Philadelphia Eagles fans and media alike are screaming for the Eagles to scrap the “wide nine,” a defensive system wherein the blindside pass-rushing defensive end lines up far outside their opposing offensive tackle, and the rest of the line shifts around to obtain maximum penetration and pass rush without blitzing.
Adam Caplan of Scout.com explains:
Does all this sound familiar? It should, because it’s the same system the Lions use.
There’s a problem inherent in spreading out that defensive line and coaching them to aggressively penetrate. Trap blocks, counters and end-arounds become extremely effective. Opponents intent on running the ball will succeed. In a recent Detroit News article, Jim Schwartz explained how the Lions deal with this.
"We're vulnerable to trap blocks," Schwartz said. "You tell guys to get up field and rush the passer, they're going to be susceptible to the trap. But our linebackers are expected to play that. We don't want our guys slowing down and playing traps. Suh is an instinctive guy. He's seen those things before. If we are getting off the line the way we are supposed to, our linebackers should fill those (gaps) up."
Stephen Tulloch, Justin Durant, DeAndre Levy, and Bobby Carpenter have combined to do just that. Though opposing running backs are shredding the Lions’ defensive line for 4.78 yards per carry, the Lions have allowed only one rushing touchdown. Opposing running backs are getting through to the second level, but no farther.
After five games, the Lions’ defense is fourth-best in the NFL, allowing just 17.8 points per game. The talent, skill, and depth of the defensive line has allowed the Lions to contain the run and snuff out the pass. They have 12 sacks, tied for 11th-best in the league—with nearly zero blitzing.
The Lions’ Pro Football Focus team Pass Rush grade is plus-18.9, fifth-best. The strength, depth and alignment of the defensive line allows them dial up the pressure, even as they drop seven back into coverage
With the addition of Nick Fairley to the Lions rotation, they'll be even better. During the Monday Night game, Fairley rotated in 18 snaps. Fairley seamlessly blended with Suh, Corey Williams, Sammie Hill and Andre Fluellen.
Fairley got great penetration, fought off blocks, got in on some piles and per Pro Football Focus had three quarterback pressures. He received a plus-2.4 overall PFF grade (+1.0 run defense, +1.3 pass rush, +0.1 penalty), amazing work for an 18-snap workload. The impact wasn’t seen but it was felt, as the Lions defensive line constantly rotated players in and out, staying fresh and keeping the pressure at a rolling boil for sixty minutes.
ESPN Stats & Information found Cutler was under duress for 42.1 percent of his throws Monday Night, the highest for any single quarterback in any game so far this year. Cutler performed incredibly well considering the pressure; any other quarterback might have gone down seven or eight times—or at least, thrown a lot more incompletions or interceptions.
But the great Lions pass defense isn't just about pressure.
According to one of my favorite pass-defense metrics, Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, the Lions’ pass defense is tied with the New York Jets' for second-best in the NFL. Pro Football Focus grades the Lions pass rush fifth, and pass coverage No. 1.
In Detroit, the “wide nine” system is working perfectly. The strength, speed, depth and alignment of the Lions’ defensive line is putting heat on quarterbacks with almost no blitzing. The burden of stopping the run is almost entirely on the linebackers’ shoulders—and they’re getting the job done. The Eagles’ linebackers aren’t, and Nnamdi Asomugha is having to explain to reporters that, contrary to appearances, Eagles defenders do know how to tackle.
The back seven is also working in concert to take away quarterbacks’ safety blankets underneath, prevent being burned deep, jumping the medium routes to pick passes off and get the ball back to the offense. Where the Eagles gazillion-dollar “dream team” secondary is getting gashed on the ground and through the air, the Lions hand-picked cast of role players and reclamation projects is playing like the best back seven in the NFL.