longer given what the NFL is becoming. The Last Headbangers: NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless ‘70s takes us back to that era and relives what made it great and what made it ugly.
Ken Stabler and Fred Biletnikoff played hard and reaped the spoils of success for the Raiders.
Author Kevin Cook takes a good look at the highlights, including the Monday Night Football phenomenon, the big plays that defined the era and the key figures like Chuck Noll, Franco Harris, Bill Walsh, John Madden, John Matuszak, Ken Stabler and Howard Cosell. He illustrates the on and off-field mayhem that defined that period of time, including the violent hits and reckless lifestyles.
A few things that stuck with me:
*Cook reminds us it was a player’s game back then, before men like Bill Walsh made it a coach’s game. “The great Steelers and Raiders teams of the seventies were dinosaurs,” ex-Raider Matt Millen said. “They ruled the last era when NFL football was decided mostly on the field. Ever since then, it’s been decided mostly on the sidelines.”
*Rob Huizenga, who later joined the Raiders as team physician, is quoted saying half the players in the league were on steroids. Cook writes that Oakland’s locker room featured tall jars of gray amphetamine pills that players called rat turds. And that some Raiders combined rat turds, steroids, HGH and horse testosterone.
*The Raiders often sneaked underinflated footballs into home games, because soft-tosser Stabler could handle an underinflated ball more easily than a big-armed quarterback like Terry Bradshaw.
Interesting stuff from an era that should not be forgotten.
*Sad to see Alex Karras gone. He made a lot of people smile—with the exception of quarterbacks, that is. His name has come up in senior committee meetings for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and deservedly so.
*Every NFL coach needs to read this fine story about the future of offenses by Greg Bedard on where NFL offenses are headed.
*Go ahead and call Don Banks names for writing this. But he raises some very interesting points.
*Owning one of these is one thing for Michael Vick. Playing like one is another thing.
*Ray Lewis isn’t exactly Willie Mays in 1973 yet. But he isn’t exactly Ray Lewis in 2000 either.
Dan Pompei covers pro football for the Chicago Tribune at chicagotribune.com. Follow him on twitter @danpompei