In last week's column I sang the praises of Jason Babin and the amazing season that he's having. The reason that Babin came to Philly is to play for defensive line coach Jim Washburn. Babin was well paid, but didn't get as much money as Ray Edwards. Babin got a fair deal from the Eagles. He wanted good money, but really wanted to stick with Washburn.
The reason Babin was so intent on sticking with Washburn is the success they had together in 2010 with the Tennessee Titans. Babin had 17.5 career sacks heading into the 2010 season. It took him six years to get those sacks. That was before Babin stepped into Washburn's world.
Jim Washburn runs the wide-nine system. As you've seen this year, it puts the defensive ends out away from the formation and gives them a great rush angle. The ends are taught to fire off the ball and relentlessly go for the quarterback. Babin had spent time in other systems, but nothing like this. The wide-nine and Babin went together like frozen pizza and PBR. Or peanut butter and jelly for the non-drinkers.
Babin had 12.5 sacks in 2010 and has 18 this year. That is shocking. You simply don't see a veteran player have that kind of upswing late in his career. The turnaround is largely due to Washburn and his system.
The wide-nine had more than a few skeptics when the Eagles struggled to stop the run early in the season. As Juan Castillo shuffled the lineup and the young players improved, the run defense got tighter. A lot of the criticism of the wide-nine went away, although some people won't let go of the notion that the system doesn't work.
I liked the system and loved the hiring of Washburn. My big question was how the incumbent defensive linemen would fit the system. Mike Patterson came to the Eagles as a small player, but bulked up over time to fit the two-gap scheme the team shifted to. Antonio Dixon was the team's best young defensive lineman and is a big, powerful guy. He's not the sleek pass rusher that was an ideal fit for the wide-nine. Even a guy like Trent Cole had me wondering. Cole had thrived playing in close to the formation. That allowed him to be (arguably) the best run defender among NFL defensive ends. Would Cole lose anything playing more out in space?
I think Washburn and the wide-nine have been a major success. Patterson lost weight to fit the new scheme and has 2.5 sacks and four tackles-for-loss (TFLs). He hasn't been that productive since 2007. Backup end Darryl Tapp leads the team in TFLs. Babin and Cole each have double-digit sacks. Veteran Juqua Parker has struggled with injuries and lost his starting job to Babin, but Parker has still been a contributor. He has 1.5 sacks and has even scored a couple of touchdowns.
Think about some new guys. Phillip Hunt was brought in from the CFL in the offseason. He flashed talent in the summer, but sat for most of the season. He's gotten back on the field in recent weeks and has looked good (very good at times). Derek Landri and Anthony Hargrove were added in training camp to basically be camp bodies and offer some competition. Both guys played terrific in the preseason. Hargrove was cut and signed with the Seahawks. Landri was also cut, but re-signed with the Eagles when Dixon got hurt. Landri has been a terrific backup since rejoining the lineup. He's got two sacks and 5 TFLs.
You really see Washburn's style and system paying off. He believes in a heavy rotation. He wants players on the field going all out on every play. Do that for three or four snaps and then come off and let the next guy take your spot. This is the deepest the Eagles have been on the defensive line in years. We haven't seen a group like this since the first couple of games in 2006. Once Jevon Kearse got hurt, Jim Johnson gave up on the rotation and stuck with the starters. The Eagles had a pretty good group in 2004. I think you need to go back to 2002 to find a similar unit. The Eagles had a great group of starters (Whiting, Simon, Walker, Hugh) and then impact reserves like Paul Grasmanis and N.D. Kalu.
The Eagles lead the NFL with 49 sacks. 45 of those sacks are by defensive linemen. Let's put that in perspective. Tampa Bay has 23 sacks as an entire team. Washburn's defensive line has almost doubled the entire Bucs defense. Ouch.
There is only one player who you could label as disappointing. Trevor Laws had a breakout year in 2010. He was a designated pass rusher in the nickel defense. Laws had four sacks, five pass deflections, one forced fumble, and even an interception. He finally looked like he was playing up to his potential. Laws is made to attack up the field. I thought he would be a natural fit in the wide-nine. Unfortunately, that hasn't been the case. Laws got hurt in the summer and has never made the anticipated impact. He's got one sack, two TFLs, and a pass deflection. Laws has gotten plenty of reps, but hasn't delivered. I think one factor is that he came in a bit heavy. You have to understand that Laws came to the Eagles light and spent two years bulking up to play in the two-gap scheme. Put him back to his rookie size and he would be better off.
Dixon looked lost in the first couple of games, but was playing well when he got hurt early in the year. I think a full offseason of practicing with Washburn will do wonders for him. Brandon Graham missed all of the summer and the first six weeks while on the PUP list as he recovered from ACL surgery. I don't count him as a disappointment since everyone knew 2011 would be a struggle. Next season is the big test for him and his knee.
The one player I haven't talked about is Cullen Jenkins. I wanted to set him apart. The Eagles liked the group of Patterson, Dixon, Laws, and Brodrick Bunkley back in the summer. The one thing Washburn hoped for was a more natural pass rusher. There was hope that Bunkley would become more disruptive in the new system. He'd done that in college. The Eagles didn't want to count on that and when Jenkins didn't get signed in the first day or so of free agency, the Eagles called his agent. They worked out a deal and then traded Bunkley. Both teams benefited from that day. Bunkley has been a good run stuffer for the Broncos, but doesn't have any sacks. Jenkins has 5.5 sacks and six TFLs for the Eagles.
Jenkins is tailor made for Washburn and his system. He is a deceptively good athlete. Jenkins is very quick off the ball and he is a natural pass rusher. He spent some time at defensive end while in Green Bay and that shows when he rushes the passer. Jenkins has been a disruptive force all year long. His numbers are good, but they don't come close to telling his story. He's gotten inside pressure on a regular basis. The Eagles haven't gotten that from a defensive tackle since Corey Simon left.
Jim Washburn was hired to bring his wide-nine system to Philly. He was told to build a defensive line that could rush the passer and be disruptive. Washburn has done a great job on all counts. I think the thing that speaks best for him is the variety of players who have excelled this year. Jenkins is a pricey free agent, new to the system. Babin is a pricey free agent, who knew the system. Cole is the incumbent star pass rusher. Patterson is the incumbent defensive tackle who had to lose weight and re-create his game to fit in. Hunt is the CFL star trying to make it in the big leagues. Tapp is the quiet veteran who loves the fact he got increased playing time. Landri is the guy off the street who just wanted a chance.
Washburn took these pieces, young and old, athletes and grinders, guys of all sizes and shapes, and he got the best out of them. He taught old dogs new tricks and new dogs old tricks. Washburn molded them into the best 4-3 defensive line in the NFL.