Why Wade Phillips Would Be Perfect Choice to Lead Washington Redskins' Defense

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistJanuary 9, 2015

Houston Texans head coach Wade Phillips during the second half of an NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts in Indianapolis, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Darron Cummings/Associated Press

The search for a new defensive coordinator in Washington shouldn't be taking this long. The Redskins should just go ahead and hire Wade Phillips.

It's a simple choice really. Phillips calls a more coherent scheme than the jumbled mess former coordinator Jim Haslett inflicted on the players every week.

Phillips' aggressive instinct as a play-caller suits the talents of Washington's best defensive players, playmakers such as Ryan Kerrigan and Jason Hatcher. Most importantly, Phillips is a master of the 3-4 front this franchise has been trying, unsuccessfully, to make work since 2010.

And those are just the broad strokes for why Phillips make sense. Here's a more in-depth look at why the well-travelled assistant with a history of excellence is perfect to lead Washington's defense in 2015:

History of Quick Turnarounds

Phillips has a lengthy history of quickly turning failing defenses into stout units. It's a pattern that's followed him his entire career.

Take a look at the following numbers for proof of Phillips' impact:

Wade Phillips' Immediate Impact
TeamDef. Ranking Before PhillipsDef. Ranking in Phillips' First Year
Denver Broncos1988: 22nd (Yards), 20th (Points)1989: 3rd (Yards), 1st (Points)
Buffalo Bills1994: 17th (Yards), 22nd (Points)1995: 13th (Yards), 12th (Points)
Atlanta Falcons2001: 30th (Yards), 24th (Points)2002: 19th (Yards), 8th (Points)
San Diego Chargers2003: 27th (Yards), 31st (Points)2004: 18th (Yards), 11th (Points)
Houston Texans2010: 30th (Yards), 29th (Points)2011: 2nd (Yards), 4th (Points)
Pro Football Reference

That's a tremendous track record of instant improvement. What's easy to like about these numbers is how Phillips' units are consistently stingy scoring defenses.

Coordinators are too often judged on the yards-allowed category—the standard rankings. But while a lot of other factors influence points allowed, that's the statistic fans, coaches and players worry about.

Phillips has certainly mastered the art of keeping points to a minimum.

This list was limited to most of Phillips' stops as a defensive coordinator. It excludes him taking over as Dallas Cowboys head coach in 2007.

Phillips adds more pressure concepts and an attacking mentality to 3-4 schemes.
Phillips adds more pressure concepts and an attacking mentality to 3-4 schemes.Rick Havner/Associated Press

Phillips inherited a very good defense from predecessor Bill Parcells and coordinator Mike Zimmer. However, he added his own particular riff to Parcells' traditional 3-4 concepts.

That riff is at the heart of the system Phillips would bring to Washington.

The Scheme

In a word, the riff is aggression. To put it in simplest terms, Phillips defenses have an aggressive commitment to pressure.

That commitment begins up front, specifically the 1-gap 3-4 front Phillips learned from his father, notable ex-NFL head coach Bum Phillips. The Phillips 3-4 doesn't demand linemen who fill two gaps and control double-teams. Instead, it slants linemen to get them into the backfield.

Bum Phillips schooled his son in the merits of the 1-gap 3-4.
Bum Phillips schooled his son in the merits of the 1-gap 3-4.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The single-gap alignments also cover up inside linebackers. That makes it difficult for an offense to put blockers on them, allowing the middle 'backers the freedom to run to the ball and the space to blitz from any angle.

Blitzing is something that's integral to the Phillips scheme. Back in 2008, when Phillips was just starting to tinker with the defense Parcells and Zimmer had left behind, here's how ESPN writer Gary Horton described his system:

Coach Wade Phillips' scheme relies more on confusion—stunts, zone blitzes and pressure packages from different angles—than a typical 3-4 defense. His heavy slanting and one-gap approach are unusual for an odd front, and those tactics create difficult angles for opposing offensive lines.

