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More on the Eagles' wide-nine defensive alignment

I apologize in advance for my fascination with the "wide-nine" alignment that the Philadelphia Eagles will often use on defense Sunday, but if you are as curious about it as I am, then you probably won’t mind me expounding on it a little further on the blog. And if you’re not as curious, maybe this stat will pique your interest: The Eagles were first in the NFL with 50 sacks in 2011, and they did it by rushing just four players 82 percent of the time, according to the fine folks at Football Outsiders. Trent Cole and Jason Babin combined for 29 of those sacks.

Cole has long been one of the NFL’s most underrated defensive ends and Babin, who was a journeyman for the early part of his career, seems to have found a home in Philadelphia and had 30.5 in his past two seasons.

A significant reason for their gaudy sack totals a season ago is Philadelphia’s use of the wide-nine alignment, which as I wrote in my story in today’s newspaper, basically has the defensive line spread out, with the ends lining up way wide and tilting in towards the quarterback like sprinters in the starting block. The idea is to get quick pressure and also control the edge right away. Or put simpler, it’s all about sacking the quarterback.

But if it works so well, why aren’t more teams using it all the time? Well, it leaves gaping holes on the inside, and if the defensive linemen are going all-in on the pass rush on nearly every play, who is left to stop the run? The wide-nine quickly became controversial in Philadelphia last season, as the “Dream Team” Eagles fell flat on their faces at the start of the season. Among the major reasons was their inability to stomp out the run.

But it’s not all bad, according to Andy Benoit of Football Outsiders.

“It’s a big reason defensive end Trent Cole, a relentless force who plays with great leverage, is coming off his best season as a pro. And it’s a big reason Jason Babin has 30.5 sacks over the past two years,” wrote Benoit in his 2012 Eagles season preview. “Defensive line coach Jim Washburn has always done a great job teaching the wide-nine. Its basic premise is for the ends to play pass first and worry about the run only if convenient.”

I love how Benoit put that: “worry about the run only if convenient.”

But the Eagles defense got better as the season progressed. During a four-game winning streak to end the season, the defense allowed just 11.5 points per game and 265 yards per game, which helped the Eagles finish the season ranked eighth in total defense and 10th in points allowed. They picked up where they left off in Week 1 against the Cleveland Browns, holding rookie back Trent Richardson to 39 yards on 19 carries.

A lot, but not all, of that had to do with Philadelphia’s brand-new linebacker corps. The Eagles traded for former Pro Bowl linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who had become a misfit in the 3-4 scheme that the Houston Texans installed last season. They drafted Mychal Kendricks in the second round in April. And Akeem Jordan is the third linebacker, though he only played 20 snaps against the Browns, according to Pro Football Focus.

“The wide-9 became a buzzword for what was wrong with the Eagles defense, but the problem was less the wide-9 and more the players behind it,” Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders wrote in their 2012 almanac. “The biggest problem there is the run; when you put the defensive linemen that far apart, you are going to create some huge holes for running backs. You need to have quality linebackers behind that, ready to make the tackles when guys come through those holes.”

Still, even with better linebackers and subsequently better tackling, there should still be opportunities for the Ravens to run the ball, especially on the inside, where Ray Rice and Vonta Leach can do a lot of damage. As Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda told me the other day, the Ravens have a plan for combating the wide-nine.

“Their main objective is to get after the passer,” he said, without adding the caveat from Benoit that I mentioned above.

This will be a challenge for the new-look offensive line, including the interior linemen, too. The Eagles will rotate seven or eight defensive linemen, including Cullen Jenkins and 2012 first-round pick Fletcher Cox. Since they will usually be rushing just their four guys up front, the Eagles may use stunts to create confusion, especially since teams had success doing it against the Ravens in the preseason. And the Ravens will likely start two youngsters again. Ramon Harewood is a mystery man at left guard. Right tackle Kelechi Osemele had a good preseason, but he struggled at times against speed rushers of lesser ilk than Babin.

If the Ravens can control the line of scrimmage against Babin, Cole and the Eagles, I like their chances on Sunday (especially if Michael Vick continues to be a turnover machine). And doing so will also go a long way toward quieting any concern about the team’s offensive line.

(If you want to learn more about the wide-nine, here is former Ravens coach Brian Billick breaking it down on a whiteboard and here are NFL analysts Greg Cosell and Adam Caplan exploring the scheme in another video.)

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