By now you have certainly heard about the Philadelphia Eagles' use of the wide-nine defensive technique. What exactly does this mean and where does it get its name?
The X's and O's
The name comes from the gaps along the offensive line that defines where defensive players line up and assume certain responsibilities. For example, the zero means right over the center, the one means the gap between center and guard and the two means right on the guard.
Continuing down the line, the six would be on the tight end and the seven would be on the tight end's outside shoulder. A little outside the tight end would be the eight and far outside the tight end would be the nine.
Thus, when a defensive end (DE) lines up way outside, the technique is called the wide nine. The two DEs get into a sprinter's crouch, ready to explode towards the quarterback when they see the ball snapped.
To understand why teams might use this approach, we need to look at the size of the linemen on either side of the ball. The Eagles' four DEs (Cole, Tapp, Parker and Babin) average 6'2" in height and 265 pounds in weight. Now let's look at the typical offensive tackle (OT) they must face. The Dallas Cowboys' two OTs average 6'5" in height and 317 pounds in weight. The New York Giants' two OTs average 6'6" in height and 325 pounds in weight.
So if the Eagles' DEs would try to go head-to-head against the OTs on every play, that 50-pound or more weight disadvantage would make for a long day. But if these smaller but quicker DEs could be far enough away from the OTs, they could get a two- or three-step running start to build up speed and have that momentum of motion on their side.
Theoretically, this tips the advantage to the smaller DEs who can brush by the OTs and get into the backfield to cause chaos, either by sacking the quarterback setting up to pass or by disrupting a run.
The Chess Game
But with the DEs so far outside, this leaves the defense vulnerable to off-tackle runs. If the DEs are running into the backfield, then the OTs are free to block the linebackers and spring the running backs. The Eagles are especially vulnerable to this situation since they lack a legitimate run stuffer among the linebacker, defensive back, and safety corps.
In the first two games so far, we have seen this issue. Early in the first game, the Rams' Steve Jackson ran 47 yards for a touchdown. In the second game, Michael Turner ran for 23 yards on the Falcons' first two offensive plays. So it is pretty clear how the Eagles' opponents are game-planning against the wide-nine defense.
This Week's Game
Since the Giants have two good running backs, Bradshaw and Jacobs, and have a depleted wide receiver corps, it is easy to anticipate that they will attack the wide-nine defense with a heavy dose of running plays.
The Eagles have responded by moving Jamar Chaney to middle linebacker, hoping that he would be better able to fend off the blocks and stop the run. And the offensive plan is to score quickly and early so that the Giants would have to pass more to catch up, which would play into the hands of the wide-nine defense. The ability of the Eagles to do this depends on Michael Vick's return from his injury. This chess game occurs each week in the NFL.
So during this week's game, watch the Eagles DEs. If they are in the wide-nine position, that would probably be an indication that the Eagles are winning the chess game and are able to stick to their plan. But if the Eagles' DEs are more inside—for example, in the five gap, just off the OTs' outside shoulder—then that could mean the Giants are ahead on the scoreboard, doing a lot of running and winning the chess game.