[...]

The pressure can be relentless because Phillips will blitz at any time (he likes to attack on first down) and Dallas has enough secondary depth to match up in man or zone.

A great example of this blitz-happy approach came in Houston's Week 14 road win over the Cincinnati Bengals during the 2011 NFL season.

The Texans were trailing 16-3 when the Phillips' defense produced a huge play on the second snap of the third quarter.

The Bengals were in "21" personnel—two tight ends, two wide receivers and one running back. The Texans aligned in their standard 1-gap 3-4:

CBS Sports and NFL.com Game Pass.

Notice how each of the linemen is positioned between blockers rather than head-up over them. The attack lanes are obvious.

Phillips would send a blitz. It involved his standard five-man pressure, both outside linebackers joining three linemen on the rush. But Phillips would also send both inside 'backers.

When the blitz came, both Cincy tight ends were engaged by the outside linebackers. Meanwhile, the slanting by the D-line, particularly the nose tackle, occupied the Bengals' entire front five. It also created free lanes for the middle linebackers to pour through:

CBS Sports and NFL.com Game Pass.

Phillips had rushed seven and taken the running back and both tight ends out of the pass play. It was now seven-on-seven in the trenches. But Phillips counted on one of his rushers winning.

You can see how Connor Barwin was breaking free of the tight end's block to close in on quarterback Andy Dalton.

Barwin soon reached Dalton and knocked the ball loose. It was recovered by the Texans for a game-changing turnover that inspired a comeback, which saw Houston win 20-19 and claim its first playoff berth:

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The great thing about this play was how the Texans got the dream matchups every 3-4 play-caller craves: linebackers against tight ends and running backs.

Although Cincinnati's protection wasn't outnumbered, the Bengals still had players who aren't natural blockers going up against proficient pass-rushers. That's the bind Phillips' aggressive scheming puts an offense in.

A quick note on the coverage. Phillips often adopts man coverage behind the pressure. He did on this occasion:

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The corners locked up the receivers, while both safeties rotated down to cover a possible release from either tight end or the running back.

This is a risky way to travel, but Phillips knows how to mitigate the risk. In this case, because three possible receivers were forced to stay and block the rush, the Bengals only had two receivers running routes.

Phillips gambled that neither receiver would separate from tight coverage before the rush got to Dalton. Given the strength of the pressure, it was a calculated risk worth taking.

No matter the look, you can expect pressure from a Phillips defense. His favorite sub-package ploy is a dime front that positions a safety in a linebacker role.

He used this front to create a safety in an emphatic 43-13 win over the Baltimore Ravens from Week 7 of the 2012 NFL season.

The Texans initially aligned in their 4-1-6 dime look, but Phillips re-aligned his personnel to show pressure:

CBS Sports and NFL.com Game Pass.

He created an overload on either side. On one side, Phillips positioned inside 'backer Bradie James between D-tackle Antonio Smith (94) and rush end Barwin.

On the other, he stacked safeties Danieal Manning and Glover Quin next to outside pass-rusher Whitney Mercilus. Behind the front, slot corner Brice McCain hovered in a de facto linebacker role.

The Texans were showing seven-man pressure but would only send five. Manning would join Mercilus, Barwin and the rest of the front four on the rush:

CBS Sports and NFL.com Game Pass.

Meanwhile, James would blitz unless the running back released. Then, he would pick him up in man coverage.

Once the ball was snapped, the pocket quickly collapsed around quarterback Joe Flacco. Manning and Barwin closed in off both edges:

CBS Sports and NFL.com Game Pass.

Along the interior, a stunt between Mercilus and Watt, which saw the pair exchange rush lanes, caused havoc. Phillips loves his front-line pass-rushers to execute twists—it's one of the advantages of playing a 1-gap scheme and doing so much slanting.

As the pressure closed in, Flacco had nowhere to go with the ball. Houston's Cover 1 look, underneath man coverage with a single-high safety, had locked up every available receiver:

CBS Sports and NFL.com Game Pass.

