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The Wade Phillips 3-4: Front 7's

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Wade Phillips finds what his defenders do well and adapts his system to fit those skills. This can mean using a very heavy front 7 or a very light front 7.

What is our front 7 going to look like in 2015
What is our front 7 going to look like in 2015
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

If you watch the video below, the most interesting part, to me, is that Wade Phillips doesn't try to fit square pegs into round holes. If he has a team of square pegs, then he builds a board full of square holes to put them in.

This has meant that over his last three stints as a defensive coordinator (the three this century), he has had a very adaptive approach to the the 3-4 defense. To analyze this, let's look at the height and weight of his front 7 starters during those three stints as a defensive coordinator:  02-03 Atlanta, 04-06 San Diego and 11-13 Houston.

Since they are the sexiest stat for a defensive player, I will also look at sacks and where the pressure came from those 8 groups of starting front 7's. All height and weight data from pro-football-reference.com - the weight data can be different from what you will find at the teams' websites and/or on NFL.com.

2002-2003 Falcons

02 Falcons Ht Weight GS Sacks
LDE Patrick Kerney 6-5 273 16 10.5
NT Ed Jasper 6-3 296 16 2
RDE Brady Smith 6-5 274 14 6.5
LOLB Sam Rogers 6-3 245 13 6.5
LILB Keith Brooking* 6-2 245 16 0
RILB John Holecek 6-2 240 11 1
ROLB Matt Stewart 6-3 232 13 3

03 Falcons Ht Weight GS Sacks
LDE Patrick Kerney 6-5 273 16 6.5
NT Ed Jasper 6-3 296 14 3
RDE Brady Smith 6-5 274 14 4
LOLB Keith Newman 6-2 248 11 2
LILB Keith Brooking* 6-2 245 16 0
RILB Chris Draft 5-11 232 16 2
ROLB Matt Stewart 6-3 232 16 2.5

We see that the defensive lineman that Wade had to use when he was with the Falcons were all small, by position standards (even 13 years ago). Kerney, Jasper and Smith were all one-gap penetrators. Behind them was a group of linebackers who were generally smaller and quicker than average. Brooking was a Pro-bowler in those days because of his play recognition abilities. He still had those abilities when he played for us at the end of his career, but his quickness was gone at that point. Notice that the sacks for the Falcons were generally distributed fairly evenly with the exception of Brooking who was almost always dropping into coverage on passing downs.

The Falcons were 8th in points allowed in 02 but they dropped to 30th in 03. During this time in the NFL, the 3-4 defense had fallen out of fashion. Atlanta was the one team in the top half of the league in scoring in 02 who ran a 3-4. Only three other teams were listed as running a 3-4 in 2002 and 2003: Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Houston. Pittsburgh and Houston ran "heavy" 3-4 defenses while Baltimore and Atlanta ran lighter versions.

At this point in the NFL, the Tampa-2 was the rage. The "Tampa-2" needs studs on the front of the 4-3 and three linebackers who can all cover well and run like gazelles. It also needs great safety play or it's doomed to failure.

2004-2006 Chargers

04 Chargers Ht Weight GS Sacks
LDE Jacques Cesaire 6-2 295 12 0.5
NT Jamal Williams 6-3 348 15 4
RDE Igor Olshansky 6-6 309 16 1
LOLB Ben Leber 6-3 244 16 2
LILB Donnie Edwards 6-2 227 16 1
RILB Randall Godfrey 6-2 245 15 2
ROLB Steve Foley 6-4 265 16 10

05 Chargers Ht Weight GS Sacks
LDE Luis Castillo 6-3 306 15 2.5
NT Jamal Williams*+ 6-3 348 16 0
RDE Igor Olshansky 6-6 309 12 3
LOLB Shawne Merriman* 6-4 272 10 10
LILB Donnie Edwards 6-2 227 16 3
RILB Randall Godfrey 6-2 245 14 1
ROLB Steve Foley 6-4 265 13 4.5

06 Chargers Ht Weight GS Sacks
LDE Luis Castillo 6-3 306 9 7
NT Jamal Williams*+ 6-3 348 16 2
RDE Igor Olshansky 6-6 309 13 1.5
LOLB Shawne Merriman*+ 6-4 272 12 17
LILB Randall Godfrey 6-2 245 13 4
RILB Donnie Edwards 6-2 227 16 2.5
ROLB Shaun Phillips 6-3 260 14 11.5

By 2004, a shift had occurred. More teams were using the 3-4 than in 02-03 when it had reached its low point. The Bills, Patriots, and Chargers had made the switch since 03. Atlanta, however, moved to a 4-3 when Wade Phillips moved on. So less than one quarter of the league was using a 3-4 as their "listed" base defense. The Ravens switched to a 4-3 in 2005 while the Browns, Cowboys, Raiders and 49ers switched to a 3-4 in 03 or 04. Still only about one quarter of the league was running a 3-4 during the 2006 season.

If you follow the Joe Collier model of the 3-4, then you want to have a massive NT who commands a double team on every play. Jamal Williams, early in his career, was exactly that. The 3-4 that Wade ran in San Diego had bigger lineman who were all mostly two-gappers. His Chargers' defenses relied on the OLBs to pressure the QB. Notice how much bigger the OLBs are in 05 and 06 (Foley, Merriman and Phillips) relative to the OLBs he had in Atlanta. From a points allowed standpoint the Chargers were 11th, 13th and 7th during Wade's time as DC. His best D in San Diego, 2006, was when he had to larger edge-rushers to pair with his fairly large two-gapping down linemen.

