Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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09 Jan 2008

Every Play Counts: Shaun Phillips

By Michael David Smith

I hadn't planned to do this week's Every Play Counts on Chargers linebacker Shaun Phillips, but he made my choice for me.

I started watching the tape of the Chargers' 17-6 victory over the Titans Sunday with a couple of other ideas in mind, but it just became impossible to ignore Phillips. He was all over the field, fighting off blocks, delivering huge hits, and basically making life miserable for the Titans offense. He finished the game with nine tackles and a fumble recovery, and all in all he had one of the best games I've seen from a defensive player this year.

Phillips has good speed for a 262-pounder, but what I like best about him is the way he fights off blocks. On a first-and-10 handoff to LenDale White, the Titans tried to keep Phillips to the inside with a crackback block from tight end Jamie Petrowski, who lined up behind the line of scrimmage as a flanker and motioned into the formation. When Phillips started the play to the inside, Petrowski was in perfect position for the block and should have had no problem sealing Phillips off, but Phillips extended his arms to fight off Petrowski, cut back to the outside and tackled White after a gain of three.

On another first-and-10 handoff to White, Petrowski was matched one-on-one with Phillips, and it was like a bad joke: Phillips barely seemed to notice that Petrowski was blocking him as he barreled into the middle of the line and tackled White for a gain of a yard. I don't know if there's a tight end in the NFL who can take Phillips one-on-one, but if there is, that tight end is not Petrowski.

That tight end is also not Ben Troupe, who drew the assignment of blocking Phillips on a handoff to Chris Brown late in the second quarter. Instead of blocking Phillips, Troupe tackled him, and referee Ed Hochuli had the easiest holding call of his career. The Titans were playing Sunday's game without their injured starting tight end, Bo Scaife, and that might have changed their offensive game plan in terms of what role the tight end would play, but the decision to run plays with the backup tight ends matched up against Phillips was clearly a mistake.

After Troupe's holding call, on first-and-20, Phillips did an outstanding job keeping Titans quarterback Vince Young in check. Young initially dropped back to pass, and Phillips was being blocked by Troupe. As Young rolled to his right, toward Phillips' side of the field, Titans guard Jacob Bell went outside to help Troupe block Phillips. Young saw what he thought would be an opening along the right sideline and tried to run outside Phillips, but Phillips made a great play, cutting to Bell's inside with a swim move and then grabbing the back of Young's jersey with his right hand, pulling him down for a gain of just three yards.

Phillips almost always lines up on the line of scrimmage, usually as a stand-up linebacker in a 3-4, sometimes as a defensive end in a three-point stance when the Chargers go to a four-man line. But I like the way he plays when he moves around before the snap and lines up a few yards off the line of scrimmage. On a first-and-10 in the third quarter, Phillips was three yards off the line of scrimmage and directly behind the defensive end at the snap, which made it tough for the Titans to figure out what he was doing. Bell couldn't get to Phillips to block him, and when the handoff went to White, Phillips made the tackle.

If you want to know what kind of player Phillips is against the pass, just watch two consecutive plays on the Titans' opening drive. The first was a second-and-9 pass to Eric Moulds on which Phillips dropped into coverage, never took his eyes off Young, and tackled Moulds just as he caught the ball for a two-yard gain. A huge part of quality pass coverage is the ability to read the quarterback's eyes. It says a lot about Phillips' skills in that area (and how much Young has to improve when it comes to looking off the coverage) that he knew where the ball would go without looking in Moulds' direction. It was both a smart play and a perfect tackle from Phillips.

Immediately after that play, on third-and-7, Phillips lined up at left end on a four-man line, fought through the block of right tackle David Stewart, brushed aside the attempt of running back Chris Brown to chip him, and hit Young. That forced Young to throw the ball away, and just after Young got rid of it, Phillips threw him to the ground. A linebacker that good both at blitzing and at dropping into coverage is a linebacker no quarterback wants to face.

