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That's So Crazy, It Just Might Work: Examining Wade Phillips' 3-4 Scheme

Look, I am as prone to overreaction as the next guy.1 I know that there are times when a situation or a decision seems so bad that some reactionary "RABBLE! RABBLE! ANGER!" is cathartic.  That's why, when I see people losing it over the prospect of Wade Phillips and a 3-4 and what all of that will mean for [insert player here], I understand where that emotion comes from.

Conversely, I am usually NOT one who attempts to be the voice of reason, at least not in written form.2 Reason lacks the emotion that makes me care enough to write about something.

I said all of that to say this: Wade Phillips' system might actually be a good thing for this squad.  I'll explain why after you go Jumpin' Jumpin' like Destiny's Child.

First things first, let's take a look at exactly what Wade's system is (and discuss how that differs from a traditional 3-4).

Linemen.  In a traditional 3-4 the three defensive lineman play primarily a two-gap style.  The Nose Tackle, generally an exceedingly large individual, lines up directly over center in a 0-technique, and has responsibility for both A gaps.  The defensive ends, who were also among the largest children in their grade school class, line up directly over the tackles in a 5-technique, and they each have responsibility for their corresponding B and C gaps.  Here's a pretty picture I made in MS Paint:


Obviously, if you are responsible for two gaps, you cannot charge through one or the other all willy-nilly and leave the other exposed.  For this reason, two-gap defensive lineman have to play a read-and-react style to see which of their respective gaps needs attention.

Phillips' system, however, has the linemen --- even the nose tackle --- playing a one-gap system.  At the snap, each of those linemen picks one of his two gaps and shoots through it.  He is responsible for anything coming through that gap, with the linebackers responsible for anything coming through an open gap.  (We'll cover the linebackers more in a second.)  While Phillips' scheme does generally use larger DEs similar to what you'd find in  the traditional two-gap 3-4 front, his system does not require them.  Case in point, while all of Dallas' DEs this year were over 300 lbs, Luis Castillo played at 290 or less while Phillips was there.  Yes, that's big in a 4-3 DE, but that's undersized in your traditional 3-4 mold.

Nor does Phillips' plan require a massive nose tackle.  Sure, he will use them when he can get them (again, think San Diego with 340+ lb Jamal Williams), but they are not required because, in Phillips' scheme, the nose tackle has no more responsibility for eating up blockers than does any other defensive lineman.  In fact, one of Dallas' starting DEs, Igor Olshansky, weighed more than Dallas' starting NT, Jay Ratliff, who is listed at 6-4/303 (though he is probably closer to 310 these days).

Linebackers.  At the second level, Phillips' scheme is much more similar to what you see in any 3-4.  The weak OLB is the primary source of pass rush from the linebacking corps, both ILBs are responsible for runners coming through the A and B gaps (with the Weak ILB having more pass coverage duties and the Strong ILB having more of a pass-rush role), and the strong OLB is responsible for TE coverage and for runs to the C gap or outside the TE on that side.

The way Phillips' system changes things up a bit, however, is primarily with respect to his weak OLB.  While with Dallas, Phillips had DeMarcus Ware in that role, and Ware functioned more as a fourth lineman than a linebacker, with his ears pinned back and a blitz responsibility on an overwhelming number of plays.  When Ware was asked to cover, it was almost entirely by dropping into the near flat in a zone; he was almost never asked to cover a RB in man coverage.

The other change, which builds of the Weak OLB role, is that the question mark on most blitzes was limited to which one or two of the other LBs was coming on a blitz, as the defense blitzes a LOT.  While this would seem to limit the effectiveness of the 3-4 by removing some of the surprise that a defense like the New York Jets' is predicated upon, in truth it has just the opposite effect.  Because teams knew that Ware was coming on pretty much every play, he became a focal point with protection sliding that way and teams trying to block that front as if it was a 4-3, leaving themselves open to the more aggressive nature of Phillips' 3-4.  In other words, by bringing Ware and having all three linemen shoot the gaps rather than read-and-react, Phillips created something similar to the Jim Johnson 4-3, but with the added flexibility that came from having Ware slightly off the line (wrecking the offensive line's spacing and ability to pull a guard) and from having good pass rushers at Strong OLB who could make a team pay if they overreacted to the Weak OLB's role.

Secondary. Because of the aggressive, blitzing nature of the front seven, the corners in Phillips' secondary do about what you'd expect: press coverage, bump-and-run to disrupt timing where possible, drop the strong safety into the middle to fill for vacating ILBs.  For the system to work well, you need a strong safety who is a sure tackler in the open field and a free safety who is adept at both man and zone coverage.  Corners who can tackle are also a plus, given the amount of green that is often between them and the next defensive player because of the front seven generally moving forward, but corners who can play man and keep up with WRs are a must.