Barwin soon got to Flacco and decked him to earn two points for the Texans:

CBS Sports and NFL.com Game Pass.

Phillips used a subtle tweak to his sub-package and pressure designs to create a huge play. But no matter the schematic wrinkles, the core concept remains the same—pressure and the effect it has on an offense.

That's always been at the heart of Phillips' philosophy. Aside from what he learned from his father, Phillips also spent three seasons running the defense for the Philadelphia Eagles between 1986 and 88.

He worked under the tutelage of Buddy Ryan, the architect of the 46—football's ultimate pressure defense. Phillips has rarely strayed from its principles.

Phillips developed his fondness for the blitz after working with 46 master Buddy Ryan in the 80s.
Phillips developed his fondness for the blitz after working with 46 master Buddy Ryan in the 80s.Getty Images/Getty Images

He'll routinely blitz out of base and sub-package looks, while the coverage hardly ever deviates from some form of man coverage. Occasionally, it's 2 Man, underneath single coverage with the protection of a pair of safeties patrolling the deep zones.

Sometimes it's Cover 4, which is basically man coverage masquerading as zone. Or, as in the case of the two examples here, Phillips isn't afraid to adopt Cover 0 or Cover 1 shells.

Whatever the coverage or front, the overriding principles stay the same: overwhelm an offense with pressure at every level, both up front and in coverage.

That consistency of purpose was sorely lacking on Haslett's watch. The game plan seemed to undergo wholesale philosophical changes every week.

But Phillips succeeds precisely because he keeps things simple and consistent for his players. That continuity could work wonders for Washington's top defensive talents.

The Best Players Would Benefit

When asking who would benefit if Phillips is hired in Washington, the first answer is every outside linebacker on the roster. Specifically, a player such as current top pass-rusher Kerrigan could be even more destructive in Phillips' scheme.

Kerrigan would put up monster numbers in the Phillips' defense.
Kerrigan would put up monster numbers in the Phillips' defense.USA TODAY Sports

That's saying something, given Kerrigan logged 13.5 sacks in 2014. However, Phillips turns his outside linebackers more often than Haslett ever did.

Back in 2011, then-Texans defensive end Mario Williams was converting to outside linebacker. Many were concerned about his coverage responsibilities.

But Williams stressed that Phillips had told him he would be rushing "90 percent of the time," per Houston Chronicle writer John McClain. Phillips was even more explicit when he discussed the nature of his defensive front and the responsibilities for outside linebackers, per HoustonTexans.com writer Nick Scurfield:

We’re not going to drop him. We’re going to rush him. That’s why I say we’re more of a 5-2, in that those five guys are coming a lot of the time, especially the position Mario plays. DeMarcus Ware played that position, Bryce Paup—on and on, guys that have led the league. They didn’t lead the league in sacks by dropping a whole lot.

The reference to Bryce Paup is key because he played the same SAM (strong side) position Kerrigan does. But Phillips' arrival would also be great news for the rush linebackers who play on the other side.

Paup became a star in the Phillips' defense.
Paup became a star in the Phillips' defense.Rick Stewart/Getty Images

He could finally coax out the production level Brian Orakpo should be delivering every year. Phillips' arrival could convince the Redskins to give the brittle free agent another chance.

Even if it doesn't, you could count on Phillips getting more from 2014 second-round pick Trent Murphy. The former Stanford man disappointed as a rookie but led college football in sacks in 2013. Phillips is the best person to help Murphy turn back the clock.

Take a look at these numbers to see what Phillips' arrival has meant for a host of talented edge-rushers:

Sack Production Increase for OLBs in Phillips' defense
PlayerTeamPrevious YearNumbers during Phillips' first season
Simon FletcherDenver Broncos912
Bryce PaupBuffalo Bills9.517.5
DeMarcus WareDallas Cowboys11.514
Connor BarwinHouston Texans4.5 (2009 - Barwin missed 2010 season)11.5
Pro Football Reference

But it's not just the outside linebackers who have all the fun. Unlike many 3-4 schemes, Phillips' system has made pass-rushing stars out several defensive linemen.

