by Cian Fahey
Wade Phillips' value could be seen last Sunday.
Phillips took over as the Denver Broncos' defensive coordinator before the start of this season. He succeeded Jack Del Rio, who had departed to become the head coach of the Oakland Raiders. Del Rio had done a solid job with the Broncos' defense. He understood how to put his players in best position to succeed and called plays that suited his available personnel. His Broncos ranked in the top five of DVOA, third against the run and fifth against the pass. Phillips inherited the stars that had established that standard, and elevated the unit as a whole to another level. During Phillips' first season, the Broncos finished as the top ranked defense by DVOA and the top ranked pass defense by a huge margin.
The difference between Del Rio and Phillips came in Phillips' ability to adjust to specific opponents. Without Phillips, the Broncos would not have been able to smother the New England Patriots' offense in the AFC Championship Game.
In that game, Tom Brady threw the ball 56 times for 310 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. On the few occasions the Patriots attempted to run the ball, they couldn't find any space. In fact, Brady himself had the longest run of the game with a rare 11-yard scramble. The Patriots ultimately scored 18 points, with one of those touchdowns coming on a short field after a turnover. In the fourth quarter, the Broncos stopped the Patriots' offense on fourth down twice before making the game-deciding stop on a two-point conversion attempt. The Broncos' offense couldn't score to secure the lead, making each of those plays decisive. Even when the Patriots scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter, they did so by taking advantage of the Broncos' injuries at both safety positions.
The critical moments of the game were mostly decided by the players involved, but the overall performance of the unit was set up by Phillips' play calling. Phillips understood how to keep the Patriots off balance. He disguised his pass rushes while not being so aggressive that he exposed his defensive backs in space. Phillips understood that the Patriots didn't want to run and that they didn't have the offensive linemen to counter the Broncos' individual pass rushers.
Stylistically, the Broncos defense was a perfect matchup for the Patriots offense. In the Super Bowl, that won't be the case. Not only are the Panthers a tougher matchup for the best defense in the NFL, they run a polar opposite offense in terms of style. There aren't two offenses in the NFL who are less alike than the Patriots and Panthers.
Where the Patriots center their offense around a quick, short passing game, the Panthers primarily want to run through or around you. The Panthers possess the most diverse and dangerous rushing attack in the NFL because of Jonathan Stewart and Cam Newton. Stewart has been one of the best backs in the NFL this year, while no other quarterback can offer a dimension as a ball carrier like Newton. When the Panthers look to throw the ball, they often use max protections and encourage Newton to hold onto the ball so they can throw downfield. He holds the ball so his receivers have time to come open, whereas the Patriots relied on their receivers to get open quickly so Brady could get rid of the ball.
Phillips has two weeks to figure out how to stop an offense that steamrolled its two most recent opponents.
Playing a heavy dose of Cover-2 against the Panthers would only entice them to run the ball. Instead, it makes more sense for the Broncos to drop T.J. Ward into the box and show more Cover-3 looks. The Panthers stretch defenses horizontally with counter and option runs. It's easier to contain those runs when you have an eighth defender in the box. Defenses have attempted to contain the Panthers' running game by doing this all season, but player execution has let them down. Phillips doesn't have a dominant nose tackle on which he can rely, so he needs to emphasize gap integrity and stop the Panthers with leverage from his defensive line and penetration from his linebackers.
Earlier this season, Dick LeBeau's Tennessee Titans defense did a good job against the Panthers' running game. The Panthers still managed to be productive on the day, but that was more about the caliber of player available to the Titans rather than LeBeau's approach.
The Panthers will pull different players across their formations to attack different points of the defense. It's clear that their most dangerous puller is right guard Trai Turner, who is having an outstanding season. He is a big body who can move and comfortably play in space. In the above play, he is going to act as Jonathan Stewart's lead blocker as he pulls away from the line of scrimmage at the snap. While Turner is departing his initial positioning, the Panthers leave the center one-on-one with the nose tackle and double both defensive ends in the Titans' 3-4 front. This leaves the outside linebackers completely unblocked for the moment.
It's impossible to know what the Panthers are going to do at this early stage in the play because Newton has so many options in this alignment. Both outside linebackers can only advance downfield with caution, while the interior linebackers wait to read the action in front of them.
Both outside linebackers put themselves in position to contain the play. Both can set the edge while the inside linebackers look to read Turner and Stewart's actions between the tackles. With Michael Griffin (33) in the box as an extra defender, the Titans' inside linebackers don't need to be overly concerned with covering a cutback. Griffin is coming from a deeper alignment, but he is close enough to meet the running back at the line of scrimmage if he redirects. Turner is going to block Brian Orakpo (98) on the edge. Stewart is expecting to run behind him, so this makes Orakpo irrelevant. Wesley Woodyard (59) who is coincidentally a former Broncos player, plays this run perfectly. He recognizes the double-team and sees Turner pulling his way. He knows he has another inside linebacker to his left and a safety outside of him, so he can attack the gap that develops in front of him.
