The Philadelphia Eagles currently have the 4th best defense in the National Football League and will bring their athleticism and fire to Heinz Field Sunday afternoon to take on the Steelers. As we have seen with few exceptions so far in the 2012 season, there really isn’t a truly dominant defense to be found.
The Eagles run a 4-3 defense which isn’t exactly typical in terms of their front four. They use what is called a ‘wide nine’ technique which moves their defensive ends well outside of the last man on the line. For example, in a single tight end set, Jason Babin would line up a good yard or so outside of the tight end. On the opposite side, Trent Cole would be a yard outside the tackle.
The idea of the wide nine is to give defensive ends the opportunity to essentially take a sprinter’s stance and be angled inwards. This would allow the ends to get a tremendous amount of speed and either use that speed to get past blockers or build up tremendous momentum in order to push the blocker into the pocket. In terms of scheme, the Eagles don’t blitz as much as other teams because they rely more on the ends and defensive tackles to get pressure. Therefore the Eagles will sit back in their traditional zones or man coverages.
Having two excellent corners in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha, the idea is that by forcing the quarterback into quicker and more hurried passes, the corners will be able to jump the routes. Like any defense however, the wide nine has some flaws that can be exposed through a combination of proper execution and timely play-calling.
How the Steelers Should Attack the Wide Nine
The easy thing to say here is just pound the ball on the Eagles and their 15th-ranked rushing defense. Expose the large holes created by the alignment off tackle and set up play-action. Let’s remember we are talking about the 2012 Steelers here, not the 1974 Steelers.
Would it be completely out of sorts for the Steelers’ running game to actually get going this week with the return of Rashard Mendenhall? Ya, actually it would because the running game has been that abysmal. Look for the Todd Haley and the offense to stick with the short passing game to nullify the speed rush coming off the edges.
Draw plays are one of the important plays that typically work against the Eagles, but the Steelers have not shown any consistency in being able to run them. Haley will still call them and perhaps with Mendy they’ll be more effective, but I’m not holding my breath.
The other way is through screens to backs and slot receivers. Again, this is not exactly an area where the Steelers’ offense has flourished as it once did many years ago. I attribute some of the failures in both the draws and screens to the injury to rookie David DeCastro. His greatest asset is ability to pull and get outside in front of runners. Perhaps this will improve when he returns, but that won’t help now.
So where does this leave the Steelers in terms of options in attacking the wide nine? I don’t think it leaves them in as bad of shape as you might think. The short passing game will be the foundation, but so will targeting Heath Miller and third receiver Emmanuel Sanders. This isn’t to say that Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace will be completely shut down because they will get throws one way or another. Roethlisberger will need to be judicious in his pre-snap reads and be confident that his receivers are reading the same things.
Pittsburgh doesn’t need to establish the run, they need to set the run up with the pass and that can be done with good play-calling and proper execution. The biggest points of the game will be on third downs where the Eagles have been tremendous at getting their defense off the field while the Steelers have excelled on third downs. Whoever wins this key battle will have a leg up in terms of winning the game.