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The Film Room: The Evolution Of Houston's Pass Defense

A look at how Wade Phillips changes his defense from game to game.

Get sacks, get stacks.
Get sacks, get stacks.
Thomas B. Shea

It almost seems redundant at this point to sing hymnals every Sunday in the Church of Wade Phillips, but a season and a half into this relationship I’m still dumbfounded at just how brilliant a coach he really is. Most coordinators, or at least those down in the Frank Bush and Joe Marciano tier of coaches, simply roll out the same defense every week and expect the talent they may or may not have on their rosters so somehow stuff itself into their schemes. Phillips, on the other hand, changes his defense from week to week not only to complement the strengths (or mitigate weaknesses) of his own players, but also to exploit the shortcomings of the opposing offense. If the other side can’t pick up a five man rush to save their life, you better believe he’ll be sending five guys all day long. If the opposing receivers can’t break press coverage, every corner on the roster will be jamming at the line of scrimmage whenever possible. He concentrates on what his Bulls are good at, and he uses those attributes to destroy whatever his adversary does well. I’m trying to find an eloquent metaphor for just how fun his defense is to watch, but it truly is difficult to qualify. It’s just plain awesome.

Let’s take a look at the Week Five tilt against Marky Mark and the New York Jets. In this game, the rules were very simple: run the 3-4-4 when it’s run and the 4-1-6 when it’s pass. What do these numbers mean exactly? To put it simply, they are designations for how many down linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs are on the field at any given time (in that order). Generally fronts that are more heavily loaded with linemen and linebackers, such as a 4-4-3 (four down linemen and four linebackers with two corners and a single high safety), are great against the run while formations with a lot of defensive backs such as the 3-2-6 dime (three down linemen, two linebackers, three corners and three safeties) are generally used in a "prevent" defense to stop a big passing play and protect a lead.

Here is an example of Wade Phillips’ base 3-4-4 that he runs on most 1st and 2nd downs to stop the run. As you can see, while it is technically a 3-4, it really is more of a 5-2 because the two outside linebackers are almost always on the line of scrimmage and one of both of them almost always rush the quarterback. Considering that Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed are both converted defensive ends, their skill sets and how they fit together as a personnel grouping make this practically a five man defensive line with three penetrating one-gap "defensive tackles" and two edge rushing "defensive ends" that tend to attack from a standing position. On this particular play the Jets run the ball with Shonn Greene, who is tackled by J.J. Watt for no gain.


On the very next play New York comes out in a power "I" formation with Joe McKnight, their fastest running back, in at tailback. Houston lines up in its 5-2 and sends both safeties deep, sensing a passing play on 2nd and 10.


New York motions McKnight wide as a third receiver, and Houston counters with Danieal Manning rolling over to cover him man on man 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. Glover Quin rolls to the middle of field as a deep security blanket in case any of the other DBs, all who are in single coverage, get beat. As this motion happens, Brian Cushing shifts to the A-gap to set up a blitz while Bradie James shifts himself over the strong side C-gap to put himself in position to cover either the tight end or fullback.


Houston, seeing the possibility to overload the blocking scheme and get a quick sack if either the tight end or fullback run a dump-off route instead of staying in to block, prepares to send Cushing on a blitz.


This particular six man rush pits Barwin one on one against the fullback (a favorable matchup) while Antonio Smith looks to be drawing a double team from the right guard and right tackle from the 3-technique. Cushing should have a free lane while the center and left guard are forced into taking Shaun Cody and Watt by themselves. Reed gets single blocking with the left tackle.


The ball is snapped. Smith runs by the tackle, who passed him off to the fullback, almost immediately. The tight end breaks off into a route, which James picks up in coverage. The right guard picks up Cushing. The right tackle must now contain Barwin while the fullback attempts to stifle Smith just enough to allow Sanchez to get a pass off.


Smith, not shockingly at all, beats the fullback and gets pressure on Sanchez. At the top of the screen, you can see Kareem Jackson about to fall victim to a pick play by the tight end, and he has to adjust his positioning (which, conveniently, the only way he can adjust puts him out of position to make a tackle. Smart play design by the Jets).


