Defensive depth may still be brought into the fold, but the big splash by Rick Smith is probably complete.
Tomorrow is the first practice of training camp for the Texans at Reliant Park. All eyes will be on the defense over the course of camp and the preseason, as fans and the media alike will try to determine if Wade Phillips’ defense is good enough to propel Gary Kubiak’s high powered offense into the playoffs.
Much has been made of Phillips’ defense over the offseason, mostly because everyone knew that was the key to success in 2011, but also because there was nothing else to talk about during the lockout.
Texans fans who are used to a vanilla defense were given a lot of hard to digest nuggets about the new defensive scheme.
Both safeties need to be interchangeable rather than a true free and strong safety. Linebackers coach Reggie Herring says not to freak out about Mario dropping coverage.
That is a lot of information to digest in order to understand the new scheme. I’ve read excellent articles by Matt Campbell and John Hallam about the 3-4 defense and Wade’s variation of it, but I’m a visual person, and I wanted to see it in order to draw a correlation between everything I’ve read this offseason and what Wade has done in the past.
As a Texans fan, I haven’t spent that much time watching the Cowboys and more specifically the defense that Wade very recently called the plays for.
In fact, the only game I watched with a discerning eye during Wade’s joint tenure as coordinator/head coach was last season in Week 3 when they played the Texans in Houston.
So I re-watched the game which surprisingly was a lot more of an enjoyable experience than I thought it would be. After all, last time I watched it there was no bright side to the Cowboys defensive domination of the Texans that led to a 27-13 victory.
This time I could at least be happy to watch the future Texans defensive coordinator at work.
This game was a great one to watch for diagnosing Wade’s defense and not just because they performed well.
The Texans utilized a myriad of offensive techniques, several of which are good counters to Wade’s defense such as the bootleg, the zone blocking system, effective screens and tight end motion.
One of the more notorious quotes of the off season was the previously mentioned statement from Phillips claiming that his defensive alignment was more of a 5-2 than a 3-4. After watching the tape, I can say that he wasn’t exaggerating.
On first and second downs the Cowboys featured three down linemen flanked on either side by the standing weak and strong outside linebackers. With a great deal of regularity, all five men along the line rushed the quarterback. DeMarcus Ware, the WOLB almost always rushed, but more on this in a bit.
The only exception to the 5-2 alignment was on 3rd downs and obvious passing situations such as after a penalty. On these plays, the two OLB’s put their hands in the dirt, and one of the usual down linemen came out of the lineup.
Most of the plays that the Cowboys went to a down-four front, the two inside linebackers remained and an extra defensive back came on to complete the nickel package.
Wade almost exclusively employed man coverage with his defensive backs. They varied between press at the line when DB’s attempted to jam the receiver or off the line. There were several plays in which some of the DB’s were in press and some were off.
The Cowboys often utilized their safeties in man coverage, either on the tight end or slot receiver. This is another tenant of his scheme; he requires two safeties that can cover and be interchangeable.
You can hear an excellent explanation of this by new DB’s coach Vance Joseph on the main site.
Much has been made of Mario Williams playing the WOLB role the Ware played in Phillips’ defense. I will write more later on Williams and other Texans fitting or not into Wade’s scheme, but as for Reggie Herring’s assertion that the media was questioning his ability for the wrong reasons, he is correct.
The common doubt about Williams playing WOLB is his ability to drop into coverage. In the game against the Texans, Ware dropped into coverage a total of three times. He didn’t do so for the first time until three minutes into the second half.
Every other play he rushed, either from the two point stance or with his hand on the ground. He set up at the beginning of every play on the side without a tight end, the weak side. If neither side had a tight end, he lined up over the left tackle in order to rush the quarterback’s blind side.
If the tight end motioned to his side, which the Texans did often, he would simply split out wider to be on the outside shoulder of the tight end and still rush the passer.
Often, he would overcome the tight end with a bull rush or zip past the tackle if the tight end went out for a pass route. Ware had three sacks that game, utilizing both techniques mentioned.
Phillips’ defense is predicated on pressure. As stated previously, there are usually at least five men rushing. Often, Phillips would send an ILB or a safety in lieu of one of the five men along the line, creating confusing for the quarterback and offensive line in terms of blocking assignments.
The position most often supplying the pressure outside of the usual five is the right ILB, played by Keith Brooking for the Cowboys during this game.
Phillips often utilized several different techniques and positions for these extra blitzers, such as sending them on delay or stacking several blitzers on one side.
Even though Wade sent extra blitzers at times when the Cowboys’ four man front was in, more often the four down linemen were relied upon to supply ample pressure on their own.
Phillips often called zone coverage for these plays, dropping seven linebackers and defensive backs. At least one sack resulted from Matt Schaub not having anyone to throw to on such a play.
Phillips’ defensive scheme has been amazingly successful throughout his career, but it is certainly not without vulnerabilities. The Texas at times in the game in question exploited several of these weaknesses, as is to be expected from such a good offense.
There is a great deal of pressure on the ILB’s to play the run effectively as all five men along the line are heading up the field on almost every snap. As such, offenses can run right at the OLB’s and tackles can easily let the defender’s momentum take him right past the running back.
Also, his defense is vulnerable to draws and screens for the same reason. If an opposing offense can effectively get to the second level with such a play, five of Wade’s defenders are already chasing the play from behind.
Additionally, since the DB’s are usually in man coverage they aren’t looking in the backfield and are therefore easy at times to keep from supporting against the run.
To counter this, the OLB’s are asked to diagnose run plays quickly and crash in towards the center of the line. Safeties not locked in man coverage also have to read plays quickly and fly to the ball-carrier. This makes the front very susceptible to play action and bootlegs, which the Texans did several times.
Play Calling and Execution
The scheme isn’t successful on its own, it requires proper implementation. During this game, the play calling was exemplary. Matt Schaub and the Texans offensive line looked uncomfortable the entire game to the credit of Phillips who seemed one step ahead of Kubiak and company.
For instance, of the three times that Ware dropped into coverage, two of the plays were designed screens by the Texans that were blown up by the OLB.
Schaub avoided a delayed blitzer only to be sacked by Ware on one play. Brooking disguised himself as playing press man on a tight end as he had most of the game only to rush the QB and sack him on another play.
The coverage sack I spoke of came on a play when the Texans kept a TE and a RB in to block, only to have four men rush. Lastly, a key incompletion in the fourth quarter was caused by eight blitzers leaving only three DB’s in man coverage on three receivers.
Phillips scheme is risky. He asks a lot of his defensive backs to hold coverage while pressure hopefully forces a bad throw from the quarterback or he is sacked. Big plays will certainly be given up, and there will be entire games when it seems as if an opposing offense has Wade’s number.
After watching four years of vanilla defenses with little to no pressure on the quarterback though, I’ll gladly take that risk. It’s better to die of a shot to the head than bleed from a thousand paper cuts.
He can also take a little more risk with one of the best offenses in the league on the other side of the ball.
This was my diagnose of what I saw of Phillips’ scheme, but later in the week I will have a post dovetailing off of this in which I speak about specific Cowboys players’ performances and their counterparts on the Texans defense along with my opinion of how effective or not I think they will be in that role.
Have any questions about Wade’s defense that I didn’t cover or have an opinion about it which you’d like to share? Let me how you feel either in the comments or on Twitter (@JakeBRB).