Everyone up to speed?  Good.  Now here's where we have our first big wrinkle (and one of the main reasons I think this system would work for Houston): Phillips' defense is only a 3-4 about half the time.


Yup.  On first down and shorter second downs, the one-gap 3-4 we've just discussed is the defensive alignment.  On third down and long second downs, however, Phillips' scheme calls for a four-man front with nickel coverage behind it.  On the line, this generally involves pulling your larger DEs, putting the OLBs at DE, and putting in a second tackle.  If necessary, one or both of the ILBs are replaced by the nickel LBs (though nothing says it couldn't be the same two ILBs in both packages).  The corners lay off a bit in the nickel, too, as you would expect.

All of this means, of course, that we're not changing everything and fashioning a new scheme out of thin air.  We already have experience with about half of the defense that Phillips would bring!  Throw in that Phillips' 3-4 front functions like a bigger (player-wise) version of the Jim Johnson 4-3 defensive model that we all drool over, and you start to see how it could work.

Downsides.  Like any defense, Phillips' scheme has its flaws.  First and foremost, the defense leaves the middle open a lot, which can be especially damaging against a power running team.  See here:

As you see, when a running back beats the initial wave of linemen and blitzing linebackers, he is pretty quickly into the open, with only the free safety and (possibly) the strong safety having much of a chance to catch him.

The second flaw, related to the first, is that teams can plan knowing that the middle is going to be open a lot, meaning that teams with athletic TEs or teams who run a lot of slants/dig routes can find success and can base their offense around that hole.  This weakness can be countered somewhat by utilizing the Strong OLB in TE coverage and keeping one of the ILBs home if the other is blitzing, but then you start to negate some of your options in the pass rush.  You can also counter this weakness by generating enough pass rush that there's no time for TE drags or 10-yard dig routes to develop.

Of course, every defense has its flaws, ESPECIALLY THE ONE WE'VE BEEN RUNNING IN TWO SIMILAR FORMS SINCE 2006.  I'll be damned if I am going to let the idea that, "Oh noes, there's a hole in that defense!" prevent me from upgrading the current vanilla-blitzing, terrible-secondary-in-a-stupid-soft-zone, oh-my-lord-why-can't-we-stop-a-single-pass, I-think-I-want-to-die-yes-please-kill-me-now scheme.

Wade Phillips as applied in Houston.  So, assuming you buy the idea that this just might be crazy enough to work, what is the defensive lineup with our current personnel in this scheme?  Glad you asked, imaginary person who asks rhetorical questions!

I see it like this:

Base 3-4

RDE-Antonio Smith.  Smith is my biggest question mark (other than DeMeco Ryans' health) in this whole thing, oddly enough.  In discussing the possibility of a 3-4, albeit a 2-gap system like he played in Arizona, Smith mentioned that he was in the 275-lb range these days.  I don't see that as a deal breaker here, however, because his familiarity with the tenets of national socialism a 3-4 defense combined with the freedom to play one-gap, should allow him to be fine.  Besides, nothing says homeboy couldn't pack 10 or 15 lbs back on, right?

NT-Amobi Okoye.  Tim and Kerns' collective heads just exploded, so could someone please clean that up while I explain?  As I mentioned already, Phillips does not need a massive NT.  Okoye, listed at 6-2/315, is two inches shorter and a few pounds heavier than Jay Ratliff, and none of you would complain that Ratliff was too small for this system.  I'd almost like to see Okoye slim down slightly to the 305-310 range, in fact.  Either way, though, you have to remember that Okoye was at his best early in his rookie season when he was being asked to simply shoot the gap and chase the quarterback.  This system would allow him to do that again, and he's the right size for the role.  So there.

LDE-Earl MitchellWhen Mitchell was drafted, many of us were angry at the prospect of another 300-lb DT.  Guess what?  His size is perfect for playing DE in this scheme, so I say we line him up over the RT and use his good motor --- can I say that about a black player? --- to our advantage.  He also looked good near the end of this season playing a one-gap under tackle role, and this is not all that different from that.

WOLB-Mario Williams.  I realize that Mario, at 290+, seems a better fit for DE than WILB.  I disagree for two reasons: (1) Mario's skills would be wasted to a large degree as a defensive end and (2) Mario can thrive in the DeMarcus Ware role.  There is literally nothing Ware can do in that role that Mario couldn't do.  Come flying off the edge with a running start and beat the LT who also has responsibility for Antonio Smith?  Easy peasy.  Use that same running start and beat the LT with a bull rush?  Hell, that's easier than the way Mario does it now, starting from a three-point stance.  Tackle a running back rushing off left tackle? Sho'nuff.  Drop into the flat zone?  Mario has done it before, in what he calls "the Richard Smith years."

