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Past As Prologue: What Can We Really Expect On Defense in 2011?

It would be a gross understatement to say that the Texans' defense on Monday night was better and more aggressive than what we are used to seeing.  I mean, seven sacks.  SEVEN.  As in "five more than the sacks/game average over the last two seasons" or even "two more than the Texans had in any game, preseason or otherwise, under Frank Bush."  There were nineteen passes defensededded, and even Anwatun Molden had an INT (though it was wiped from the books like an Ohio State win1).  So, while it was not perfect by any stretch,2 compared to last year, it was the difference between sipping 1907 Hiedsieck Diamant Bleu while relaxing at Villa La Leopolda and swilling room-temperature Milwaukee's Best in a double-wide on the outskirts of Le Flore, Oklahoma.3

But, hey, it's just the preseason, and you can't extrapolate much from one preseason game, right?  Well, while you (probably) shouldn't pencil the Texans in for 112 sacks on the year, you can use the performance to paint with broad strokes.  What I mean is, looking at the apparent improvement over last year's defense in the context of Wade Phillips' track-record with new teams, Monday's performance might be more of a harbinger than you realize.

Wade Allen Phillips: A Somewhat-Brief History. Wade Phillips has been coaching in the NFL in some capacity since 1976 (save for 2001, when he was unemployed).  In that time, he has served as the Houston Oilers' defensive line coach (1976 to 1980); defensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints (1981 to 1985), the Philadelphia Eagles (1986 to 1988), the Denver Broncos (1989 to 1992), the Buffalo Bills (1995 to 1997), the Atlanta Falcons (2002 to 2003), the San Diego Chargers (2004 to 2006), and the Dallas Cowboys (2009 to 2010); and head coach of the Broncos (1993 to 1994), Bills (1998 to 2000), and Cowboys (2007 to 2010).

Throughout his travels, his calling card has been defense.  Aside from his time with the Eagles, when Reggie White was so dominant as a 4-3 DE that Phillips stuck with the 4-3, Wade's defensive style has generally been his 3-4, which functions almost like a 5-2, and a 4-2 nickel package.  Using his 3-4 to generate pressure in the form of creative blitz schemes, Phillips' defenses have often featured their best pass rushers as OLBs.  (Though not exclusively, as, in Buffalo, the most dominant pass rusher was defensive end Bruce Smith, and defensive ends led the team in sacks both of Phillips' two seasons in Atlanta.)  This, of course, is all stuff that you probably knew prior to even clicking on this post.

Here's what you might not have known, however: by most any measure, the arrival of Wade Phillips to a team has nearly always meant an improved defense, and that improvement has often been huge, even in year one.  The following table illustrates what I'm talking about; the first year listed for each team is the season prior to Wade's arrival, while the second year is his first season with the team.  The numbers in each column are the teams' respective ranks among NFL teams in the categories.  The categories are, left to right, Yards Allowed Per Game, Points Allowed Per Game, Passing TDs Allowed, Interceptions, First Downs Allowed, Net Yards Allowed Per Passing Attempt, Rushing Yards Allowed Per Game, Rushing TDs Allowed, and Total Turnovers Forced. 

Team Year Record Yds/Gm Pts/Gm PassTD INTs 1stD NetYds/Att RshYd/Gm RushTD Trnovrs
Saints 1980 1-15 28 28 28 28 28 24 28 27 28
1981 4-12 11 24 23 21 14 26 11 17 21
Eagles 1985 7-9 10 10 6 19 13 10 21 15 25

1986 5-10-1 17 12 11 9 4 10 19 15 14
Broncos 1988 8-8 22 20 10 19 21 12 27 25 24

1989 11-5 3 1 1 9 1 3 6 7 2
Bills 1994 7-9 17 22 25 18 13 25 8 8 18

1995 10-6 13 12 1 12 5 7 11 25 21
Falcons 2001 7-9 24 30 28 13 21 31 21 20 14

2002 9-6-1 19 8 18 3 10 17 23 6 2
Chargers 2003 4-12 27 31 32 25 29 22 25 13 28

2004 12-4 18 11 11 3 25 22 3 21 8
Cowboys 2006 9-7 13 20 27 10 15 23 10 11 8

2007 13-3 9 13 8 6 19 7 6 17 15
Texans 2010 6-10 30 29 31 23 31 31 13 26 30

HTML Tables

(Yes, I am aware that Phillips was technically only the head coach for Dallas in 2007 and did not become DC until 2009.  However, the nominal DC in '07 and '08 was Brian Stewart, who was brought to Dallas by Wade after serving as the secondary coach for the Chargers while Wade was DC.  Couple that with the fact that Wade basically took the playcalling duties away from Stewart in 2008 and I feel pretty comfortable using 2006/2007 as the baseline for Wade's impact in Dallas.)

