Is Jim Washburn’s Wide 9 Defense going to be any good?

Aug 28, 2014; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone and Detroit Lions defensive line coach Jim Washburn talk before the game at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 28, 2014; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone and Detroit Lions defensive line coach Jim Washburn talk before the game at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports /

With Jim Washburn on the Dolphins’ defensive coaching staff, in the role of Senior Defensive Assistant and Pass Rush Specialist, fans should expect to see the Wide 9 alignment used by the defensive line; what impact can we expect to see on the defense?

There are a lot of name brand offenses out there, including Air Coryell, the West Coast Offense, and the Run and Shoot, which easily come to mind.  As soon as you hear those names, you can picture the coaches and teams that have succeeded in those systems, guys like Don Coryell, Dan Fouts, Warren Moon, Bill Walsh, and Joe Montana.  It often seems that the coaching geniuses are only found on the offense’s side of the ball.

On defense, there are a few name brand defenses, the 46 and the Tampa 2 are often talked about, for instance, for the success had by the Bears and the Buccaneers using those systems, but usually, defenses are described simply by their personnel groups, whether that be a 4-3 or a 3-4.  It isn’t often that announcers and the average fan discuss the alignments and gapping schemes used by the defense.

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That isn’t the case with the Wide 9 though, which has a cool name and a funkier alignment.  You probably remember the Wide 9 in connection with the 2011 Eagles, the supposed Dream Team, who would often have guys like defensive end Jason Babin, he of the 18 sacks that year, lined up so far away from the center of the line that it looked like he was blitzing from the sideline.  For all its faults, the Dream Team led the league with 50 sacks that year.  Or if you are a bit older, maybe you remember defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, who racked up 12 sacks as a member of the 2007 Titans.  More recently, our very own Mario Williams sacked the quarterback 14.5 times as a member of the 2014 Bills, a team that also led the league with 54 sacks. For comparison, the 2015 Dolphins had 31 sacks.

All of those teams played the Wide 9 scheme, which is a 4-3 formation created and popularized by Jim Washburn and current Eagles defensive coordinator, Jim Schwartz, while they were members of the Tennessee Titans defensive coaching staff back in 1999.  As the story goes, Washburn and Schwartz needed a way to stop the stretch runs that the Colts were using with Edgerrin James, so they decided to emulate the 3-4 defense of Bill Belicheck, but instead of switching to a 3-4, they just had their 4-3 defensive ends line up wide of the tight end slot, in order to contain the stretch runs and force the runs back inside to the defensive tackles and middle linebacker.  The alignment of the defensive ends was called the “9 technique”, based on a numerical chart used by many teams to describe the alignment of the defensive line.  The 9 technique was effective in stopping the outside runs, and also had a side benefit of allowing the defensive ends to rush from such an extremely wide angle relative to the offensive tackles that the scheme, then becoming known as the Wide 9, was also used in pass rush situations.

The downside of having the defensive ends so far wide of center is that the gaps between the defensive tackles and the end become larger, and the linebackers have to help fill those holes. So the inside runs become a bit more difficult to defend, especially if your linebackers have trouble filling gaps, getting off blocks, and tackling.

Interestingly, Ndamukong Suh and Mario Williams both had their most prolific sack totals while playing in Wide 9 schemes, Suh while a member of Schwartz’s 2010 Detroit Lions (10 sacks), and Williams as a member of Schwartz’s 2014 Buffalo Bills (14.5 sacks).  Under Washburn, Suh led the 2014 Lions with 8.5 sacks. New Dolphin defensive lineman Jason Jones racked up 5 sacks in 2014 and 4.5 sacks in 2015 as a member of Washburn’s Lions, so there is a history of success in the Wide 9 system for a few of the Dolphins linemen.

As for the linebackers, Kiko Alonso did not have the opportunity to play in the system when Schwartz was the head coach of the Bills in 2014, because Alonso was on injured reserve that entire year with a torn ACL – but it is worth noting that Schwartz, as defensive coordinator of the Eagles, may have agreed to the trade that sent Alonso to the Dolphins this year, so who knows if Schwartz considers Alonso to be a good fit as a Wide 9 middle linebacker. (Note: Safety Isa Abdul-Quddus also played for Washburn as a member of the Lions in 2014-2015).

If nothing else, this should be an interesting experiment to see if the Wide 9 can flourish in Miami, with Cameron Wake, Williams and Suh leading the way.