That's great news for Hatcher. The veteran D-tackle bombed out after signing for the Redskins last offseason, following a Pro Bowl 2013 in Dallas.

Hatcher's sack numbers fell from 11 to 5.5, amid injuries and poor form. He was wisely considered a disappointment.

That perception would change fast if Phillips is hired. He knows Hatcher from his days with the Cowboys. Phillips' scheme, specifically the 1-gap element, would allow Hatcher to do what he does best—split gaps between linemen and rush the passer.

That's how it worked for Bruce Smith in Buffalo and J.J. Watt in Houston, who exploded onto the NFL scene because of the way Phillips put him in positions to create havoc.

The idea of tailoring a defense to the strength of his players is the core value of Phillips' approach. It's why so many of his defenses have thrived:

In the video above, Phillips details the basics of his 3-4 alignment. Throughout the laid-back Phillips' drawl, one consistent thought is obvious: let players do what they do best.

It sounds obvious, and it is. Yet so many play-callers, Haslett included, become more concerned with making what works on a chalkboard a reality, even if it doesn't fit what the players can do.

Phillips has rarely, if ever, made that mistake. That's not to say there aren't problems with his scheme.

The numbers generally stay very solid. However, it's true to say the Phillips D has often been picked apart by the very best quarterbacks.

The lack of nuance or change, along with with the blitz-happy approach, can get a Phillips-coached unit into trouble at times. However, it usually takes running into an elite team in order for that to happen. Phillips has also had his share of success against the league's best.

Overall, the case for Phillips leading Washington's defense is a compelling one. He calls a simple, aggressive and effective scheme that would bring the most out of Washington's best players.

His ability to coax a quick turnaround is particularly appealing. Gabe Hiatt of The Washington Post noted how: "Eight of the last teams Phillips joined as a head coach or defensive coordinator made the playoffs in his first year."

Given the talent the Redskins boast on offense, that's not such an outlandish thought. Of course, that is well and truly putting the horse before the cart.

Phillips hasn't even been hired yet. He might not be, despite B/R Insider Jason Cole reporting he is the favorite for the vacant coordinator post:

Unfortunately, Mike Jones of The Washington Post has suggested that the decision might not be so clear cut. He has reported that although Phillips interviewed, other candidates are still in consideration:

[A.J.] Smith has lobbied for Phillips, those people say. But team President Bruce Allen also thinks highly of [Joe] Barry and [Raheem] Morris.

Barry served as linebackers coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2001 to 2006 (Allen was the Bucs’ general manager from 2004 to 2008) and again in 2009. Morris was Tampa Bay’s defensive backs coach under Allen in 2007 and 2008 and was the Bucs’ head coach from 2009 to 2011.

[Jay] Gruden also was a member of those coaching staffs during Allen’s time running the Bucs.

The idea of Bruce Allen hiring coaches who were with him in Tampa Bay should make you very afraid. That approach yielded Raheem Morris as secondary coach.

Thankfully, Jones did indicate Morris has been allowed to interview with the New York Giants about their coordinator vacancy. Redskins fans should start offering to drive him to New York.

Morris remains in the mix to succeed Haslett.
Morris remains in the mix to succeed Haslett.Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

The idea that other candidates remain in the mix fits with ESPN reporter Adam Schefter revealing that Washington requested and were denied an interview with Kansas City Chiefs linebackers coach Gary Gibbs.

That report came on the same day Phillips was set to sit down with Washington officials.

But the Redskins are making this too complicated. Phillips is the perfect choice. His 3-4 expertise and pressure-heavy scheme fits the talent Washington already possesses.

With Phillips coaching and a few new bodies for the secondary, the Redskins defense would quickly go from a mess to a team strength in 2015. Just hire the man already.

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