It's not a surprise that Phillips did such a good job pressuring Young, because when he entered the league as a fourth-round pick from Purdue, he was mostly seen a pass-rush specialist. But when Chargers linebacker Steve Foley suffered career-ending injuries in a shooting before the 2006 season, Phillips became an every-down linebacker. He's still great at rushing the passer, but based on Sunday's game, I wouldn't have thought he was once a pure pass rusher; I didn't detect any deficiencies against the run or dropping into coverage.

Slamming Young to the ground on that pass rush was one of many hard hits Phillips laid out on some of the Titans on Sunday, but I was more impressed with the form of his tackles than the ferocity. On the first play of the fourth quarter Phillips burst through the line of scrimmage to tackle White for a loss of three yards, and while it was a big hit, what made it special is that he made his initial contact with his shoulder pads and wrapped his arms around White's lower body, the way high school coaches teach players to tackle.

If there's a mistake Phillips makes, it's in being aggressive to the point where he takes himself out of plays. On a third-and-10, the Chargers went to a four-man line with Phillips lined up as the left defensive end. The play was a screen to fullback Ahmard Hall, and when Phillips rushed straight past Hall and tried to sack Young, Young easily lobbed the pass to Hall for a gain of 16 yards. A more experienced player might have seen the screen coming and dropped back into coverage.

Playing against the Colts' offense is a lot harder than playing against the Titans' offense, and if Phillips can be burned on screen passes from Vince Young to Ahmard Hall, it seems fair to say that he could also be burned on screen passes from Peyton Manning to Joseph Addai. But if Phillips can avoid taking himself out of plays like that, and if he otherwise plays against Indianapolis the way he played against Tennessee, he'll make life difficult for the Colts.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 09 Jan 2008

19 comments, Last at 14 Jan 2008, 7:37am by lobolafcadio

Comments

1
by Greg (not verified) :: Wed, 01/09/2008 - 11:58am

Wow. First!

Enjoyed the article, MDS. Merriman gets more attention, but Phillips is every bit as dangerous to an offense.

2
by lobolafcadio (not verified) :: Wed, 01/09/2008 - 12:33pm

Landry thrice "read" the QB in the backfield. The first two times, he intercepted the pass, the third one, he was fooled...
I'm not sure it is such a good thing to read the QB in zone coverage, especially against Manning.

3
by MattB (not verified) :: Wed, 01/09/2008 - 12:51pm

Re Phillips on the screen pass from Manning.

In the previous Chargers Colts game this year Phillips actually tipped a Manning screen pass and deflected it to himself for an interception.

4
by Heef (not verified) :: Wed, 01/09/2008 - 1:09pm

If so much depends on reading the QB's eyes, why don't any of them wear the shaded visors?

5
by MJK (not verified) :: Wed, 01/09/2008 - 1:37pm

Re 4:

Are they allowed to? I thought only players with some kine of medical reason were allowed to wear visors (e.g. they had suffered an eye injury in the past). I've noticed Terry Glenn and LdT wearing visors, but almost no-one else.

6
by NewsToTom (not verified) :: Wed, 01/09/2008 - 1:45pm

Re #4
Shaded visors aren't part of the standard NFL equipment. You have to apply for a waiver to be able to wear one. LT apparently has a medical condition that gives him migraines in bright sunlight, which is why he has a waiver to wear the shaded visor. So, maybe you should look for a QB who gets migraines in bright light for the competitive advantage.

7
by lagfish (not verified) :: Wed, 01/09/2008 - 1:49pm

Does LT have a waiver for the Darth Vader facemask? That has to be a custom job right?

8
by Carlos (not verified) :: Wed, 01/09/2008 - 2:37pm

Really nice article.

And I know you know you were nitpicking on the screen pass comment, but I want to emphasize what a nitpick that is. W/o knowing Phillips assignment on that play, the best assumption is that he's supposed to rush the QB upfield as hard as possible. Screen coverage would go the ILB, CB and Safeties. It's pure gravy if your down lineman jumps and deflects or otherwise interferes w/ the screen.