In using a double-team to clamp down on the right defensive end, the Panthers were putting a lot of pressure on the tight end who lined up in the backfield. He is now responsible for Woodyard, but he has a lot of ground to cover to execute a successful block. He is reliant on Woodyard being hesitant because of the action around him.
The Panthers had tried to double-team Jurrell Casey (99), the Titans' best defender. Importantly, Casey doesn't get washed away by the double-team. He holds his position and is then free to work towards the running back when one of the two blockers advances downfield to pick up the other inside linebacker. At the same time, Woodyard is meeting the pulling tight end behind the line of scrimmage. The two defenders combine to shut down all of the space in front of Stewart and force him to stop his feet behind the line of scrimmage. Stewart can still create yards from this position because he is a hugely talented runner, but this is exactly where the defense wants to trap the ballcarrier.
It's not enough to get to this point in the play against the Panthers. Because they have so many options in their running game and can run from so many different looks with so many different ballcarriers, you also have to get to this point while accounting for other options. The safety and left outside linebacker have contained the cutback lane and are in position to play Newton if he had held onto the ball.
Unless the Broncos can escape into an unexpected lead, Phillips' defense will be under pressure to play disciplined, physical run defense all game. He will have to commit bodies to the run even though the Panthers can beat you throwing the ball just as effectively.
Newton is likely going to win the MVP award, and not just because of how he runs the ball. He has developed into a superstar quarterback who excels throwing the ball and breaking down defenses mentally. He is patient in the pocket with the ability to make subtle or decisive movements to negate pressure. It will be tougher for the Broncos to pressure Newton than it was to pressure Brady, not because Newton has a better offensive line, but because of how the Panthers scheme their protections and how Newton naturally takes away the Broncos' ability to be aggressive off the edges. Whenever the Broncos rush Newton, they need to maintain gap integrity like they would on a running play because of how dangerous a scrambler Newton is.
Many defenses have relied on zone coverages behind blitzes so their defenders can keep their eyes on Newton when the play breaks down. This strategy has not worked so well over the course of the season because Newton is extremely patient and he has fast receivers who can take advantage of the free releases and space they are afforded on these types of plays. To best contain the Panthers' receivers, you need to press them at the line of scrimmage aggressively. This is dangerous, because it means cornerbacks must take their eyes away from the quarterback as well as potential running plays. Phillips is a smart defensive coordinator, though. He will understand that nothing comes without risk against this offense and he will have seen what the Panthers have done to zone coverages over recent games.
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Against the Patriots, it's best to play two deep safeties with man coverage underneath. You can make the quarterback either hold the ball or force it into tight windows while unleashing your pass rushers. Against the Panthers, you ideally want to give more help to the pass rush without creating an imbalance in your coverage. This should lead the Broncos to a five-man rush with man coverage and one deep safety behind it. In the above GIF, an example of this type of play call can be seen from the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. The Cardinals couldn't rely on this type of play because they didn't have the cornerbacks to run with the Panthers' receivers outside.
As inconsistent as the Panthers receivers can be, Ted Ginn, Corey Brown, and Devin Funchess can each consistently get open on vertical routes. Unlike the Cardinals or even the Seattle Seahawks, the Broncos have two boundary cornerbacks who can run with the Panthers' receivers. Both Bradley Roby and Aqib Talib should be able to play effective press coverage against whomever the Panthers send outside.
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When relying on man coverage against the Panthers, it's imperative that your pass rush is disciplined to keep Newton in the pocket. It's inevitable that the quarterback's athleticism will have an impact on the game, but the key is to limit that impact. The above GIF is a different angle of the same play from Sunday. The Cardinals are aggressive in pursuit of the quarterback, and they use stunts to attack the protection, yet they still contain Newton. This is where the design of the rush is important, as well as the numbers sent. Newton doesn't have anywhere to go because the pressure is consistent from every angle.
The Broncos showed last week that they can penetrate the pocket from any gap, but they have to be more consistent and disciplined in their rush if they are to do to Newton what they did to Brady.
Regardless of how the Super Bowl goes, Wade Phillips has already reiterated his quality as a defensive coordinator. It's that quality that made it so surprising that he was unemployed in 2014. Phillips had previously inherited one of the worst defenses in the NFL, that of the 2010 Houston Texans, and turned it into a unit that ranked sixth, fourth, and 18th in DVOA over his three seasons with the franchise. Even though the unit dropped off in his third season, it didn't make much sense that Phillips wasn't working somewhere. Phillips himself took a moment to remind everyone of his year out after beating the Patriots this week:
Good year for me from unemployed to the Super Bowl!
— Wade Phillips (@sonofbum) January 25, 2016
It's a moment he quite clearly deserved.