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Cowboys Flashback: What's a Phillips' 34?

With the draft in the books, I think we've reached a good time to re-assess the type of defense Wade Phillips runs.  His 3-4 scheme differs from the "purer" version BIll Parcells ran in '05 and '06, and is better suited for the speedier linebackers he's drafted.  Some people have questioned 2nd round pick Sean Lee's potential effectiveness, commenting that he appears "small" in clips they have seen on YouTube. 

Read this analysis of Wade's D, first published in February '07 and updated here to accommodate current Cowboys' personnel,  and see how Phillips' scheme, which protected and enabled 227 lb. Donnie Edwards, perfectly fits the skill sets of inside backers in waiting Lee and Jason Williams:

Perhaps the most intriguing comment in Wade Phillips’ inaugural presser was his declaration that he would call the defensive plays for his "Phillips’ 3-4″ next season. The players, as blogger Emmitt>>Barry noted in his morning thread, are excited by the change.

What exactly is a Phillips’ 3-4 and how does it differ from Bill Parcells’ scheme?

I went to the tape and saw that Phillips in San Diego used almost identical personnel to Dallas, but ran a very different attack.

Parcells’ defense has been referred to as vanilla this week, and in some respects it is. He drafted big front seven people, linemen and linebackers and set them up in a straight-forward, one-on-one defense. Look at Dallas in most 3-4 first and second down situations last year and you saw:

a.) three linemen always, and I mean always, lined head up over the opponent’s center and tackles. That’s because Parcells is one of the few coordinators who runs a true two-gap defense.

This means that on run plays, the three linemen are given responsibility for the two gaps to either side of them. They are to control the lineman directly in front of them, read which way the play is going, shed the blocker and fill the appropriate lane. It’s a read-and-react scheme and it depends on big, strong, smart line play.

b.) It also puts a premium on big linebackers, since they are not protected in the ways that middle and weakside linebackers are in the speedier 4-3 schemes that Dallas used to run or that the many Tampa-2 team use. The inside linebackers have to take guards head on and the outside linebackers need the bulk to control tight ends and take away the outside run.

San Diego takes a very different approach. I watched tape of their 2005 game against the Cowboys and saw a decidedly one-gap approach.

The first dramatic difference comes in the placement of the linemen. Rather than lining head up like the Dallas three, the Chargers guys lined up in gaps or did a lot of shading, lining up on a lineman or tight end’s inside or outside shoulder. In fact, I rarely saw a Chargers lineman or linebacker taking an opponent head on.

Here’s one typical front that gave the Dallas running game trouble. With Dallas lined up in a strong left formation (meaning TE Jason Witten was lined up next to LT Flozell Adams) the Chargers deployed this way: RE Igor Olshansky lined up on Adams’ inside shoulder. NT Jamal Williams shaded C Andre Gurode’s left shoulder. LE Jacques Cesare lined up wide of RT Rob Petitti.

ROLB Steve Foley lined up wide of TE Witten. ILB Randall Godfrey lined four yards off the ball and over Adams’ left shoulder, in a stacked position behind Olshansky, who was lined up immediately over Adams’ right shouder.

The other ILB Donnie Edwards was also four yards deep and lined up over the C/RG gap. LOLB Ben Leber was, like Godfrey, lined up over the RT Petitti, but off the ball.

Draw this up on a piece of paper and then look at the lane assignments. There are seven gaps around and between the Cowboys’ line and Phillips has assigned a front seven defender to each one: Foley has the gap to Witten’s left; Godfrey the gap between Witten and Adams; Olshansky the LT/LG gap; Williams the LG/C gap; Edwards the C/RG gap; Leber the RG/RT gap and Cesare the gap outside RT.

And that’s if the linemen stay in their positions. The Chargers would sometimes give this look and then make a lot of last second shifts. Williams at NT would flop from being on the Center’s left shoulder to his right. The other linemen and linebackers would also change their alignments late.

Update: I want people to note that Phillips was already playing his nose tackle, in this case the 348 lb. Jamaal Williams on the shade.  I continue to see discussion of moving Jay Ratliff outside, and mention that he plays on the shade because he's too light to two gap and clog the middle.  Phillips wanted Williams to use quickness and power at the Chargers and he counts on Ratliff to do the same.  Jay is about 40 lbs. lighter, but every bit as strong and even faster. 

Rat is up to 303 lbs. these days, and uses his long arms and incredible punchout to gain an advantage off the snap.   Given his power and speed, I wonder if the 298 lb. Sean Lissemore will get an early shot at the backup nose tackle role.  He's at the same weight Ratliff carried when he entered the NFL.  He's a priority viewing target at camp this summer.

One aspect of the linemen shading is that it allows the Chargers to stack their inside linebackers. This was especially beneficial to the 227 lb. Edwards, who is too small to handle the pounding he would take in Parcells’ system.

Furthermore, the Chargers do not play a passive front. The Chargers guys do a lot of slanting and looping, trying to shoot the gaps and get in the backfield.

Update: Phillips uses inside backer twists on occasion and they helped James get eight sacks in '08.   Wade played it more straight up last year and the rush defense gave up almost 20 fewer yards per game, rising from 12th to 4th. 

What we will see, at some point this coming season and certainly by 2011, is more running and stunting from the inside guys.  Williams lists today at 246, just one pound less than James, but there's no comparison in speed.  Williams ran a 4.49 at his pro day and explodes to the football.  Lee, however slight he may be, is only six pounds lighter than Keith Brooking and a good ten heavier than Edwards, who used his quickness and instincts to post three straight 100-plus tackle seasons in the middle of the Phillips' 34. 

The scheme offers some protection to the both inside backerers, and if they are good at engaging and shedding blocks, they will get plenty of action.

We're watching the final phases of the switch from the Tuna-gap 34 to the true Phillips 34, from the power 34 to the speed 34. 


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