Judging by sacks alone Wade Phillips got pressure mainly from his lineman in Atlanta and his OLBs in San Diego.

2011-2013 Texans

11 Texans Ht Weight GS Sacks
LDE Antonio Smith* 6-3 274 16 6.5
NT Shaun Cody 6-3 292 16 1
RDE JJ Watt 6-6 290 16 5.5
LOLB Connor Barwin 6-3 253 16 11.5
LILB Brian Cushing 6-3 243 16 4
RILB Brooks Reed 6-3 255 11 6
ROLB DeMeco Ryans 6-1 235 16 0

12 Texans Ht Weight GS Sacks
LDE Antonio Smith* 6-3 274 16 7
NT Shaun Cody 6-3 292 12 0
RDE JJ Watt 6-6 290 16 20.5
LOLB Connor Barwin 6-3 253 16 3
LILB Brian Cushing 6-3 243 5 0
RILB Brooks Reed 6-3 255 12 2.5
LB Tim Dobbins 6-1 245 6 0
LB Daryl Sharpton 6-0 229 5 0
LB Whitney Mercilus 6-3 261 4 6

13 Texans Ht Weight GS Sacks
LDE Antonio Smith 6-3 274 15 5
NT Earl Mitchell 6-1 289 14 1.5
RDE J.J. Watt*+ 6-6 290 16 10.5
SLB Brooks Reed 6-3 255 16 3
mlb Brian Cushing 6-3 243 7 1.5
MLB Joe Mays 5-11 245 13 1
WLB Whitney Mercilus 6-3 261 16 7

Comparatively the lineman that Wade used in Houston were much closer in size and abilities (Watt excepted) to what he had in Atlanta. His NT was back to being a small one-gap penetrator. Because he had both a DE who could rush the passer (Watt) and an OLB who could generate QB pressure (Barwin and then Mercilus) the sacks were fairly evenly distributed unlike his tenures in Atlanta and Sand Diego where the pressure came from one group or the other. The exception, of course, was 2012 when Watt got about half of the team total in sacks (Houston had 44 that year).

The Texans were 4th, 9th and 24th in points allowed in Wade's three seasons as DC (and interim HC at the end of 13). The 2011 Texans D got pressure from everywhere, but they feasted on a schedule almost completely filled with weak offenses to attain their ranking of 4th in points allowed. They allowed 40 (New Orleans) and 28 (Carolina) points to the two best offenses that they faced that year. Elite defenses can stop elite offenses. So the 2011 Texans defense was not elite.

Exactly half of the teams in the NFL were listed as running a 3-4 last season including multiple teams that we faced: Kansas City, New York Jets, Indianapolis, San Diego, and Arizona. The league has shifted back to a balance between the 3-4 and the 4-3.

2015 Broncos

15 Broncos Ht Weight
LDE Malik Jackson 6-4 284
NT ?
RDE Derek Wolfe 6-5 295
LOLB Von Miller 6-3 237
LILB Danny Trevathan 6-0 237
RILB Brandon Marshall 6-1 242
ROLB Demarcus Ware 6-4 247

If you look at the listed weights of our putative front 7 starters for next season, we look similar to the 2011 Texans if we use a ~300 lb NT. If Pot Roast returns, then we might see a 3-4 that is a flavor which Wade has not tried yet - one that has a clogger at NT (Pot Roast was easily 350 lbs last season), a penatrator at LDE (Jackson)) and a two-gapper at RDE (Wolfe).  One would expect that our QB pressure will be coming from VonWare at OLB and in that sense we might be similar to the 06 Chargers, but their two OLBs were significantly heavier than our two OLBs. Purely from a total mass perspective, our front 7 would most closely resemble the Falcons front 7 from the early part of the century if we end up with a "light" NT starting for us. For what its worth, the defensive lineman currently under contract who could play NT have these listed heights and weights:

  • Sylvester Williams 6-3, 313
  • Marvin Austin 6-2, 310

The Broncos have no defensive tackles on injured reserve, the practice squad or signed to futures contracts.

They do have some "larger" guys at the putative OLB spots from their PS/IR/Futures:

  • Shaquille Barrett - 260
  • Larentee McCray - 249
  • Kenny Anunike - 260
  • Quanterus Smith - 255
  • John Youboty - 258
  • Gerald Rivers - 258

The first two guys up there were listed as LBs last season, while the last 4 were all listed as DEs.

Going Further Back in Time

For those who are interested in looking further back in history. Phillips was the DC for the Buffalo Bills in 95-97 and the Broncos DC from 89-92. With the Bills he had the mountain known as Ted Washington (6-5, 365) as his NT. When he was the Broncos DC in 89-92, he had Greg Kragen as the Broncos NT (6-3, 263).

Kragen was not a bad NT, but, because of his size, he was the exact opposite of Washington. Washington was a space-eater who could take on a double-team without moving and, because of his size, could also push a double-team back to collapse the pocket. Kragen was a quick penetrator, who rarely, if ever, was asked to defeat a double-team. That being said, Kragen was a beast to block because of his quickness and was fast enough to make plays all over the field. He is credited with 140 tackles in 1988 and 107 tackles in 1992 - as a NT.