By Sal Capaccio
So you've heard the Bills are going to run a "wide-nine" defense under new coordinator Jim Schwartz. What does that mean from a scheme and philosophy standpoint? And how will that relate to the Bills personnel specifically? I’ll do my best to answer those questions and break it down here.
First, let’s start with the term. The “wide nine” is not an actual name of a defense (like we may call a 4-3 or 3-4). It’s simply the term given to where the two defensive ends line up on the field. The number “nine” identifies the spot they’ll be lined up before the snap of the ball.
All defensive linemen are given numbers (or techniques) telling them where to line up relative to the offensive line across from them. Over the many years of football, different coaches have used different numbering (technique) systems. But one of the most common, and the one I’ve used as a coach, is below:
Graph via Breakdown Sports
It’s a lot simpler than it may appear.
If a DL lines up head-up on an OL, it’s referred to by an even number: 2 over the guard; 4 over the tackle; 8 over the tight end (no 6 to keep the numbers going in numerical order, as you can see above).
If he lines up on their inside or outside shoulder, he's lined up in an odd-numbered technique. The only difference is the “4i” (or 4-inside) is used on the inside shoulder of the tackle as to, again, keep numerical integrity for coaches and players.
The defensive ends play a “9-technique,” which is outside the tight end (or where the TE would be if there is none to that side). A wide-nine simply means they space out even wider than the outside shoulder. Usually 2-3 feet wider. He also cocks his body on much more of an angle than keeping his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage. Now, the tight end can’t get his hands on the defensive end because he is lined up so far away. However, the defensive end is now further away from the quarterback (and the entire offense, really). It’s a trade-off for the defensive end. He sacrifices space to the QB but gains freedom and speed to get there.
Also, since the the defensive end has a longer way to go around the tight end, he can’t chip or jam him at the line because he’s so far away. So, in the event the tight end goes out for a pass, he’ll generally be given a free-release off the line of scrimmage from the defensive end.
Here is a look at the Lions defense under Jim Schwartz last year (in blue). Notice the two defensive ends and how wide they are (wide-nines). They are the two players to the furthest edge on each side of the screenshot:
In the wide-nine alignment, it’s tougher for defensive ends to set the edge against the run. That is, force a running back back towards the inside if he's bouncing his run towards the edge of the line of scrimmage. They are basically going right to the QB at the snap of the ball from a sprinter’s stance, not able to squeeze the offensive line down and keep a running back within the tackles. This puts a lot more pressure on the guys in the middle of the defense to stop the run. Mainly, the two defensive tackles and the middle and weakside linebacker. They’ll have to be very tough, very stout, and make a lot of plays as a group. And they can’t over-pursue. They aren’t getting much help. It’s clearly why the Bills signed Brandon Spikes. He’s the perfect big, downhill middle linebacker needed for this scheme.
It’s also why the Bills so desperately need Marcell Dareus to stay on the field and play at a Pro Bowl level. In many defensive schemes, there are more players committed to helping each other flush out the ball carrier. Not so much this one. This scheme relies heavily on those middle-of-the-defense defenders to make plays in space and often by themselves. If one gets beaten, huge chunks of yardage are at risk.
However, if these guys do what the Bills are asking and believe they can, it allows for defensive ends like Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes to wreak havoc in opposing backfields and make sacks, cause offenses to keep running backs and tight ends in to block, or force quarterbacks to run when they don’t want to.
The wide-nine often has less of an 11-on-11 team concept and instead is essentially playing two separate defenses at the same time. An interior game and an edge game. The defensive ends are on islands heading to the backfield to sack the QB or maybe even make a huge play for a big loss on a ball carrier. And the defensive coordinator is banking that his inside-four will be better than an offense’s interior four to stop any runs between the tackles.
Any questions? Tweet me @SalSports and I’ll be happy to answer if I can.