In case you haven’t been paying attention to league-wide news over the course of the last month, Wade Phillips has been named the new defensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams.
During a Friday media session, Phillips made it known that he plans to switch the Rams from a 4-3 defense to his favored 3-4 scheme. He apparently noted, however, that the switch is just semantics.
“You can call it a 5-2,” Phillips said, according to Greg Beacham of the Associated Press. “It’s an odd-man front, which you can play in a 4-3.”
Phillips went on to explain why he likes to play a 3-4 defense instead of a 4-3.
“This has happened a few times, where I’ll take over a 4-3 and go to a 3-4,” Phillips said, according to Mark Whicker of The Orange County Register. “But the 3-4 is better. You’re normally bringing four pass rushers. In a 4-3, that means all the linemen. In a 3-4, that’s three linemen plus a linebacker, but you don’t know which linebacker is coming. That causes some confusion and gives the defensive backs a better chance. Nowadays it’s all about stopping the passing game.”
What’s even more interesting is that Phillips plans on playing more man-coverage in Los Angeles than zone and here is what he said about that.
“We’ve led the league playing all zone, or all man. I prefer man because it’s harder to throw against it for a good percentage,” Philips said. “But we also play a lot of matchup zone, which looks like something it’s not.”
The matchup zone that Phillips is referring to can also be called pattern-matching and the Rams new defensive coordinator attempted to describe the basics of that ahead of Super Bowl 50 between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers.
“We play a matchup zone and people think it’s man-to-man,” Phillips said just over a year ago, according to Nicki Jhabvala of the Denver Post. “Then we play man-to-man and we play some basic zone. We say, ‘Hey, you’re playing this zone, but when a guy comes over there, you match with him. You pass it off, just like in basketball. When another guy comes there, you go there.’ We play a lot of match zone, but people think we’re playing man-to-man. Hopefully that confuses them. It probably confused you already.”
So, how is all of this relevant to the Pittsburgh Steelers? In short, while Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler did use some pattern-matching during the 2016 season, I don’t believe we saw a whole lot of it and especially not in the AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots. Butler relied heavily on traditional spot-dropping zone coverage in that game and we all know that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady easily carved that up.
The predominant theory behind Butler not using more man and pattern matching against the Patriots is because of the youth in the Steelers secondary that included two rookies in cornerback Artie Burns and safety Sean Davis.
Now, will we see Butler use more pattern-matching (matchup zone) from the Steelers defense in 2017? One can only hope that’s the case and especially when the Steelers play Brady and the Patriots during the regular season.
Now, just because I have built Phillips up in this post doesn’t mean that his past defenses haven’t had problems against Brady in the past. During the 2012 regular season when Phillips was the defensive coordinator of the Houston Texans, Brady passed for 296 yards and 4 touchdowns in 42-14 Patriots win. That same year during the playoffs, Brady passed for 344 yards and 3 touchdowns in 41-28 Patriots win. And during the 2013 regular season, Brady passed for 371 yards and 2 touchdowns against a Phillips coached defense in a 34-31 Patriots win.
Conversely, Phillips has had success recently against the Patriots even though Brady posted some fairly decent numbers. During the 2015 regular season, Brady passed for 280 yards and 3 touchdowns in the Patriots 30-24 loss to the Broncos, whose defense was run by Phillips. During the 2015 playoffs, Phillips’ defense still allowed Brady to pass for 310 yards and a touchdown in the Broncos 20-18 win. In case you forgot, the Broncos defense intercepted Brady twice in that game along with sacking him four times and registering 17 quarterback hits. Perhaps that’s the game Butler really needs to go back and watch closely again.
I think you can clearly see that despite his two most recent wins over the Patriots that Phillips has had his share of problems against Brady over the years even though he’s one of the best defensive minds currently in the league. Fortunately for him and the Rams, they won’t have to play the Patriots in 2017 unless the two teams meet in Super Bowl LII. The Steelers, as previously mentioned, won’t be as lucky.
You can see some of Phillips’ Friday talk with the media here.