The Steelers take on the Philadelphia Eagles this weekend in a battle between teams who sit (tenuously) atop their division standings. Of course, if you had said before the season that this would be a matchup of division leaders the immediate assumption would be that Philadelphia was better than their 1-2-1 record. The Eagles have been decimated by injuries, but their defense is coached by Jim Schwartz who the Steelers have historically struggled against.
Over the last 13 seasons, the Steelers have faced Schwartz’s teams four times. Schwartz was the defensive coordinator in Tennessee in 2008, the head coach in Detroit in 2009 and 2013, and the defensive coordinator in Philadelphia in 2016. In those four games, Schwartz’s defenses have held the Steelers to fewer rushing yards and points while producing more sacks and turnovers than the Steelers did against their other opponents in those seasons.
Looking at those last four games against Schwartz’s defenses, the Steelers averaged just 2.8 yards per carry, scored 20.5 points per game, and allowed 3.3 sacks per game. Against the other 15 teams they faced in those four seasons, the Steelers averaged 1.2 more yards per carry, 3 more points per game, and nearly 1 fewer sack per game. In every category of rushing attempts, yards, sacks allowed, points scored, and turnovers the Steelers fared worse against Schwartz’s defenses than they did against all other teams.
Why is this? Obviously the 2008 Titans defense was a very different animal than the 2009 Lions team that was coming off an 0-16 season. One of the primary reasons is Jim Schwartz’s Wide-9 defensive scheme is not one that the Steelers face often.
Defensive line techniques are defined by how they line up in relation to the offensive line. Even-numbered designations mean the player is lined up in the center of the body of an offensive lineman while odd-numbered designations denote playing in a gap or off the shoulder of a lineman. A “Wide 9” scheme is a 4-3 base that moves the defensive ends from their normal position in the 7-technique (between the tight end and the tackle) and shifts them out wider so that they are starting on the outside shoulder of the tight end. Even with no tight end lined up on that side, the wider base for the defensive end enables them to tighten their pass rush arc to the quarterback. This is challenging for offensive tackles to get the depth needed to get in the rush lane because of the wider start.
Here we see the Eagles defensive ends in a “Wide 9” alignment well outside the offensive tackles. Schwartz’s defenses have used this setup to great success and the primary focus of their defensive ends is on rushing the passer. From a philosophical standpoint, the primary focus of Schwartz’s defenses are always on rushing the passer. Their idea is to “stop the run on the way to the quarterback.” It certainly helps that they have a dominant defensive lineman in the middle in Fletcher Cox. This philosophy not only reads to a quality pass rush but mitigates the play-action game. It lets the defensive linemen continually fire off the ball and leaves the linebackers to clean up any running backs that get through.
Two weeks ago the Eagles defense held Joe Mixon to 49 yards on 17 carries. The following week Mixon went out and ran for 151 yards against Jacksonville. Last week, the Eagles faced the 49ers who were averaging 133 rushing yards per came. On paper, it looked like the 49ers had success with 116 rushing yards. However, nearly half of those came from non-running backs. Brandon Aiyuk took a wide receiver screen for 38 yards and a touchdown, but because it was a backwards throw it counted as a running play. As for the traditional running backs, Jerrick McKinnon and Jeff Wilson were held to 60 yards on 16 carries. In Week 2, the Rams ran for 191 yards against the Eagles, but used jet sweeps to their WRs to keep the Eagles off balance. Leading rusher Darrell Henderson (12 carries for 81 yards) had nearly half of his yards on one 40-yard run. Similarly, Malcolm Brown (11 carries, 47 yards) had a 19-yard burst that accounted for most of his yards.
This Eagles defensive front is strong against the run, despite how they might appear on paper. The Steelers don’t employ a lot of jet sweeps, though this game could see Anthony McFarland continue to expand his role. The best ways to attack this defensive front is to either let the Wide 9 rusher get up the field and to run inside of his rush lane while getting a down block on the linebacker or to let the Eagles over-pursue and cut back up the middle. Darrell Henderson’s 40-yard run in Week 2 came by exploiting the Eagles over-pursuing the run and cutting back up the gut.
Additionally, the Eagles currently lead the league with 17 sacks. They deploy seven different players along the defensive front. So far, 13 different Eagles have recorded at least a half-sack, including defensive backs who they are not afraid to bring on blitzes. Josh Sweat and Brandon Graham lead the way with 3 sacks each, coming from those Wide-9 alignments.
At first glance, the 3-0 Steelers taking on the 1-2-1 Eagles seems like it should be a massive mismatch. Given the quality of the Eagles defensive front, do not be surprised if the Steelers struggle to run the ball and have to put the ball in Ben Roethlisberger’s hands to win the game. Ben has had success against Jim Schwartz defenses in the past. The Eagles are banged up in the secondary and are particularly bad at defending against tight ends. That said, the Eagles did acquire CB Darius Slay this offseason who is one of the best corners in the league. The Steelers have a plethora of receivers they can deploy and will need to identify where Slay is on any given play. This is certainly a game the Steelers can win, especially given the injuries the Eagles have on the offensive side of the ball. That said, don’t be surprised if this game is a low-scoring defensive struggle between the teams that rank first and second in the league in sacks.