Last year the Houston Texans looked like a bipolar football team. They had an offense that ranked ninth in total points, second in first downs, fourth in passing yards and seventh in rushing yards. Matt Schaub finished the season with a 92.0 QB rating and Arian Foster rushed for 1,616 yards in his first full season in the NFL.
Yet, despite those superb offensive stats, the Texans found themselves losing games more often than not.
Defense became a four-letter word for Texans fans. Quarterbacks around the league looked forward to padding their stats against the porous defense of the Texans. When all was said and done, the Texans found themselves ranked 29th in points allowed, 31st in first downs allowed, 32nd in passing yards allowed and 26th in rushing TDs allowed.
Something drastic had to be done...immediately.
January 5, 2011: Enter Wade Phillips.
After Phillips was released by the Dallas Cowboys, the Texans quickly snatched up the defensive guru. Phillips seemed like a no-nonsense choice for the ailing Texans. As soon as he stepped foot into the Texans front office, the aura of the team began to change.
Their defensive playbooks (and most of the defensive coaches) were thrown away. The only defensive coach to keep his job was the defensive line's Bill Kollar. Wade was in town and things were about to change.
Why We Should Buy into Wade Phillips' Defense
Wade Phillips' defense is not the typical 3-4 alignment seen throughout the NFL. The defensive line does not play two-gap assignments where the tackles have to use a read-and-react approach on every down. Instead, in Phillips' scheme, the defensive linemen will have one-gap assignments where each player shoots through one of his two gaps and stops anything coming through that gap.
What this means is that your defensive ends, and even your nose tackle, don't have to be massive players. In fact, J.J. Watt, Antonio Smith and Earl Mitchell (who are projected starters on the defensive line) all weigh less than 300 pounds. The lighter, smaller linemen would typically be shut down by the average offensive line, but in Phillips' scheme, these players are shooting the gaps on every down.
At the second level of the defense, Phillips' scheme looks much like your typical 3-4 midfield. The weak OLB (Mario Williams) is the primary pass-rusher of the linebacker corps. Both ILBs (DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing) will be responsible for any runners coming through the A-gap or B-gap, and the strong OLB (Connor Barwin/Brooks Reed) is responsible for the tight end and any runner trying to swing wide of the tight end or hit the C-gap.
The defense blitzes a lot in Phillips' scheme. With Mario Williams coming full speed ahead on most plays, offensive lines will have to slide protection to his side. That means the other rushing linebacker will be able to either come outside of Williams, overloading one side on the blitz, or come opposite him, effectively spreading the offensive line and leaving the QB more vulnerable.
Because of the aggressive nature of Phillips' front seven, the secondary is typically filled with speedy corners and safeties who can tackle well in the open field. With the front seven moving forward on most downs, the corners will bump-and-run and press coverage on most downs. The strong safety (Danieal Manning) will frequently drop into the middle of the field to fill in for vacating linebackers, and the free safety will be responsible for both man and zone coverage.
Why We Should Not Buy into Wade Phillips' Defense
Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme leaves the midfield open a lot, meaning that a team with a good running back can be damaging. With the front seven constantly bringing pressure forward, the running back could beat the initial wave of defenders and would be left with only the safeties to beat. AFC South running backs Chris Johnson and Maurice-Jones Drew can be a new type of menace for the Texans.
Teams who game-plan for the 3-4 defense will look to use their tight ends in an expanded role. With the midfield left more open, a receiving tight end will run slants and dig routes all day. This will allow for offenses to plan for short yardage gains with the tight end option.
However, this can be mostly avoided if the OLB can bring enough pass-rush pressure or you drop one of your ILBs into the midfield. Dropping your ILB into the midfield, though, will relieve some of the pass rush and could allow the QB more time to get away a pass.
My Overall Assessment
When you take into account the pressure that will be brought by both J.J. Watt and Mario Williams on the weak side, DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing in the middle and Antonio Smith on the strong side, I believe that fans should buy into Phillips' defense.
Though this hybrid 3-4 defense does have its flaws, so does every other defensive alignment.
His ability to turn a team around defensively can only be a positive for the Texans. As defensive coordinator, Phillips will be looking to repeat the success that he has had with other teams. The Saints, Falcons, Broncos, Chargers, Bills and Cowboys all made significant improvements in the first year after Phillips took over the defense.
His system is easy to learn and can be adjusted to fit any offense. The pressure that he will bring against offensive lines will cause most QBs to rush their throws, or will shift offenses to running the ball more often. In the AFC South, where the pass game is king, the Texans should be poised to take over the No. 1 spot with their newly improved defense.