Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3
When Jeffery Lurie fired Chip Kelly last December, he set about a reclamation project for his franchise. In his own words, he needed to “take his team back.” It turns out, “taking his team back” was an euphemism for trying to replicate the Andy Reid era, inarguably the most successful period in franchise history.
Instead of Reid, Lurie hired Reid’s hand-picked protégé, Doug Pederson, who was also a little known offensive coordinator schooled in the traditions of the Bill Walsh West Coast offense. And instead of the venerable Jim Johnson, Lurie hired Jim Schwartz, who also predicates his defense on pressuring the quarterback with an aggressive 4-3 defense. While Johnson relied on exotic blitz packages, Schwartz eschews the blitz in favor of lining his defensive ends in the wide-nine technique — just outside the tight end — where their speed and athleticism advantages over the offensive tackles can shine.
Reid and Johnson. Pederson and Schwartz. Add in a quarterback drafted #2 overall (McNabb/Wentz) and it’s hard not to get swept up in nostalgia.
And while the Pederson hiring was met with skepticism, the Eagles decision to hire Schwartz was met with near-universal praise. But is the unbridled respect justified?
It was a question I sought to answer after I was less impressed than I anticipated looking over Schwartz’s coaching statistics on Pro-Football-Reference.com. Coupled with the Eagles disastrous experiment with the wide nine under Jim Washburn (who practically coined the wide nine working alongside Schwartz in Tennessee), I had legitimate concerns over whether Schwartz could live up to the hype.
So I decided to profile Jim Schwartz in this piece; studying his scheme and his results on the field. I also try to figure out why Schwartz has several sizable blemishes on his resume, including his early tenure in Tennessee and his stint as head coach of the Detroit Lions, and whether the Eagles have the right personnel to avoid adding another.
In Schwartz’s Words: “We want to attack”
The most common misconception about Schwartz’s scheme is that it is entirely predicated on the “wide nine.” As Mike Rodak of ESPN.com details, Schwartz takes issue with that characterization:
“Mostly that’s thrown around by people that couldn’t line it up if they wanted to. That’s no disrespect to those people,” Schwartz said. “I’ll say this, there’s 32 teams in the NFL and all 32 line up in a wide nine. Not all of them are called wide nine teams, but that’s just the way it goes.”
Schwartz instead calls his defense an “attack scheme,” a fittingly simple description given his preference for streamlining information so that his defenders are attacking, not thinking or reacting: “It’s not a read-and-react system. It’s not a lateral, line of scrimmage; we want to attack, we want to knock back, we want to put pressure on the quarterback and we want to create negative plays.”
And that is a key distinction between Schwartz and his predecessor, Billy Davis. Davis ran a 3-4, two gap system that required his defensive lineman to read the play, occupy blockers and allow linebackers to wreak havoc in the backfield. But the defense never seemed to fit the Eagles’ personnel. Indeed, for a team whose biggest strength was the defensive line, it seemed illogical to run a scheme that limited their ability to make plays.
That will no longer be the case under Schwartz. Fletcher Cox and Company will be given less information, less responsibility, and more freedom to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback. “There’s going to be a lot of defensive lineman that will be real happy to play in a system like that.” Schwartz once said.
Attacking Through The Wide Nine, Stunts & Blitzes
While Schwartz is right that the wide nine isn’t a defensive scheme (it’s a technique), it would be a mistake to ignore how centrally important the wide nine is to Schwartz’s defense.
In order to understand the wide nine, it’s helpful to understand the basics of gap and technique assignments along the line. As you see below (image courtesy of BleacherReport.com), each offensive lineman is surrounded by gaps: the A gap is on either side of the center, B gap on the outside shoulders of the guards, and C gap on the outside shoulder of the tackles.
Defensive lineman have corresponding techniques, numbered 0 through 9, depending on their position along the offensive line. An even number technique (including zero), means the defensive player is lined up directly over the offensive lineman, an odd number means the defender is on the outside shoulder of the offensive lineman, and an even number with a small i (such as 4i), means the defender is on the inside shoulder of the lineman.
Traditionally, a 4-3 defensive end lines up on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle in the 6-tech, and is responsible for attacking the C gap. But in Schwartz’s scheme, the defensive ends line up on the outside shoulder of the tight end, in the wide nine, attacking the D gap.
Here is a still shot of the wide nine in action, from Schwartz’s time in Buffalo. Notice how defensive ends Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams are flanking the offensive tackles by a considerable margin:
Lining defensive ends in the wide nine theoretically makes it easier to get to the quarterback; it gives them more space within which to operate, more time to build up speed, and forces the larger — and slower — offensive lineman to cover more distance. This, in turn, reduces the need for Schwartz to dial up blitzes (which he rarely does), and gives his defense a decided numerical advantage when defending the pass– leaving 7 defenders against, at most, 5 pass catchers.
Here is the wide nine in action. Watch how much trouble Sebastian Vollmer (who is 6’8, 320 lbs and ran a 5.13 40) has keeping up with Mario Williams (who is one of the largest defensive ends in football, but is still smaller (6’6, 300 lbs) and faster (4.73 40) than Vollmer):
Getting Williams in space, and forcing Vollmer to move laterally, is an inherent mismatch that Williams capitalizes on with ease. This athletic mismatch is the key principle upon which the wide nine was built.
