PHILADELPHIA -- Offseason workouts favor the offense. There are no pads, no hitting, and very little that defensive players can do.
So it was easier to glean intelligence on the Philadelphia Eagles' new offense under head coach Doug Pederson than to gain insight on Jim Schwartz’s new defense. Nevertheless, we got a few glimpses of the way Schwartz plans to deploy his players.
It’s all about pressuring quarterbacks: Buddy Ryan used to say he got the idea for his jailbreak "46" defense from his former boss, New York Jets coach Weeb Ewbank. After watching Ewbank obsess over ways to protect his quarterbacks, Ryan figured a defensive coach should be just as obsessed with disrupting quarterbacks.
When he was head coach of the Eagles, Ryan’s defensive coordinator was Jeff Fisher, who went on to become head coach of the Tennessee Titans. Schwartz spent almost 10 years as a defensive assistant on Fisher’s staff in Tennessee.
So the X’s and O’s have evolved over the past 30 years, but the guiding principle -- get to the quarterback -- has remained the same.
Without pads, it is difficult to assess how defensive players are doing. We did get a glimpse, though, during one recent practice. It was held indoors because of weather, and the Eagles’ three quarterbacks had a miserable time.
On nearly every play, the defense came crashing through the offensive line and forced the quarterbacks to get rid of the ball. That is the way Schwartz wants his defense to play, and it will be compelling to watch him implement that kind of aggressive play in Philadelphia.
The 'Wide 9' is still a thing: Eagles fans might cringe when they hear about the Wide 9 alignment, in which defensive ends line up way outside the offensive tackles. That’s because the Eagles used that defensive front when Jim Washburn was their defensive line coach.
It didn’t work very well, but it is important to remember what was going on around Washburn and his charges. Andy Reid hired Washburn in 2011, the same year he promoted offensive line coach Juan Castillo to defensive coordinator. So Castillo had to devise and implement a defensive scheme -- something he had never done in his life -- around the Wide 9 front that Washburn had been brought in to coach. That's no easy task.
It was a disaster. The Eagles didn’t have the talent to run the Wide 9. Their linebackers -- Brian Rolle, Jamar Chaney and Casey Matthews -- were not equipped to handle playing behind a defensive line that charged forward on every play. Running backs exploited the defensive strategy.
The Eagles led the league with 50 sacks in 2011, but their record was 8-8. The next year, Washburn was fired in December as the team went 4-12. Reid was fired after the season.
Washburn is now with the Miami Dolphins. In the interim, Schwartz hired him in Detroit. The two men had worked together for nearly a decade in Tennessee.
So there is a direct connection. But Schwartz figures to have linebackers and safeties who can clean up after his aggressive front four. Mychal Kendricks played in the Wide 9 as a rookie in 2012. Nigel Bradham played for Schwartz in Buffalo. Jordan Hicks has played in a variety of schemes since his college days. Safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod appear to be miles ahead of Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman, the starting safeties when Washburn was in Philadelphia.
There are cornerbacks: Howie Roseman, the Eagles’ executive vice president of football operations, said a few months ago that Schwartz can’t have too many cornerbacks. And Roseman has gone about amassing a group of promising corners who have looked very impressive through organized team activities and minicamp.
Free agents Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks (who also played for Schwartz in Buffalo) were with the first team most of the time. Rookie seventh-round pick Jalen Mills was all over the place, in a good way. Eric Rowe and Nolan Carroll rotated among the starters. JaCorey Shepherd, who tore his ACL as a rookie last summer, is just starting to get back onto the field.
Denzel Rice, Randall Evans and CFL standout Aaron Grymes will also compete for playing time. It isn’t clear yet who will start and who will play in the nickel, but the Eagles appear to have enough talent to make Schwartz’s scheme work.
The attitude is right: Schwartz’s guys pick up every ball that hits the ground and return it like a recovered fumble. They take interceptions the distance, even when that means running a full 100 yards, as safety Chris Maragos did last week.
They hoot and holler and needle the offensive players. For the past three years, the Eagles' defense has been a second-class citizen compared to Chip Kelly's team-defining offensive scheme. Although Pederson has a vision for the Eagles' offense, he wants his defense to have an intimidating personality of its own.
That can’t really be shown until everyone is in pads and hitting, but the early signs are positive.