As far as that table goes, you can see that the improvements in some categories and/or across some two-year spans are borderline absurd.  An even easier, shorthand way to visualize the improvements for each team is using Pro-Football-Reference's Defensive Simple Rating System. (You can click the link to read about the SRS generally.) For each team, here are the DSRS scores for each of the years above.

Saints: -9.4, -2.4
Eagles: 1.3, 1.4
Broncos: -3.4, 5.7
Bills: -1.8, -0.4
Falcons: -2.0, 1.5
Chargers: -6.2, 3.0
Cowboys: -1.3, 1.7

In both the table and the DSRS list, the only situation where there is not a marked improvement was in Philadelphia where, as I mentioned, Wade did not run his 3-4.  In all of the other situations, either the team was already running a 3-4 when Wade arrived, which he then tweaked to his system, or they were running a 4-3, and he switched them to the 3-4 in a single off-season.  In some ways, that kind of makes Philly the exception that proves the rule here.

As Texans fans, Wade's impact in New Orleans, Atlanta, and San Diego are most applicable, as those are the teams who were running 4-3 defenses prior to Phillips' arrival.  In New Orleans, he took over an absolutely abysmal 4-3 and set about converting it by drafting Frank Warren (6-4/285) out of Auburn and Jim Wilks (6-5/266) out of UCSD, both of whom would see time at the NT position in 1981.  The Saints also drafted LOLB Ricky Jackson, who would start for the Saints from Day 1 and go on to a fantastic career, out of Pitt and LILB Glen Redd out of BYU.  Wade got one last year in New Orleans out of RDE Elois Grooms, and he stuck Derland Moore (who would see time at NT, despite being 6-4/250, in subsequent seasons) at LDE. The defensive starters were rounded out with ROLB Rob Nairne and RILB Jim Kovach, CBs Dave Waymer and Johnnie Poe, and safeties Tom Myers and Russell Gary.  The defense improved more or less across the board, and the yards/game, rush defense, and ability to stop drives improved dramatically.

Atlanta is probably the closest analog to the Texans' situation.  The 2001 Falcons went 7-9 and had a talented MLB (Keith Brooking), a very good defensive end (Patrick Kerney), an above-average defensive end on the other side (Brady Smith) and mediocre safeties (Gerald McBurrows and Ronnie Bradford).  Ed Jasper (6-2/293) was installed as the NT.  They brought in Sam Rogers, who Wade knew from Buffalo, to play ROLB.  Brooking and John Holecek were put at the ILB positions, and second-year LB Matt Stewart started at LOLB.  In the defensive backfield, they replaced Bradford with Keion Carpenter, and CBs Ray Buchanan and Ashley Ambrose kept their starting gigs.  Using this new defense, the Falcons went from 37 sacks in 2001 to 47 in 2002, and they created 39 turnovers (second-best in the league).  They also improved their scoring defense, holding opponents to under 20 points/game after surrendering 23.6/game the previous season.

Finally, as far as 4-3 to 3-4 switches go, Phillips went to San Diego.  He moved Donnie Edwards to RILB, kept SLB Ben Leber as the LOLB, signed Steve Foley from Houston to play ROLB, and signed Randal Godfrey to play LILB.  Up front, he moved Jamal Williams (6-3/348) to NT, made second-year player Jacques Cesaire the starting LDE, and drafted Igor Olshansky (6-6/309) out of Oregon to play LDE.  In the secondary, CBs Quentin Jammer and Sammy Davis remained the starters (though Davis was eventually replaced that season with cheap-shot-artist Drayton Florence), Jerry Wilson retained one safety position, and Kwamie Lassiter was replaced in the other safety position by Terrence Kiel.  While this unit did not notch a ton of sacks (29, after 30 the previous season, with Foley leading the team with 10), they snagged 23 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries, and they held opponents under 20 points/game (19.6) one year after giving up 27.6.  (For comparison, the Texans gave up 26.7/game last year.)

SO...knowing all of this and seeing what we saw on Monday night, what questions about the 2011 Texans' defense can we hazard an educated guess at?  I can think of at least four.

