What is the Wide-9 Defense?

As the resident “Defensive Coordinator of Perfectville” I thought it’d be pertinent to start up a series about the Wide-9 and how the Dolphins can look to improve it heading into 2017. So, with that in mind, let’s look at where this defense really comes from.

Most NFL teams are playing primarily nickel fronts, either a 4-2-5 or a 3-3-5, almost two thirds of the time in today’s NFL. But, when you go into a base defense, there’s really two options: a 4-3 or a 3-4. We’ve seen a few teams like Arizona, Baltimore and the Jets shift into these hybrid defenses, and over the last two years, we’ve seen our beloved Dolphins, along with Buffalo, Philadelphia and Detroit start the proliferation of the wide-9 defense. So, what is the wide-9 defense?

To learn this, you must learn a bit of context about it first. The wide-9 defense originated in the early 2000s with the Tennessee Titans. At the time, Jim Schwartz – now the Eagles Defensive Coordinator, was an assistant LBs Coach for the Titans and he worked with DL Coach Jim Washburn, now with Miami, were frustrated because they could not find a way to stop the Indianapolis Colts’ outside stretch-zone runs – the same runs we’ve seen Jay Ajayi run this year – and at the time, Edgerrin James was one of the best RBs in the NFL. Schwartz was given the task of figuring out how to stop this, and through watching tape he learned that the New England Patriots were able to contain James and force the Colts to throw. The Patriots played a 3-4 defense and had massive bodies across the front like Ted Washington, Keith Traylor and later Vince Wilfork. They had big, long OLBs like Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest who would line up outside, wide of the T or TE to their side and forced the Colts’ James to cut back into the middle into those big-bodied defenders and sure tackling ILBs – Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson.

The Titans were a 4-3 team, playing a style that is very similar to what we saw Kevin Coyle run here while he was with Miami. Currently, you see this type of 4-3 with Minnesota under Mike Zimmer and still with the Bengals. Seattle also runs an offshoot of this. The rub with this defense is that it requires you to have certain body-types at key positions to make it efficient. The Titans didn’t have those types of players, so Washburn tasked Schwartz with coming up with a way to get the Titans 4-3 to play in a style similar to the Patriots 3-4.

So, in short, the Wide-9 is a 4-3 defense played with a wider front. This means that instead of having the normal 4-3 D-line alignment of: DE – 5-technique; NT – 1/shade technique; DT – 3 technique; DE – 5/6/7 technique you’re going to see an alignment of: DE – “wide 5” (7 technique); NT – 2i-technique, DT – 3-technique; and a DE – “wide 9” technique. To give you a better understanding of this, as it’s really an alignment shift, check out the two pictures below.

Normal 4-3 Under Front – Seattle Seahawks

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As you can see form the Seahawks picture, which is nicely labeled, you see the 3, 1 and 5 techniques plus a “Leo” across the front. That’s simply their terminology, much like the “wide-5” and “wide-9” for Miami. The Leo in this picture is lined up in a 7 technique – the outside shoulder of the TE, if there was a TE to that side.

Wide-9 4-3 Front – Buffalo Bills

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In this picture, which is from the 2014 Buffalo Bills defense – of which Jim Schwartz was the Defensive Coordinator of – you can see their front is much wider than the Seahawks above. You have Jerry Hughes at RDE playing the “wide-5” spot, which is really the same as a 7 technique. Then you have Kyle Williams playing a 3-technique look over the LG. Marcell Dareus, the NT, is in a 2i technique on the inside shoulder of the RG, and Mario Williams at LDE is in the “wide-9” spot, which would be the outside shoulder of the TE, if there was one.

As you can see, the LBs play in a much more truncated fashion with the MLB lined up head-up on the C and the outside LBs playing off the outside shoulder of the DT to their side. You’ll also notice the Bills have a safety walked-up to almost the same depth as the LBs. That’s because in this defense the S is responsible for the C-gap in run defense. For Miami, this was Reshad Jones early in the year. Now, Miami has made use of Michael Thomas, Bacarri Rambo and Isa Abdul-Quddus all playing that role

The interesting part of this, is that you can play some Under and Over looks out of the wide-9 as well. This has proven to be advantageous for the Dolphins as it helps to stop the run, especially with the group of undersized LBs that Miami has. Donald Butler, while he’s had some poor efforts, has been pretty good at playing on the line of scrimmage in Under and Over fronts (see below). He sets a hard edge and isn’t afraid to fill a gap. He just needs work on his technique. When Miami has shifted its front in this manner, it’s also provided Kiko Alonso with some room to create better angles with his speed so he’s not directly engaged by a C or G. Even Neville Hewitt and Spencer Paysinger have shown a better degree of competence stopping the run in these alignments. Still, Miami is in desperate need of a talent injection this offseason at LB. No, Mike Hull is absolutely not an answer, and he shouldn’t be considered as an option – he’s a backup. But, it’s my sense that the LB play has been the primary reason for Miami’s inept run defense this season. Enough of that, here are the Over and Under fronts. Wide-9 “Over” Front – Detroit Lions