Better get rid of that ball, Mark.


As a result of Smith's pressure, Sanchez’s arm is hit as he throws and the ball sails harmlessly to the turf despite Jeremy Kerley being wide open. Phew.


The very next play (3rd and 15) we get to see Wade’s standard pass defense package, the 4-1-6 dime. In this set, Watt and Smith kick inside to play defensive tackle while Barwin and Reed put their hands on the ground and become traditional defensive ends. Cushing stays in as the lone linebacker while Brice McCain and a third safety (usually Quintin Demps, at least until his injury, after which Troy Nolan became the third dime safety) come on to the field. Glover Quin comes down in the box to play a hybrid linebacker/safety position. In Wade’s defense, at least up until this point, there was no such thing as a "nickel" package, which would have only 5 defensive backs and two linebackers. If the opposing offense came out with three receivers, it was all dime, all the time, and why wouldn’t he do that? Johnathan Joseph, Jackson, and McCain are balling out this year in man coverage, and Manning and Demps can handle playing two deep zones just fine on their own. Why would Phillips risk having Bradie James cover the tight end on a down that is practically tailored to that position when he could stick a fast, hard hitting, and instinctive safety on him instead? Cushing, who is a linebacker that actually can cover a tight end, is then free to blitz, spy, or just plain bleed all over everyone to his heart’s content while Quin takes care of coverage. It’s simple, it’s basic, and it’s effective.


On this particular play Phillips sees that the "tight end" isn’t actually a tight end but rather an extra offensive lineman, which basically spells out "max protection" in giant neon letters. Wade decides to drop seven in coverage and just give Sanchez underneath routes that can be contained before they can be converted into a first down. Houston employs a Cover Four here, in which the two deep safeties take the middle "quarters" of the field, while Joseph and Jackson take the outside "quarters". Quin, rather than taking the tight end man to man as he normally does, drops into a middle zone because there isn’t a "real" tight end to cover. McCain and Cushing drop into the hook zones on both sides of the field.


The four man rush against six offensive linemen predictably cannot get to Sanchez early, who climbs the pocket and prepares to throw. Cushing has some incidental contact with the receiver, who pushes off and breaks into an out route short of the first down marker. Quin is alone in his middle zone, but is in position to get Sanchez if he decides to scramble. McCain is also in good position to tackle the running back if Sanchez dumps it off for a catch and run.


The receiver does happen to make the catch when he gets separation from Cushing (after borderline offensive pass interference), but Cushing closes quickly and lays a huge hit to knock him out of bounds two yards shy of the first down.


After Cushing’s injury, as noted in a previous post, Wade adjusted his scheme to account for the fact that Cushing was no longer there to be a reliable presence in coverage if he wanted to blitz Quin off the edge. Instead, the Texans used both safeties almost exclusively to man up on the tight end on every single down. That right there is what a real coordinator can bring to a defense. Phillips didn’t try to force James and Tim Dobbins into doing something they weren’t comfortable with, but rather changed his scheme around them. To Texans fans, it feels so good to have someone in your corner who understands that concept.

Going into the Green Bay game, I was somewhat confident that the newer, slightly adjusted 4-1-6 dime package that Houston would use to counter the Packers’ spread offense would be just fine, but boy was I wrong. I must give credit to Mike McCarthy and the Packers' coaching staff – they knew exactly what Wade was going to do after the Cushing injury and used it against him. Rather than do what everyone thought they were going to do and try to get Jermichael Finley and Randall Cobb matched up against James and Dobbins, they simply used the threat of Finley and their three receiver set to spread Houston out and force them into their new, less flexible dime package the entire game. From there, Green Bay did what any sane offensive coordinator would do on first down against six defensive backs and just ran the ball….all…day…long.

Exempla Gratia: It’s 2nd and 1 after a short pass to Randall Cobb against Brice McCain, and the Packers are in their one back/one tight end/three wide receiver set. Aaron Rodgers is in the shotgun as usual. Houston is in its basic dime personnel, except on this particular snap both Reed and Barwin are rushing from the standing up position (technically, you could count this as a 2-3-6, but we all know in spirit it is still a 4-1-6). Quin is covering Jermichael Finley, who is lined up next to the right tackle, while James is lined up in the weak side A-gap. It’s only a yard to convert the first down, and because the Packers are the Packers and they have three great wideouts on the field with two downs to work with, everyone and their mother can see a deep shot coming just for giggles.


