Wade Phillips will be making his eighth stop as a defensive coordinator when he takes the reigns of the defense of the Denver Broncos in 2015. He was also a defensive coordinator for the Broncos from 1989-92 and their head coach in 1993-94. In between those eight stops, Phillips has also been the head coach or interim head coach for the Buffalo Bills, Atlanta Falcons, Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans.
He definitely brings a great deal of experience with him. He also brings plenty of success. Phillips is known for his prowess in running a 3-4 defensive scheme, and he will implement the same in Denver.
The Broncos have been running a 4-3 scheme for the last several years, but many of the players on the roster seem to be a better fit in a 3-4. If that is the case, what is the best scenario for this defense in 2015? What are the key factors to becoming one of the league's most dominant units?
First, the best possible starting lineup must be established. Looking at the current roster, here is the ideal lineup that should take the field each Sunday, barring injuries:
- Defensive Tackle: Sylvester Williams
- Defensive Ends: Derek Wolfe, Malik Jackson
- Outside Linebackers: Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware
- Inside Linebackers: Danny Trevathan, Brandon Marshall
- Cornerbacks: Chris Harris, Aqib Talib
- Safeties: T.J. Ward, Darian Stewart
That is the likely starting lineup once the season opens, but Phillips will have multiple options due to the depth on the roster.
Denver has guys who could be selected to multiple Pro Bowls at several positions on defense, so a key for Phillips will be to get quality production out of those players who may not be mentioned in the same breath as Miller or Ware.
The 3-4 defense starts in the middle with a big, space-eating defensive tackle. Williams should have a chance to excel in this defense, something he has yet to do in the NFL. If he can slow down the running game and control the line of scrimmage, it will free up the linebackers behind him to make plays.
Next to the defensive tackle are two quick defensive ends who can put pressure on the quarterback but also help set the edge in the running game. Though Jackson has never played in a 3-4 scheme, he couldn't pick a better pair to learn from than Phillips and defensive line coach Bill Kollar.
Jackson certainly has the skills and the body type to be effective and could expand upon the numbers he's already posted in his career.
Derek Wolfe, on the other hand, could be a natural fit for the 3-4 defense. As a 5-technique, Wolfe can be effective due to his length. Despite not being the fastest guy on the field, he has managed to rack up 11.5 career sacks.
We should see Wolfe make more plays on the quarterback this season, even if it's just forcing a throw out of bounds. However, the running game is where Wolfe should be effective.
Wolfe will be able to set the edge and use his size and length to grab ball-carriers and stop them for a minimal gain or a loss of yardage. In college, Wolfe had 37 tackles for a loss in 44 games while at the University of Cincinnati. That included 21.5 tackles for loss during his senior year.
Wolfe will be able to flash skills that fans have yet to witness in the NFL.
At the linebacker position, Trevathan and Marshall will be excellent fits in the 3-4 scheme. Both are tackling machines who can also offer something in pass coverage. These are the types of players Phillips loves, as they allow him to open up more of his playbook.
The key for each player will be health. After missing most of the 2014 season, Trevathan should be ready to bounce back and remind fans of his stellar 2013 campaign.
Marshall needed surgery on his right foot during the offseason after standing out as one of the team's best defensive players last season. His 113 tackles were good for sixth-most in the entire league.
If both players are at full strength this season, this part of the Broncos defense has no weakness. If one or both players are forced to miss time, the Broncos will have to turn to an unproven player such as Todd Davis, Lamin Barrow or Corey Nelson at inside linebacker. That could create a big hole in the middle of the defense.
Finally, free safety is and has been a concern. However, Stewart could easily put those concerns to bed by coming out and playing well.
The key for him could easily be his coverage on deep routes. With Harris and Talib on the corners, the Broncos could see teams try to beat them over the top with a deep ball. In fact, Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens come to town in the season opener. Don't be surprised to see Flacco try to take advantage of his former teammate early.
Stewart must be ready and be able to hang in coverage. If he can, the Broncos will be a tough team to gain big chunks of yards through the air against.
Getting Three Feared Pass-Rushers on the Field at Once
Phillips is a master of devising schemes. Much of his 3-4 defense relies on confusion so that the offense doesn't know where the pressure is coming from. And pressure will be coming.
When the Broncos drafted Shane Ray, Phillips had to immediately have thoughts in his head of how he could place him on the field with Miller and Ware—at the same time.
Wade Phillips said he's used 3 edge-rushing OLBs on third downs before (in San Diego), could do the same here w/ Ware, Miller and Ray.— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) May 29, 2015
When Phillips was the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, he configured schemes that placed Ware on the field with strong pass-rushers Greg Ellis and Anthony Spencer. In Denver, the trio of Ware, Ray and Miller would likely be more feared.
Miller and Ware have combined for 176 career sacks. Ray had 19 during his college playing days at Missouri, including 14.5 last season. The Broncos will pile up some sacks this season. But the best part about putting this trio on the field at once would be the unpredictability.
Phillips would have the opportunity to fake blitzes with one or more of these linebackers and then drop them back into coverage. Miller can do that, and Ware could pick up the flats. If Ray can play in coverage, it gives the Broncos so much versatility on defense.
This could also open up lanes for other defenders to come free and get sacks or make plays in the backfield. This is the reason the Broncos moved up five spots in the first round to select Ray. Phillips knows how to make the most of his presence.
The biggest factor that fans will notice in the 2015 Broncos defense is there will be a more aggressive feel.
While former defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio would dial up a blitz here and there, he was more conservative than he should have been. Perhaps that had just as much to do with the philosophy instilled by former head coach John Fox.
Del Rio seemed to forget the talent he had at his disposal. Phillips won't make that same mistake.
Phillips will call for a blitz more often than Del Rio, and his scheme will allow him to do so from many different angles. Harris and Talib are both capable of playing man-to-man coverage and being placed on an island from time to time.
@ChrisHarrisJr on pass rush if CBs in man coverage in Wade Phillips' D -- “Everybody else is going to be a lot more aggressive.’’— Jeff Legwold (@Jeff_Legwold) April 20, 2015
That will give Phillips the confidence to send pressure on a consistent basis. Ward is capable of making plays up around the line of scrimmage. In fact, he's more effective there than he is in coverage.
In a nickel package, with Bradley Roby on the field, Phillips would have strong coverage in the secondary without Ward, and he could cheat Ward up toward the line of scrimmage to come after the quarterback. He has 5.5 career sacks, including two last season.
These are all things Del Rio could have done last season, but he was too conservative. Though the Broncos had a solid defense in 2014—the team ranked No. 3 in total yards against—they lacked aggression. This cost the Broncos in key situations, particularly the playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts in which the Colts racked up 364 yards of total offense and the Broncos didn't record a single sack of Andrew Luck.
Phillips has coached some talented players in his day, particularly from a pass-rushing perspective. He's had Reggie White, Ricky Jackson and J.J. Watt. White, Watt and Bryce Paup have all been named Defensive Player of the Year with Phillips as their coordinator.
If Phillips gets consistent play in the middle of the defense from Williams, Trevathan and Marshall, he will be able to send pressure toward quarterbacks at will.
The Broncos have enough talent to have one of the best defenses in the league—if not the best. They also have the right coordinator to bring it out of them.