Eagles' defensive ends playing bolder and wider

Posted: August 16, 2011

BETHLEHEM - If you watched the Eagles' preseason game against Baltimore last week or have been to Lehigh for any of their training-camp workouts, you probably noticed the somewhat unusual positioning of the defensive ends.

They often can be found lining up 2 or 3 yards wider than most defensive ends in a 4-3 alignment. This isn't because they're anti-social or don't care for the body fragrance of the defensive tackle next to them, or want to be closer to the fans. It's because that's where defensive line coach Jim Washburn wants them.

It's called "nine-technique" or "wide-nine," and the idea behind it is that it allows quick-twitch edge-rushers like Jason Babin and Trent Cole to take advantage of their speed and quickness and neutralize the considerable size advantage of the offensive tackles trying to keep them away from the quarterback.

"If you take a pass-rusher, even an average pass-rusher, and move him out a couple of yards, what you're doing is giving him so many more options than if you line him up in a seven-technique on the outside shoulder of the tackle or on the outside shoulder of the tight end," said longtime NFL personnel man Bill Kuharich.

"You have farther to go to the quarterback, obviously. But [the d-end] has got so much more space that the tackle has to react to. If he doesn't get out of his stance quick enough, that guy is on pad-level even with him. When he tries to square up on him, he can't. He's already by him.

"Tackles don't like to play against wide-nine ends. Especially a wide-nine end that can really accelerate. Because what happens is, if you overstep, then the guy just comes underneath him and it's a shorter distance to the quarterback."

There really aren't any original ideas in football anymore. Haven't been for a long, long time. Every offensive formation, every blocking scheme, every defensive coverage, every blitz, every alignment and wrinkle has been stolen from somebody else, who stole it from somebody else, who, well, you get the idea.

Washburn didn't invent the wide-nine, but he coaches it better than most and has been very successful with it. There's no better evidence of that than Babin, who had been spinning his NFL wheels before Washburn got hold of him last year in Tennessee.

A 2004 first-round pick of the Houston Texans, Babin never had more than five sacks in a season before he met Washburn. In the previous 3 years, including an uneventful first go-round with the Eagles in '09, he managed a grand total of 4 1/2 sacks.

Then Washburn got him and lined him up wide and let him loose, and Babin notched 12 1/2 sacks and made the Pro Bowl.

"The thing about the wide-nine," said Babin, who, not surprisingly, followed Washburn to Philly, "you're not waiting for them to do something. You're throwing the fastball. That second step, that's when you make your decision, your reaction.

"That's what's crucial about all these reps in practice. We're going over and over and over again with coach Wash and the team. You're developing muscle memory. It's a different technique, but the guys are getting the hang of it. They're getting off and hitting people. We're not on the line of scrimmage wrestling with those [big] guys. We're in the backfield."

If last week's game was any indication, the Eagles are going to have a lot of fun with the wide-nine this season. They had six sacks against the Ravens, five by defensive ends.

"I like it being out wide like that," said Trent Cole, who has notched 44 sacks in the last four seasons. "I think it gives you an advantage on the tackle. It puts a lot of pressure on him.

"A lot of guys are used to me lining up close to the [defensive] tackle. When I angle down like that [from the nine-technique], it helps me out because they're not going to be able to predetermine what I'm going to do. It keeps them thinking at all times."

Most of the Eagles' ends are ideal fits for Washburn's wide-nine: quick, undersized rushers who should benefit from battling tackles in space rather than sumo wrestling with them inside. None of the eight d-ends on their preseason roster - Babin, Cole, Juqua Parker, Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, Darryl Tapp, Phillip Hunt, Chris Wilson or 2010 first-rounder Brandon Graham, who still is recovering from surgery on his knee, weigh more than 265 pounds.

"Those [offensive tackle] guys are [good] athletes," said Tapp, who had two sacks against the Ravens. "But when you put them out there on an island, it's a little bit different for them.

"I love it. When you have to fight with those big guys all day, it's great when you can get out wide on the edge and use your speed and quickness a little bit. The system suits all of us on the d-line very well."

The downside of an edge-rusher lining up so wide is that the distance to their quarterback prey is longer. As ends have become faster and more athletic, quarterbacks have countered speed-rushers by taking shorter drops or stepping up in the pocket.

Which is why Washburn's version of the wide-nine features what he calls "the truth line." Rather than have his ends target the spot where the quarterback is going to take his drop, he has them take a sharper angle to a spot closer to the line of scrimmage where he'll likely be throwing the ball from.

"Seven, eight years ago, every [quarterback] dropped deep," Babin said. "But defensive ends got more athletic, got better. So a quarterback dropping deep, it was easy for those athletic guys to loop around the tackle and get to that spot.

"You look now, quarterbacks drop maybe 5-6 yards, then they step up and throw. So they actually end up only 4-5 yards [deep]. So you follow the truth line. You draw a straight line to where the quarterback's going to be.

"If you run all the way from the nine-technique, around the tight end and around the tackle, you're not going to get there. The ball's going to be gone. The quarterback is too good. The tackle is too good. But if you follow that truth line, you'll wind up where the quarterback is."

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