Yes, JMay, 50 sacks are possible.  I don't base this so much on the seven (SEVEN!) sacks against the Jets, but on the fact that those sacks were collected by four different players, none of whom is named "Mario Williams."  When you are getting pressure with Xavier Adibi, Bryan Braman, Jesse Nading, and Steven Friday, you are saying that you are willing to bring just about any linebacker at any time in order to get pressure. 

Throw in the constant penetration that J.J. Watt was getting and the fact that Mario Williams will definitely get his over the course of the year, to say nothing of the return of Brian Cushing, and fifty sacks (just over 3/game) seems like a realistic, if lofty, goal.  Wade's track record certainly bears this out; his teams have topped 50 sacks 7 times (including 61 for the Chargers in 2006), and they've topped 45 (i.e., been less than 1 sack every 3 games from hitting 50) 10 other times.

Earl Mitchell is big enough to be your starting NT.  Again, not basing this just on Monday, where Mitchell played very well, but on Wade's history.  Check out this list (asterisk denotes Pro Bowler):

  • HOU - Curly Culp* -- 6-2/265
  • NO - Frank Warren -- 6-4/285
  • NO - Jim Wilks -- 6-5/266
  • NO - Derland Moore -- 6-4/250
  • NO - Tony Elliott -- 6-2/282
  • DEN - Greg Kragen* -- 6-3/263
  • BUF - Ted Washington* -- 6-5/365
  • ATL - Ed Jasper -- 6-2/293
  • ATL - Ellis Johnson -- 6-2/288
  • SD - Jamal Williams* -- 6-3/348
  • SD - Jason Fisk -- 6-3/295
  • DAL - Tank Johnson -- 6-3/300
  • DAL - Jay Ratliff* -- 6-4/293

That, fairly obviously, is every player who took an appreciable number of snaps as a starter at nose tackle for a Wade Phillips defense going all the way back to Wade's days as the Oilers' defensive line coach.  Of those, only Curly Culp, Frank Warren, Tony Elliott, Ted Washington, and Jamal Williams were above average in terms of weight for NT at the time.  Of that group, only Culp, Washington, and Williams were full-time starters (and, not for nothin', they all happen to be absolutely fantastic players).  Of that group, care to guess how many players Phillips actually went out and acquired?  Hint:  It's one.  Ted Washington, who Wade knew from his Denver days.  Culp and Williams were both already on their respective teams when Wade arrived.

On the flip side, Phillips other two Pro Bowl NTs, Kragen and Ratliff, were "undersized," at least relative to their NT contemporaries.  Despite the fact that the Cowboys were running a 3-4 under Bill Parcells, prior to Wade's arrival, Jay Ratliff was not even a starter until Phillips came to Dallas.  Kragen had been a starter for Denver in 1988, when Denver's defense was well below average; under Phillips the following season, Kragen made the Pro Bowl and Denver held opponents to 14.1 points/game (before getting violated in the Super Bowl).

Point being, with the exception of Ted Washington (trade) and Frank Warren (draft), Wade has generally found a player already on his roster to play the NT role.  Being a massive guy is not important, simply because Phillips does not ask the NT in the base 3-4 to play a 2-gap role.  Far more important is the ability to get consistent penetration as a one-gap player.  Flank that guy with two large-ish DEs (i.e., Antonio Smith (6-3/280) and J.J. Watt (6-5/290)) and it just simply does not matter that your NT is sub-300 pounds.  Earl Mitchell (6-3/291) is plenty big enough.

Mario Williams will be fine as an OLB.  During and following Monday's game, one of the stories that kept showing up, both here and in the media, was that Mario "looked lost in coverage" or "seemed hesitant in the pass rush."4 Color me unconcerned.

As to his coverage skills, I ask you this: how often does DeMarcus Ware drop into coverage?  If you said "according to Football Outsiders' game charters, he was in coverage on only six passes in 2010," you would be correct.  You would also probably be named Aaron Schatz or Rivers McCown, but that's neither here nor there.  Even if you buy the idea that Ware is markedly better in zone coverage than is Mario Williams --- which I certainly don't buy, given the tiny sample size and Mario's (guh) familiarity with zone coverage in the Richard Smith days --- if Mario is used the same way that Ware was under Phillips, that marked difference just does not matter enough to really worry about.