So what does Green Bay do? Why, run it right at non-linebacker Glover Quin, of course! There are six defensive backs on the field; that’s practically giving Alex Green yardage. Why not take advantage of that? Jeff Saturday snaps the ball, and Finley moves to block Reed on the edge. The right guard and right tackle double team Watt while the center blocks James. Smith and Barwin have single blocking on the weak side.


The guard passes off Watt to the tackle as Green approaches the line of scrimmage, and then moves up to the second level to block Quin. This right here is where the dime shows its true weakness; there is absolutely no way that a safety can stand up even a half decent guard, let alone shed the block and make a tackle. Quin is powerless to stuff the run that is coming right at him just based on the laws of physics.


As expected, Quin is physically overmatched and can’t close the hole. Green breaks free.


If not for a very impressive one-armed tackle from over the shoulder of the center by James, Green would have gained a lot more than just ten yards.


Even when Alex Green wasn’t in the game, the Packers still ran the ball right at Quin with impunity. In this stil,l you can see John Kuhn, Green Bay’s best pass protecting back, lined up next to Rodgers. Quin has coverage on the tight end lined up in the slot while James has responsibility for runs up the middle of the field. Yet again, Houston is practically begging for the cheese heads to run the ball.


The Packers happily oblige this request. Smith and Barwin are sealed off on the backside of the play. Watt penetrates through the B-gap but is blocked out of position. The right tackle blocks Reed momentarily, and then disengages and makes a beeline right at Quin, who has just broken his coverage of the tight end to try to make a tackle. James is fighting off the center’s block to make a tackle as well.


James manages to get loose, but has little chance to stop Kuhn when he is in a dead sprint. Quin has problems of his own with a big, burly right tackle stampeding towards him.


Reed, showing off his fantastic lateral agility and hustle, manages to catch Kuhn from behind while Quin gets flattened. If it were not for a spectacular show of athleticism by the Texans’ young linebacker, this could have turned into one of the easiest first downs of Green Bay’s night. Five yards, however, is still five yards.


These moderate gains were an absolute killer against Houston during the entire game. Three yards here, six yards there; even when the run game was stuffed every now and then, Rodgers was able to utilize play-action to great success just from using the threat that the run game had established. When given manageable distances from second and third downs by running the ball, the Packers were able to dissect Houston’s secondary with a nearly endless supply of quick slants that neutralized the Texans’ normally suffocating man coverage. From there, all it took were a couple great double moves for a defensive back to bite on said slant route and give up a massive gain. Huge gains beget off coverage, which beget quick outs and curls for first down after first down. It was a formulaic cycle that worked to perfection against a Wade Phillips unit that was forced into being one dimensional: run the ball, move the chains with short passes, and then set up a deep shot.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

It wasn’t personnel (or loss of certain personnel) that ruined Houston’s winning streak; it was a brilliant offensive scheme exposing the weakness of a usually dominant defensive scheme that had never truly been challenged. Even if Cushing was still playing, it’s tough to argue that his presence would have made a huge difference when Green Bay elected to match up offensive linemen with Glover Quin all night long (I can’t really blame anything on Quin in the run game, he’s a safety for crying out loud). There’s simply nothing they could have done. Well played, Mike McCarthy. Well played.

So after a disheartening and embarrassing loss and with one week to prepare for Baltimore, the Texans’ biggest competition in AFC, how would Houston change? What would they do to counter an offense that not only runs no-huddle with frequent three wide receiver sets, like Green Bay, but also has a better receiving tight end in Dennis Pitta? What about Baltimore’s fantastic backfield with Vonta Leach and Ray Rice, who unlike Alex Green, is insanely talented? This was a tall order to be sure and after the Sunday Night debacle exposed Houston’s weaknesses, this clash of AFC powers was arguably an even worse matchup for the Bulls on Parade.