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Wide-9 Under Front – Detroit Lions

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So, you’ve seen the types of alignments and fronts in the wide-9, but what about its philosophy? Again, the genesis of that goes back to the Titans and Jim Schwartz and Jim Washburn when they were there. Wanting to play like a 3-4 team with 4-3 personnel and 4-3-based formations, they created the wide-9 as an attacking style of defense that could disrupt opposing offenses. Their defensive ends “play the run on the way to the quarterback”, meaning they line up in a sprinter’s stance and burst off the ball with the goal of getting to the QB and rerouting the RB, if a run play, back inside to the DTs and LBs. Originally, the Titans made great use of Jevon Kearse, whom Jim Schwartz called a “blistering bitch” coming off the edge, and Kyle Vanden Bosch. Both guys were long, strong and physical guys. Miami tried this originally with Mario Williams and Jason Jones.   Vance Joseph saw that they were eating a ton of snaps, in my opinion, largely due to an inept offense for the first 5 games of the season, but they weren’t as effective. Vance Joseph decided he wanted more athletic guys in Andre Branch and Cameron Wake to take over as they were more “activity-based” than just brute strength-based guys who went straight ahead. The decision paid off as Miami’s run defense, save for allowing 1 or 2 chunk runs a game, has played very well since “The Streak” started. Check out the numbers below on some of the best RBs in the league this year.

Le’Veon Bell – 53 Yards (5.3 ypc)

Melvin Gordon – 70 Yards (2.9 ypc)

Todd Gurley – 76 Yards (3.8 ypc)

David Johnson – 80 Yards (4.0 ypc)

As for the interior guys – the 2iNT and 3-Technique DT, they play a little more similarly to most defenses. The main change that Washburn brought was with Albert Haynesworth. Much like Miami’s Jordan Phillips as a rookie, Haynesworth was massive – 6’6” 350lbs, but he had trouble maintaining gap discipline and playing with leverage. So, instead of having him play as a 1-technique or “shade” nose, they simply lined up him on the inside shoulder of the guard and told him to attack the A gape. The philosophy there is that if the play came towards him, he was so big, fast and strong, he’d knock the center back into the backfield and disrupt the action of the run. If the play went away from him, he’d be able to get inside of the backside guard (to his outside shoulder) and penetrate the backfield and force the RB to try and bounce outside into the waiting arms of Kearse or Vanden Bosch.

The outside linebackers in this defense can be smaller, faster, more athletic guys that can help scrape behind the D-line and stop the RB if he makes it to a gap. Watch some of Deandre Levy of the Detroit Lions in 2014 to see what I mean here – he was terrific that season. In short, they’re primarily responsible for not letting runs cutback between the DE and DT and break. Miami hasn’t been so great at this at times this year. More on that in a moment.

The middle linebacker in this defense has traditionally been a bigger, “hammer” guy who can play from B-gap to B-gap and stop the run. The Titans started out with Stephen Tulloch, whom Schwartz also took to Detroit with him when he became the Head Coach there. While short, at 5’11”, Tulloch’s weighed between 245-255lbs throughout his career. That’s a bowling ball. He also had Brandon Spikes in Buffalo in 2014, who goes 6’2” 255lbs. Teryl Austin, who took over that Lions defense in 2014, which was absolutely outstanding (3rd in points allowed, 1st against the run at under 70 yards per game) had Tulloch for half the season until he tore his ACL. They replaced him with Tahir Whitehead, who goes 6’2” 242lbs – a bit smaller. But, he’s strong as all hell and is lightning fast. Miami has tried to duplicate this strategy with Kiko Alonso – 6’3” 239lbs – and he’s done admirably well most of the time.

In terms of pass-rush, this scheme is designed to allow the coordinator to apply pressure by just rushing the front 4 on the D-line using a myriad of stunts and games with the DEs and DTs.

2011 Philadelphia Eagles Stunt:

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As a better resource with some videos and GIFs I’d point you to this article that was put together by the Philadelphia Eagles this past offseason when they hired Jim Schwartz as their Defensive Coordinator:

Hopefully this has given you a better idea of what the wide-9 defense started as, what it looks like and how it can be effective. Piggy-backing off of this, my next article will be a review of the defense and what the Miami Dolphins’ needs are for 2017. FinsUp!

@KevinMD4

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