Only eight NFL teams are allowing fewer points per game than the Eagles’ 20.3 through six games. The Birds lead the league in run defense, giving up 65.7 yards per game.
Five years ago, if you’d told an Eagles fan such figures were possible while employing a wide-9 defensive front, that fan would have said, “By your leave, sirrah, I sense that you are attempting to make merry at my expense!” Or words to that effect.
The Eagles players trying to execute the scheme at the time might have had a similar reaction. But now they know better.
“This is the way the wide-9 is supposed to work,” said defensive end Brandon Graham, who has seen the wide-9 from both sides now, and still somehow, it’s the fact that he finally got to play regularly after defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, defensive line coach Jim Washburn and Washburn’s favorite player, defensive end Jason Babin, all were dismissed during the disastrous 2012 season that Graham recalls.
“We didn’t have a coordinator that knew it as much as [current defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz] knew it. We had Juan trying to learn it on the fly,” Graham recalled.
What’s different? Personnel, certainly. Lining the defensive ends up outside the tight end’s far shoulder creates a lot of work for linebackers, work that Jordan Hicks, Nigel Bradham and Mychal Kendricks are good at. Safeties and corners need to be sure tacklers, as well.
But also, though neither Graham nor fellow 2012 holdover Vinny Curry would go into detail, it’s apparent that the instructions from Schwartz are more nuanced than they were when Washburn felt sacks were an end unto themselves.
Graham said the Eagles are “making it look like Jim wants it to look. As a d-line, you’ve got to hit certain spots, certain areas. You’ve got to have penetration. It’s about being disruptive, getting off the rock as fast as you can, not being last off the ball. Then, linebackers playing downhill, filling those gaps up, playing off us.
“Then it’s a lot of one-on-one outside coverage with the DBs. They’ve got to make the plays, which they’ve been doing.”
“Similar concept,” Curry said. “Two different defenses.”
All told, what Graham sees is “a nice little scheme that fits the personality of the people we’ve got.”
The 2012 Eagles finished 29th in points allowed per game, at 27.8. They were 23rd against the run.
“We played the run on the way to the quarterback, that’s what they said,” Graham said. “We’re more aware of being able to read both [run and pass]. I think we’ve got a lot of smart guys up front. We play well together.”
Defenses always want to rotate pass rushers, but not many can without a big talent dip. Depth has been one of the biggest stories of the Eagles’ 5-1 start, especially on the defensive front, where the Birds survived 2 1/2 games without Fletcher Cox, their most dominant player.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that come in and there’s not a dropoff to what we do – if ‘Fletch’ goes out, we’ve got another guy that comes in and does something different than Fletch, but he’s disruptive and he makes plays, just like Fletch would make,” Graham said.
“It’s just all about coming downhill, the linebackers have been doing a good job, the interior guys have been doing a good job up front, because a lot of [teams] run trap plays on us .. because we’re running upfield the whole time. We have a lot of guys that run up the field but squeeze at the same time. That play used to hit big on us last year.”
Sometimes in obvious passing situations, Graham will line up inside; at times filling a normal defensive tackle gap, other times he and the DE on his side will both split wide.
Schwartz said the idea is “just trying to get more speed on the field and be able to mix up your pass rush, and sometimes your ends are a little bit more flexible than your tackles.”
Graham said one desired outcome is “getting guards to move and come out, opening up the middle … Most of the time it’s to give a different matchup.”
Defensive tackle Beau Allen, who had a lot to do with filling in when Cox was sidelined with a calf strain, said the success isn’t “just about the front seven.”
“One thing I ought to point out is our DBs and their willingness to get dirty up around the line of scrimmage and fill gaps,” Allen said.
Allen said he doesn’t really even notice when he lines up that the defensive end is several feet away.
“Some people try to attack that, or whatever, but I’ve never even really thought about that space until you brought it up,” Allen said.
Graham, an Eagle since 2010, has been through a lot, with Washburn, then the Bill Davis 3-4, in which Graham was an outside linebacker, now two seasons with Schwartz. He said this is the best the defense has been during his tenure.
“I’m trying to enjoy every game and every opportunity we get to play out there together, because this team can be special,” Graham said. “It’s on us, if we want to do that.”