Oh wait, never mind. The Texans have Wade Phillips. What was I thinking?

Right, so where were we…oh yes, Houston’s solution to their new problem against spread offenses. During the third quarter of Week Seven’s Houston-Baltimore tilt, the Ravens stopped using their two-receiver/two-tight end sets and went with a three-receiver/one tight end package in an attempt to make up ground and get back into a game that Houston very much controlled (29-3 at the time). Up until that point, Baltimore stayed mostly in run-based looks and used Dennis Pitta, their tight end, as a slot receiver while Ed Dickson, their other tight end, was mainly used as an extra blocker and for dump-off routes. This personnel package allowed Houston to stay in their base 5-2 in the first half, where five pass rushers could be consistently unleashed while Bradie James, Tim Dobbins, and Glover Quin handled coverage against tight ends and running backs. It was right in the Texans’ wheel house; Flacco got pressured, Rice was contained, and the tight ends couldn’t get open – glorious.

So that brings us to the third quarter with Baltimore down by four scores. Surprisingly, the Ravens almost didn’t even bother with three wide receiver sets until the second half. Whether that had more to do with game planning or the no-huddle offense limiting the amount of substitutions that take place between plays is unclear, but what was clear is that after half time the Ravens spread themselves out a whole heck of a lot more. Take, for instance, Baltimore’s first trip to the red zone on the day.

We see the Ravens' first three receiver shotgun look with Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin, and Jacoby Jones in at wideout with Dennis Pitta as the tight end and Ray Rice in the backfield. Houston counters with Wade Phillips’ shiny new pass defense package, the 3-3-5 nickel (I’m imagining lots and ooohs and aaaahs out of all of you).


In this package, the Texans employ three down linemen with Watt, Cody, and Smith, as well as three linebackers with Barwin, James, and Reed. Barwin is on the line of scrimmage in the 7-technique (outside the tight end) as a rush linebacker while James and Reed are essentially playing the normal inside linebackers' roles of a 3-4. Gone are the days of the dime package that can be so easily run against by even the most "meh" of rushing attacks. This is a quarterback-killing, run-stopping front six accompanied by a coverage scheme that isn’t afraid to leave its cornerbacks on an island while the safeties clean up the tight ends. It’s exotic, it’s fresh, it’s versatile, and it’s really fun to watch.


Matt Birk, the center, snaps the ball and picks up Cody. The right guard pulls to the left to throw down a trap block on Antonio Smith, who is working against the left tackle. Barwin gets single blocking against Pitta, the tight end, while Watt works against the right tackle. James and Reed lie in wait on the second level.


Flacco hands off to Rice on the draw. The left tackle disengages from Smith and moves to seal a lane against James while the left guard sets up the other side of the lane against Reed.


Smith is taken out of the play by a great trap block from Yanda, the right guard. The left guard engages Reed, and it seems like Rice is going to have a giant canyon to run through. Cody is also about to get pancaked.


Cody goes down and James gets kicked out of the play by a great block. The only real hope of stopping a huge gain, and possibly a touchdown, is Brooks Reed. Normally this block would go against Glover Quin, as he would be playing in the box instead of Reed in three receiver sets. Brooks Reed, however, is not Glover Quin. What he lacks in speed and coverage ability, he makes up for in his ability to distribute copious amounts of physical whoop-ass against offensive linemen; I can think of no one I would rather trust to come through in the run game right here, right now.


Oh, what do you know, Reed shoves off his blocker and makes a fantastic solo tackle against one of the most explosive football players in the world. I love Quin as much as the next football aficionado, but safeties just plain can’t make that kind of play against someone who has anywhere between 120 to 140 pounds on them. I love you, 3-3-5, I love you so much.


On the very next play, the Texans keep in this same personnel package against the Ravens' three wideout set. This time, however, they switch things up and show a five man front along the line of scrimmage, with Bradie James as the lone backer on the second level. All corners are showing off-man coverage, and one can assume that Manning is keeping his eye on Dennis Pitta from thirteen yards deep.