As for any false steps or hesitation or whatnot from Mario qua pass-rusher, you'll have to forgive me if that seems like a petty complaint after Mario's first preseason game in the position.  Mario was a big reason Adibi got his first sack on Monday night.  Moreover, as noted here, Mario did not look "lost."  That was a story overblown by the talking-head jackasses on ESPN, who pointed to an INSIDE run as proof that OLB Mario Williams was out of position.  Yeah, damning evidence, fellas.  Mario simply looked like someone playing a new position for the first time, and I have no doubt that he will be fine under Wade's tutelage.  After all, Shawne Merriman was a DE in college, and he notched 10 sacks in his first NFL season, despite transitioning to a new position.  And you'll never convince me that Mr. Tequila is more physically gifted than Mario Williams.

This team is going to generate a lot more turnovers.  Another list for your perusal:

  • 1981 Saints -- 17 interceptions (up from 12 the previous year), 34 turnovers (up from 24).
  • 1986 Eagles -- 23 interceptions (up from 18), 36 turnovers (up from 32).
  • 1989 Broncos -- 21 interceptions (up from 16), 43 turnovers (up from 29).
  • 1995 Bills -- 17 interceptions (up from 16), 28 turnovers (same as previous year).
  • 2002 Falcons --- 24 interceptions (up from 18), 39 turnovers (up from 30).
  • 2004 Chargers -- 23 interceptions (up from 13), 33 turnovers (up from 20).
  • 2007 Cowboys -- 19 interceptions (up from 18), 29 turnovers (down from 31).

Interceptions have increased following Wade's arrival at every single stop on his resume.  More importantly, the biggest gains in INTs have been the three situations where he was transitioning a team from a 4-3 (Saints -- 42% increase, Falcons -- 33% increase, Chargers -- 77% increase).  Similarly, three of the four best increases in total turnovers were made by those teams (Saints -- 42%, Falcons -- 30%, Chargers -- 65%).

Last season, your Houston Texans had 13 interceptions and 18 total turnovers.  Monday night, they forced two fumbles (recovered one) and had an INT (sorta).  With the increased pressure that the Texans will bring in 2011, you raise the likelihood that a QB will hurry a throw, leading to an INT, or that he will fumble when hit.  On top of that, in the division, the Texans face a QB who had 17 picks last year (Peyton Manning), another QB who had 17 in 14 games (Matt Hasselbeck), and a third who had 15 in 14 games (David Garrard).  Alternatively, the last two in that last might be replaced by rookies.  They also face Chad Henne (19 picks in 2010), Drew Brees (22), Jason Campbell (6 of his 8 picks coming against 3-4 defenses last year), Oh No Joe Flacco (10), Colt McCoy (9 in 8 games), Josh Freeman (6, but certain to regress to the mean in 2011), and two rookies (Andy Dalton and Cam Newton).  Only Matt Ryan (9) can legitimately say that there's a below-average chance that he'll throw a pick in a given game.

On the forcing-fumbles side of the ledger, the Ravens, Titans, Jaguars, Bengals, Panthers, Buccaneers, Browns, and Dolphins all lost 10 or more fumbles last year.  Point being, between the increase you typically see in turnover when Wade arrives and the penchant for turnovers that many of the Texans' 2011 opponents have, you're looking at a perfect storm for an impressive increase in turnovers created.

Well, then, what can we reasonably expect from the 2011 Texans' defense?  Based both on all of the above as well as the similarities between the 2002 Falcons' D and the 2011 Texans' D, I think improvements in line with what Wade did in Atlanta are realistic expectations.  While I'd love to see an improvement similar to what he did his first year in San Diego, I just don't see that happening with this team (though I would say that the Chargers' improvements represent the best-case scenario for what the Texans could do).  So, my projections for the 2011 Texans:  5,200 yards allowed (last year 6,031), 20 points/game allowed (last year 26.7), 22 passing TDs allowed (last year 33), 13 rushing TDs allowed (last year 16), 19 interceptions (last year 13), 30 turnovers (last year 18), 300 first downs allowed (last year 354). 

In 2010, those numbers would have made the defense slightly above average across the board.  If the 2011 offense resembles the offenses of 2008 to 2010, a slightly above average defense will be more than enough to get this team into the postseason.

In Wade We Trust!



1 Suck it, Jim Tressel, you filthy, cheating, unfashionable piece of monkey scrotum.

2 As you read this, Shiloh Keo just whiffed on three more tackles.

3 If you happen to be Tim, feel free to replace the Hiedsieck with Coors Light. Also, if I am a tad hyperbolic in my comparison, it's only because I hate Frank Bush so very, very, very much. My therapist says that admitting these feelings will help me to deal with them. Or that's what I imagine he would say if I had a therapist. I'm rambling now, aren't I?

4 These culminated in the uber-stupid question of whether we should just try to trade Mario right now. It's questions like this that make people hate the internet.