THE PLAYERS LOOK FAMILIAR, BUT THIS IS NOT THE SAME BRONCOS DEFENSE: WADE PHILLIPS HAS TURNED A TALENTED GROUP INTO THE NFL'S SCARIEST UNIT WITH HIS TRUSTY (AND WELL-TRAVELED) POINT-AND-SHOOT SCHEME. TAKE NOTE, TOM BRADY—DENVER IS READY TO BRING THE PLAIN
BY THE TIME you read this you will have no doubt heard a week's worth of questioning and armchair quarterbacking about Sunday's Patriots-Broncos showdown in Denver. Why isn't Peyton Manning facing Tom Brady for a 17th time? Is Manning really hurt? Or is it just his pride that's reeling? Are his rib and foot injuries merely giving coach Gary Kubiak cover to go with the quarterback, Brock Osweiler, who can best run his offense?
In reality, Kubiak probably doesn't care much which QB starts. He knows the identity of his team comes from coordinator Wade Phillips's relentless, in-your-face defense. Denver is so good on that side of the ball this season—eight of 10 opposing QBs have been held to a single passing TD or less; in only one game has a foe rushed for multiple TDs—that it might not matter which QB Kubiak sends out on Sunday.
If you've followed Phillips's long and winding career—earning his master's degree in football from his legendary father, Bum; crossing paths with some of the game's greatest minds, from Bear Bryant to Bill Yeoman—this should come as no surprise. The proud East Texas native may appear as if he just fell off the turnip truck (the aw-shucks attitude and lingering twang, the Kris Kringle physique and tussled, snow-white hair), but that belies the truth, that he should be mentioned as one of the NFL's top defensive minds.
Phillips's track record speaks for itself. Since leaving the Eagles, where for three years he coordinated Buddy Ryan's defense, following the 1988 season, Phillips has immediately improved every unit he's been a part of in terms of points and yards allowed. Whether it was the Broncos the first time around ('89--94), the Bills (1995--2000), the Falcons ('02--03), the Chargers ('04--06), the Cowboys ('07--10), the Texans ('11--13) or, now, back in Denver, Phillips has been the man for any team in need of an instant fix.
"Wade does a great job of instilling confidence in his players," says Patrick Kerney, a retired All-Pro defensive end who blossomed under Phillips's guidance in Atlanta. "This stems less from his great track record (nine times his defenses have ranked in the Top 5 in yards allowed) than from his ability to project a sincere belief in his guys. We couldn't help but want to go out there every day and work to validate his opinion of us."
And the fact is, these Broncos needed a change on defense, even if that wasn't apparent. Denver's coordinator over the past three years, Jack Del Rio (whom the Raiders hired as their coach in the off-season), employed a scheme that worked just fine, especially when buttressed by a historically explosive offense. And he got results; Denver was No. 3 in yards allowed last season, No. 16 in points. But his defense lacked imagination and, more important, came up short against the best quarterbacks, including Brady. In nine games between his stints in Denver and Jacksonville (where he was previously the head coach), Del Rio beat Brady only once. And that lone victory came in the AFC championship game following the 2013 season, where Manning led the highest-scoring offense of the modern era and Brady made do with the likes of Matthew Mulligan and Michael Hoomanawanui.
Phillips's track record against Brady (1--5) isn't much better, but to be fair, it would look a lot healthier had the Chargers' Marlon McCree not fumbled away a late fourth-down interception that should have buried the Pats in the 2006 divisional playoffs.
History aside, Phillips has never battled Brady with a defense this strong on all three levels. Up front, Denver brings the twin-terror pass-rushing duo of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, who have combined for 12½ sacks (that despite Ware's two-game absence for a back problem). They are aided inside by linemen Malik Jackson, Sylvester Williams and Antonio Smith (nine combined sacks). Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan are excellent run-and-hit linebackers, and strong safety T.J. Ward is a physical playmaker. In back there may not be a better corner duo in the NFL than Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr., who have turned their in-your-face man coverage into three pick-sixes. Second-year nickelback Bradley Roby has the look of a future No. 1 press corner, and David Bruton is underrated as a do-everything defensive back.
"We believe we have the mix to compete with anybody in this league," says Marshall. "That's where [Phillips has] our confidence level."
And that shows on paper. Through Sunday, the Broncos rank first in the NFL in total defense (284.3 yards per game), pass defense (190.6), points allowed (18.3) and total sacks (34); second in opposing passer rating (74.2); and seventh in rushing defense (93.7). Now imagine how that might look if Denver's offense wasn't tied for 25th in the league with 1.9 giveaways per game and wasn't rated dead last in Football Outsiders' formula, which factors in opponent and league averages.
In short, the Broncos' defense has been playing with an offensive piano strapped to its back this season. And still it has flourished.
Here's the thing: Phillips has done that with nearly the same personnel Del Rio had. "The same players," says Marshall. "You look at [how the] stats jumped.... I think that's a testament to Wade."
THE DIFFERENCES between Del Rio's scheme in Denver and Phillips's approach under Kubiak are fairly simple. For the most part, Del Rio ran a two-gap, 4--3/3--4 hybrid predicated on linemen occupying blockers by playing the gaps on either side of them, especially on early downs. Coverages varied, but there wasn't a lot of the in-the-receiver's-grill press-man that today's defenses use to thwart precision passers, and there was hardly any blitzing. The Broncos ranked 26th in the league last year with a 22.8 blitz percentage, according to Pro Football Focus.