But the wide nine isn’t just about turning the corner on tackles. Beat a tackle consistently enough to the outside and they will start to overcompensate to regain outside leverage. That creates fertile ground for the end to attack inside, getting a cleaner, shorter path to the quarterback:
The wide nine also creates favorable matchups for defensive tackles. Albert Haynesworth (8.5), Marcell Dareus (10), Ndamukong Suh (10), and Kyle Williams (10.5) had career high sack totals in Schwartz’s defense thanks in large part to getting one-on-one matchups and more space within which to operate. (Hello, Fletcher Cox):
But, again, while the wide nine is a big part of Schwartz’s defense, it is not the only component. Another way that Schwartz tries to generate pressure without blitzing is through a stunt: a move which requires one defensive lineman to set a pick so that another defensive lineman has a free lane to the quarterback. It is simple, yet sometimes devastating, because offensive lineman fail to recognize the stunt in time to coordinate switching off the pick.
Here is a diagram of the stunt that the Bills ran against the Jets back in 2014. Kyle Williams attacks the outside, setting a pick for Jerry Hughes to cut behind and fill the open lane.
Here it is in live action:
The Jets blocked this play perfectly initially: Bilal Powell (#29) cuts across Michael Vick’s face to block Hughes, and gets help from the left guard, Oday Aboushi, who does a good job passing off Williams to left tackle, D’Brickashaw Ferguson. The only problem? Ferguson completely botches the handoff, giving Williams an easy sack.
Same play, different result. Marcel Dareus attacks the B gap, setting a pick for Hughes to come back around unblocked into the A gap and sack Alex Smith.
Expect to see stunts called at least 2-3 times a game. Schwartz will call variations of the stunts, either with two lineman setting the pick to spring one blitzer, or having the four defensive lineman running stunts on the same play.
While Schwartz would prefer not to blitz, he still does so, and is often very effective at it. In Buffalo, Schwartz sent an extra man on only 20.9 percent of downs, according to Pro Football Focus, which was the 4th lowest rate in the league. But the Bills pressured the quarterback 36.6% of the time when a blitz was dialed up, which was the eight best mark in the NFL.
Bottom line: Schwartz’s scheme is centered on getting sacks without blitzing. In his 14 year career as a head coach or defensive coordinator, his defense has ranked in the top 10 in sacks eight times. Needless to say, I think his scheme is accomplishing that goal.
Turnovers and Third Down Percentage
But Schwartz’s scheme isn’t just about attacking the quarterback. As he told Dave Spadaro of PhiladelphiaEagles.com, Schwartz is also concerned with creating turnovers and having good third down percentages: “We’re going to attack. We’re going to get after the quarterback. We’ve been good in getting sacks and creating turnovers, good on third downs. You know, I’m really not a stat guy, I don’t care how many yards we give up…”
When Schwartz is able to generate pressure on the quarterback without having to blitz, everything else falls into place. That is especially true for his secondary, which benefits from having extra defenders in space. Again, if four defenders are rushing, that leaves seven in pass coverage. Since an offense is already without six players (quarterback and five lineman), that means — in the best case scenario — the pass catchers are out numbered 7-5.
Because of this advantage, Schwartz primarily dials up press man coverage. His cornerbacks have more freedom to take risks and jump routes because they know they have safety help over the top. That combination of pressure on the quarterback and more defenders in pass coverage inevitably leads to more opportunities for turnovers. Schwartz’s last three years as a defensive coordinator — 2007-08 in Tennessee, and 2014 in Buffalo — underscore this point. That 2007 Titans team ranked 7th in sacks, and 2nd in interceptions, thanks to seven players with at least two interceptions on the season, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. The 2008 team ranked 5th in sacks, and had three Pro Bowlers in the secondary: safeties Michael Griffin (7 ints) and Chris Hope (4 ints), and cornerback Cortland Finnegan (5 ints). While the 2014 Bills had the most sacks in the league and sixth most interceptions thanks to nine different players with at least one interception.
The 2008 Titans was the one year I could find where Schwartz’s secondary was loaded with playmakers. Despite lacking elite talent in other years, his teams ranked, on average, in the top 14 in the league in take-aways during his career. That is an encouraging sign for the Eagles given their lack of top quality corners at their disposal.
Schwartz’s scheme also creates good opportunities to get off the field after 3rd down. Simply stated, more sacks means longer distances to cover on third down, which means a lower probability of converting on third down.
Pat Kirwin of NFL.com recently conducted a study of the conversion percentage league wide for certain down and distances. Here is what he found:
|2nd and 1-5 yards||56%|
|2nd and 6-9||27%|
|2nd and 10+||17%|
|3rd and 1||67%|
|3rd and 2||52%|
|3rd and 3||49%|
|3rd and 4||47%|
|3rd and 5||42%|
|3rd and 6||41%|
|3rd and 7||37%|
|3rd and 8||32%|
|3rd and 9||32%|
|3rd and 10+||20%|
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the longer the distance, the lower the probability of getting a first down. So while you have a coin-flips chance (52%) of converting a 3rd and 2, your odds plummet to 20% for 3rd and 10+.
Intuitively, you would think that the high sack totals would lead to a better third down conversion rate. That’s exactly the case with Schwartz’s defense. In the 14 years as head coach or defensive coordinator, Schwartz’s units have averaged in the top 10 on third down percentages, according to Prof-Football-Reference.com. And according to FootballOutsiders.com, his 2014 Buffalo unit ranked 7th in the league on drives ending in 3-and-outs (24.4%), while his 2007 defense ranked 2nd in such category (27.5% of drives ending in a 3-and-out).
Sacks. Take-aways. Getting stops on third downs. Those are the three areas that Schwartz prioritizes on defense. Expect to those priorities translate on the field this fall.
You can continue reading Part II here.