Jim Schwartz is famous for his use of the wide-9 alignment and the 4-3 defense in general. That's the scheme he's had success with in the NFL. That's what he brings to the Eagles.
Yet somewhere in an alternate universe, Schwartz is coaching a 3-4 defense right now, all because the Tennessee Titans never drafted Jevon Kearse.
OK, that might be a stretch considering Schwartz learned under coaches such as Marvin Jones and Gregg Williams, who are also known for the 4-3. Then again, the Eagles' defensive coordinator revealed when he was hired by the Titans as an assistant in 1999, the defense was actually using quite a bit of 3-4. Kearse changed everything, and is in part responsible for Schwartz's preference in scheme to this day.
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"When I first went to Tennessee, we based out of a lot of 3-4, but it probably came from just the personnel we had," Schwartz recalled.
"We drafted Jevon Kearse. There was a line of thought that Jevon Kearse was gonna be a 3-4 outside linebacker or he was gonna be a defensive end. We decided to try to make it as simple as we could for him, put him at one spot and just let him attack and rush the passer and let him play the edge.
"We had some success with that, then found other guys in the scheme that fit."
Some success is putting it mildly.
Eagles fans might best remember Kearse for four injury-prone seasons between 2004-07 when he failed to live up to a massive free-agent contract, totaling just 22 sacks. As a first-round pick in 1999, however, "The Freak" burst on to the scene with 14½ sacks, earning Defensive Rookie and Player of the Year honors en route to the first of three consecutive invitations to the Pro Bowl. Kearse had accumulated 47½ sacks after five seasons in Tennessee.
Kearse's final trip to the Pro Bowl came under Schwartz, who ascended to defensive coordinator in 2001, a post he held until being named head coach of the Detroit Lions in '09. Afterward, he served one year as defensive coordinator for the Bills. In 14 NFL seasons, Schwartz has coached eight different linemen to double-digit sack seasons.
Some of that production is the result of a system that allows linemen like Kearse to play fast and attack.
"Philosophically, the thing that's guiding that has been try to make it as simple as we can," Schwartz said.
"It's a coach's job to make a complex scheme simple for the players. It's our job to make it so that they can digest it. There's a lot of things that are going on, on the field — offensive tempo, different personnel groups and formations — there's a million different things going on and they have to process all that stuff. Our job is to streamline the information and allow them to play fast, give them confidence."
Through his experiences, Schwartz has come to believe the 4-3 defense — when equipped with the right personnel up front — is the best method to attack offenses in today's NFL.
"I think that the other part of the 4-3 is when you can affect the passer with four guys, you're not forced to blitz to get pressure on the quarterback, you're in a very good position," he said. "I've been there before when you can't get pressure and you have to blitz — it's not a great feeling. You want to blitz on your terms. You want to be able to blitz when you want to, when the situation is right, not, 'We can't get any pass rush unless we do it.'
"So allowing those guys to keep it simple, to be able to pressure with four and not make yourself skinnier so to speak in coverage can also take some big plays away from offenses."
It's difficult to argue with the results. Schwartz has three previous stints as either a defensive coordinator or head coach in the NFL, during which his units have four top-10 finishes in yards allowed as well as a pair of top-five rankings in points surrendered. Perhaps most impressive of all are the three occasions in which Schwartz's defense finished third the league in takeaways.
Schwartz inherits plenty of talent on the Eagles' defense, particularly along the defensive line. Connor Barwin has twice attained doubled-digit sacks in a season, while Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry have both eclipsed nine. Brandon Graham and Marcus Smith are former first-round picks, too.
Don't expect this defense to look identical to what Schwartz has done at previous stops, though. While he may be known for a particular approach or brand of football, Schwartz plans to tailor the Eagles' defense to the personnel he has, just like the Titans did with Kearse in Tennessee all those years ago.
"Every year will be a little bit different," Schwartz said. "Our terminology is a little bit different, cast of characters is a little different, and if we're on the right track, we'll put the players in the best position to best use their talents.
"What we did in Buffalo was a little different than what we did in Detroit, which was a little different from what we did in Tennessee, but it's all designed to try to make the most of what you have."