9
by Bobman (not verified) :: Wed, 01/09/2008 - 2:52pm

#3 Matt, eh, so what? Who DIDN'T intercept Manning in that game. SD had fewer drops than Indy.

10
by Jonathan (not verified) :: Wed, 01/09/2008 - 3:23pm

Great article! I'm stoked to see the Chargers in the playoffs because I finally get to read some quality articles about them (being a west coast team, they don't get a whole lotta play during the regular season ;)

When Phillips originally replaced Foley, it took just a couple of games for my dad and I to agree that Foley was never gonna play for the Bolts again; #95 is just too good!

I agree that his eagerness to get to the ball can sometimes seem negative, especially when he gets called for offsides, but he's been much better about that this season; besides, I'd rather have a guy hungry for the ball, than one who gets a late jump at the snap!

Again, great article!
Go Bolts!

11
by Heef (not verified) :: Wed, 01/09/2008 - 4:20pm

5: I'll make some phone calls, and see if I can get Wilfork to stick his finger in Brady's eye. ;) (Yes, I'm a Pats fan.)

5 and 6: Thanks - that does clear it up.

12
by Boston Dan (not verified) :: Wed, 01/09/2008 - 4:32pm

I'm very happy to see this article. As I recall it, Phillips was the only player to "make a play" on defense for the Chargers in the first half.

13
by bubqr (not verified) :: Wed, 01/09/2008 - 5:50pm

#2

That's why pressure comes into play. Hasselbeck shouldn't have had time to read, pump fake, then go to his 2nd option. And on a Cover 2 play, 4 seams is one of the best play, so Landry was basically screwed. Either you stay in the zone, give up a probable 1st down and make the tackle, or go for the big play.

14
by seth (not verified) :: Wed, 01/09/2008 - 6:15pm

excellent article. it makes sense that the one game that phillips missed this year was the vikings game in week 9, and the chargers gave up 35 points and lost 35-17.

15
by Jon Coit (not verified) :: Wed, 01/09/2008 - 7:31pm

12: Merriman (who is most often blocked by the LT and an RB) forced a key fumble in the first quarter, which Phillips recovered. Teams still game-plan around Merriman, but he (like the Chargers O-line) has not stepped up his game to compensate. No team in the league tries to block Merriman with only a TE. Phillips is a great player (I saw the one handed tackle from the nosebleeds at Qualcomm and flipped the heck out) who benefits from the attention to Merriman.

16
by andrew b. lee (not verified) :: Wed, 01/09/2008 - 8:35pm

merriman and phillips are both great athletes and a great rush-linebacking tandem, but they are different types of athletes. i think in terms of strength merriman probably has the edge, because on running plays i see him holding his ground against linemen and fighting off the blocks. on pass-rushes he's very good at using leverage and lowering his shoulder so that the tackle doesn't have much to grab onto. so that means he has very good strength and good speed.

phillips has a slitheriness (not sure if that's a word) that merriman doesn't have, but the lack of doesn't make merriman less affeective, it's just a contrast in pass-rushing styles. phillips is more likely to juke and cut while merriman may bull-rush on occasion.

17
by lobolafcadio (not verified) :: Fri, 01/11/2008 - 8:46am

Very little love for this thread.
To have more comments, a simple way would be to write this :
[PatTroll mode]
Phillips was a no-factor against the Pats, indeed, no LB can penetrate our OL, and even if the LB can penetrate, our QB is so good he would just throw it to his hot-receiver. There's no way to stop us.
[/PatTroll mode]
or
[Troll mode]
If the Pats meet the Chargers in the AFCCG, they would have to worry about the intense pressure Phillips can bring on Brady.
[/Troll mode]
That would generate discussion...

18
by Matt Saracen - QB1 - Dillon Panthers (not verified) :: Sun, 01/13/2008 - 9:40pm

A valiant attempt, but no bites I'm afraid. Let's see how he really does next weekend, I'm personally hoping he has a HUGE game.

19
by lobolafcadio (not verified) :: Mon, 01/14/2008 - 7:37am

So do I... :o)