By contrast, Phillips employs a 3--4, one-gap system, which allows players to be aggressive and penetrate holes. He also sends an extra rusher about 40% of the time, fourth-most in the NFL. Phillips is not afraid to put Talib and Harris in bump-and-run coverage all over the field.
The beauty in Phillips's scheme—and the reason his units have instant success with it—is that it isn't very complicated. By keeping things simple, players don't have to think as much as they did under Del Rio, and they can play faster. "[Today's] offenses are so complicated, it's amazing," says Phillips. "If you try to match that as a defense, you're going to get confused. I've always thought: If a guy thinks [his task] is easy to do, he will play better."
"Wade uses his guys' abilities more than he's looking to outscheme a team," says Ware, who knows his coach better than anyone on the Broncos' defense after playing for him in Dallas for four years. "He's more about man-on-man—this is what we're doing, these are the checks we need to make. Mentally, that makes things a lot more simple. From a physical standpoint, it allows you to key on tendencies and what the opponent is doing. It brings out more of the killer instinct in a guy."
It also tends to make opposing QBs feel like they're under constant pressure, and that should be particularly helpful against Brady on Sunday. In Week 9 against the Patriots last year, the Broncos fell behind 27--7 but had a chance to make things interesting in the second half when Denver's first drive cut the deficit to 13. A third-and-eight play with 9:52 left in the third quarter, however, illustrates why Del Rio's scheme had a hard time with a cerebral quarterback like Brady and, ultimately, why Denver was doomed.
With the Patriots in trips right, the Broncos gave a zone look with two deep safeties. Each of the cornerbacks was between five and seven yards off his receiver. On the snap, Denver rushed its usual four linemen and moved into a Cover 3 zone, with the two outside corners and the free safety playing conservatively deep on top of the receivers. Brady easily identified the coverage, scrambled to his right and hit Danny Amendola in a huge void between four defenders—21 yards and a first down en route to a field goal that stretched the lead back to 16.
Phillips will not make life that easy for Brady. The last time he faced the Patriots was during the 2013 season when, despite being in the middle of a 14-game losing streak that would get Phillips and his coach (Kubiak) fired, his Texans lost, barely, 34--31. With New England facing third-and-two on Houston's 35-yard line with 3:20 remaining and the score tied, the Texans had four defenders standing within four yards of the line of scrimmage and two down linemen. They played press-man coverage against the two slot receivers, and played off-man coverage on the outside, with one deep safety. At the snap, Phillips sent an extra rusher to force Brady into a quick decision. With man coverage against every receiver, Brady threw a near-perfect pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski, but it was broken up by Brandon Harris, who was playing aggressively as a linebacker in Houston's sub package.
Del Rio played Brady conservatively. Phillips pressed the issue by speeding up the quarterback.
"I love Del Rio because he gave me my first opportunity in this league, but his scheme is read-and-react; you have to think a little," says Marshall. "Wade calls a simple defense. There's not a whole lot of thinking; we're able to just go. He allows us to play extremely fast and extremely aggressive."
"I think we're put in better spots this year," says Jackson. "Del Rio had a good defense—I just think this one fits us better."
WATCHING PHILLIPS'S defense in action—the way it bullied Bears quarterback Jay Cutler on Sunday into an interception, two sacks and a crucial fumble—you would think that he leads aggressively, gets after his players. That's not the case. Phillips, says Marshall, isn't a "rah-rah guy." Jackson points out that the coach likes to start off meetings with a joke, to put his players at ease. Phillips doesn't batter his players in film sessions, but he does hold them accountable.
"He's not going to dog-cuss you," says Jackson, "but he demands high play."
"He has a quiet demeanor, but he displays tenacity in the plays he calls," adds Ware. "Instead of talking a good game, he shows it."
Phillips's instant impact at every stop in his career has been undeniable. But so is the fact that over time his units have regressed. It's the double-edged sword of simplicity: He gets quick results, but that newness wears off and his players aren't always challenged enough mentally. "Some of the guys got bored with [his defense] after his second season," says one former player under Phillips who wishes to remain anonymous. That would explain, in part, why such a successful coach could be on his ninth stop with eight different teams, and why he didn't have a job in 2014.
But Phillips is back and on top of his game with these Broncos. Considering Peyton Manning's ticking clock and the collection of talent on Denver's defense (five starters are playing with expiring contracts), the coordinator's quick-burning flame might have met the perfect situation. And on Sunday night, even with all the attention on the quarterbacks, it might just be his defense that burns brightest.
DENVER'S D HAS BEEN PLAYING WITH AN OFFENSIVE PIANO STRAPPED TO ITS BACK: 25TH IN GIVEAWAYS AND RATED DEAD LAST BY FOOTBALL OUTSIDERS.
TWO PHOTOSNFL GAME PASS
The difference between Phillips (whose Houston D took on Brady in 2013, left) and his predecessor, Del Rio (whose unit conceded a big catch to Amendola in '14, right): Phillips is more likely to go after the QB and press the Pats' WRs at the line. Del Rio was inclined to sit back and scheme.
Photograph by David E. Klutho For Sports Illustrated
BRONCS, CHEER! Denver hasn't seen a D this stingy since the Orange Crush: The Broncos' 6.4 scrimmage yards allowed per touch are a 37-year team low.
DAVID E. KLUTHO FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (PHILLIPS)