The ball is snapped and Flacco begins a hand off to Rice. Cody and Smith get held up in traffic by the left guard, center, and right tackle. The right guard yet again pulls across to block Reed on the edge while Watt gets single blocking against the left tackle (semi-related: Cam Cameron is a brave man). Pitta goes runs a route leaving Barwin completely free. God help Joe Flacco if this ends up being play-action.


Oh, sweet Durga! It is play-action. Barwin is screaming in untouched, leaving Flacco no time to throw to any of his receivers. Manning picks up Pitta, as expected.


All four receivers are accounted for by all five defensive backs. T-minus 3, 2, 1...


Flacco gets absolutely crushed and the ball flies out of the back of the end zone. This is what happens when you are allowed to consistently send five rushers without sacrificing a linebacker on the second level that can spy the running back. Somebody, somewhere, somehow will always get free. There are simply too many weapons that demand double teams along the front six to pick all of them up on every single snap. I can see now why Wade Phillips wants another crack at the Packers. He's gone and found himself some kryptonite.


Continuing on our Brooks Reed highlight reel, let’s take a look at a snap later in the third quarter. Smith is over the right guard, Earl Mitchell is shaded of the center’s left shoulder, and Watt is playing all the way outside the left tackle in the 5-technique (sure, why not?). Barwin is outside the tight end in the 7-tech. James and Reed are again playing their pseudo-inside linebacker role. Manning is creeping into the box to pick up the tight end in coverage while Quin is the lone deep safety.


The ball is snapped, and it’s a run play right into Watt and Reed. The center picks up Mitchell, the tackle takes Watt, and the guard moves up to block Reed. On the backside of the play, the right tackle and tight end work against Antonio Smith. Barwin is left unblocked.


Watt dips under the left tackle and closes off Rice’s outside lane. The right guard disengages from his double team against Mitchell and prepares to take on Bradie James and open up a cutback lane up the gut. Reed absorbs his blocker.


Rice jump-cuts to the inside as Mitchell sheds his blocker, effectively closing off the hole in the middle. Rice reads the left guard’s block on Reed and decides to cut back yet again.


Ray Rice, being Ray Rice, eludes the tackle from Mitchell and bounces towards Reed.


If Reed can’t shed his block, Rice will have a wide open lane that pits him one on one against Glover Quin. While I don’t doubt that Glover could have kept Rice in check, I’d certainly feel better if that matchup didn’t have to be tested too often.


True to form, Reed stands up the guard, sheds the block, and gets in position to stop Rice (again).


No yards for you, Ray.


The versatility of the 3-3-5 is staggeringly effective if the right personnel are using it. The run game can be shut down, the quarterback can be pressured, and unless the offense motions into an empty set, it is very rare to see a coverage overloaded with receivers. It’s a refreshing balance between the efficiency of Houston’s secondary and the explosiveness of their front seven. The variation in formations allowed by mixing and matching personnel along the line of scrimmage is impressive as well; I noticed on one occasion Reed and Barwin were playing side by side as if to put an exclamation mark on the concept of a strong side overload.


So what does this all mean for the Texans going forward? Well, for starters, it gives the Bulls on Parade an effective counter package to the spread offenses that they will face for the rest of the season. Coincidentally, tomorrow’s matchup against the Buffalo Bills will be the first, and likely most visible, display of the 3-3-5 this year. Chan Gailey’s offense practically lives in three and four receiver sets, and he loves running the ball out of the spread (Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller combine for over 70% of the offense's total touches over the last two games) and using pre-snap motion to create matchups much like Gary Kubiak’s offense. The chess match between Phillips and Gailey to get the matchups they want in coverage and the pass rush should be some of the best brain candy you’ll see all season if you’re in to that sort of thing (which I am). Expect lots of motion, lots of "sugared" blitzes, and a whole heck of a lot different packages. You’ll see 4-1-6 dime, you’ll see 3-3-5 nickel, and in all likelihood you’ll be witness to groupings you’ve never seen out of the Bulls before as they adjust to whatever funky formations Buffalo decides to throw at them.

Make no mistake about it--despite the limitations of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Chain Gailey is a genius. He wants this win badly if he has any plans of staying in the wild card race – expect everything. I, for one, can’t wait.