WILB-DeMeco Ryans.  I'm not gonna lie --- I am worried that DeMeco is never coming back.  Achilles' injuries have been the death knell for careers before.  That said, for this little exercise, I am going to pretend that he will be back in a Texans uniform in 2011.  As such, he's a natural fit for the WILB role in this D, both because he is the best coverage linebacker we have and because he doesn't blitz all that well.

SILB-Brian CushingQ: In 2010, how did you know when Brian Cushing was blitzing?  A: He was standing at the line of scrimmage.  That's it.  That was the tell, and everyone knew it, which really limited his pass rush success.  Because this defense allows a middle linebacker to show blitz even when he's not really blitzing, teams couldn't be sure that Cushing was coming (which sounds dirty, but isn't.)  Also, if Amobi is successful in the one-gap system like I think he'll be, that will open up the opposite A-gap for Cushing to blitz right up the middle on occasion.

SOLB-Connor Barwin. Recall when Barwin was drafted that most experts had him pegged as a 3-4 OLB and too much of a 'tweener to succeed in a 4-3 as an every down player.  Now recall that we are talking about making him a 3-4 OLB.  Seems simple enough.

CB1-Glover Quin.  OK, it would actually make the most sense to move Quin to free safety, where I agree with the BFD school of thought that says that Quin would be a fantastic FS.  That said, we all know ain't nobody in that coaching staff thinking THAT far outside the box right now, so let's stick with what is more likely.  Quin is a sure tackler in the open field and is orders of magnitude better in tight man coverage than in Frank Bush's ridiculous soft zone.

CB2-Kareem Jackson.  I still think K-Jax can be a good NFL corner (though I also still think it was silly to pick him where we did, given who was still on the board), and it really seemed like his play improved post-San Diego.  I think putting him up at the line in press coverage would allow him to use his skill set more effectively and, if we are getting the pass rush we should be in this scheme, he won't have to cover as long as he did in 2010.

SS-Bernard Pollard. Pollard's lack of coverage skills would be more of a problem in a traditional 3-4, but they can be hidden somewhat in this scheme, which often calls for him to fill underneath when the WILB picks up the running back in coverage and the SILB is blitzing.  Don't get me wrong --- I'd upgrade this position in a second if I could, but this system actually made Gerald Sensabaugh look decent, so Pollard should be passable.

FS- _________? Troy Nolan's acrobatic INT notwithstanding, nothing I've seen from any free safety on currently on this team gives me the slightest pause in saying that we don't have one (unless we would move Quin, of course.)  There are two safeties in the draft that I like, Rahim Moore (UCLA) and Kenny Tate (Maryland), and one of them is almost sure to be on the board when we pick in round 2.  (Deunta Williams, UNC, is also intriguing, but third on my list.)

Nickel Package. 

RDE-Mario Williams

NT-Damione Lewis

UT-Amobi Okoye/Earl Mitchell

LDE-Tim Jamison/Mark Anderson/Antonio Smith

LB-DeMeco Ryans

LB-Darryl Sharpton

CB1-Glover Quin

CB2-Kareem Jackson

CB3-Sherrick McManis

SS-Troy Nolan/Bernard Pollard

FS- _________?

Epilogue. I should add a couple other things to this whole discussion.  First, given our current personnel, I actually see a lot of potential for the flexibility I've been craving from this defense.  If we want to go bigger across the front against a power running team, a troika of Earl Mitchell/Damione Lewis/Amobi Okoye would work.  Sharpton at either ILB position along with Cushing and Barwin's abilities to play both OLB spots add flexibility there.  I could definitely see a package with a front three of Mario/Okoye/Jamison, with Barwin at WOLB and Cushing at SOLB.

Second, to the extent that Houston needed to add some size on the line, there are a number of free agents who would be good fits, with my top 6 wishlist being: Shaun Ellis, Barry Coefield, Cullen Jenkins, John McCargo, Chris Hoke, and Marcus Spears.

Third, in addition to free safety, making this switch would likely require us to find via free agency or target in the draft a MLB (depending on DeMeco's status, really).  We should also be open to the idea of upgrading at CB should Prince Amukamara fall to us (and moving Quin to FS!?!).

Finally, there's this: I am not saying that Wade Phillips' system is perfect for us, nor am I saying that it would be my first choice, all else being equal.  At the same time, all else is NOT equal, and we are somewhat hamstrung by the fact that Wade seems to be Kubiak's first choice.  That being the case, I just want everyone to take a deep breath.  The sky is not falling.  The end is not nigh.  This might not be great, but it's almost certainly going to be an upgrade in terms of defensive output.  With the offense we have, an upgrade might be all we need.


1 Actually, that's probably an understatement; I mean, look at my interaction with Matt Stevens' ex-wife. But she really had it coming, you know.

2Around here, we save that for Rivers and, in matters of blog decorum, Timobi.