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.