Wade Phillips’s tenure as head coach in Buffalo and Dallas may not have ended well, but he is well-regarded as a defensive coordinator, and rightfully so: in six of the last seven years, defenses that Phillips has been in charge of have finished ranked in the top 10 in the league.
His units are always near the top of the league in sacks, are frequently stingy on third down, make it tough to run, and don’t surrender many points.
Despite all that, the Patriots don’t often struggle offensively when he is on the opposing sideline, and they hope that continues Sunday when they host the Texans in the playoffs.
Last month’s win over Houston was the third straight victory for New England against a Phillips-coached defense, going back to his days with the Chargers.
Call it the Norv Turner Effect. Whenever Bill Belichick was getting ready to face Turner’s Chargers, he invariably would be complimentary of the team and then say that Turner’s offense — which he’d carried with him through previous stops in San Francisco, Oakland, Washington, and other organizations — does what it does.
Against other teams Turner’s offense had success. Against Belichick’s Patriots the Chargers weren’t able to score more than three touchdowns in four of five meetings with New England during Turner’s tenure. Belichick had Turner figured out.
So it is with a Phillips defense, or at least it seems.
Heading into the game with Houston Dec. 10, Belichick was asked about Phillips and what characteristics his defenses have. Belichick said the coordinator has kept his system the same through all of his recent coaching stops.
“It’s not a myriad of formations and different personnel groupings and all that. They basically have the same guys on the field for a high percentage of the time. This isn’t the most complicated team we’ve ever seen but what they do, they do well,” Belichick said. “They have a lot of multiples and variables but it’s contained within the system. They do it every week; you have to deal with it every week.”
Which sounds quite a bit like what Belichick would say about Turner’s offense.
When Houston arrived at Gillette Stadium for Monday Night Football, the Texans had one of the best all-around defenses in the NFL: allowing 18.4 points per game (fourth in the league), 332.6 total yards (sixth), 87.6 rushing yards (second), and a third-down conversion rate of 28.4 percent (first).
All Tom Brady & Co. did was carve up Houston for 42 points, 419 total yards, and 130 rushing yards, converting half of their 12 third-down opportunities.
It was a similar result in 2007, when Phillips, then with the Cowboys, and Patriots met for a Week 6 regular-season game of epic proportions — both teams came into the game at 5-0, and it was hyped to no end, with then-Dallas receiver Terrell Owens calling himself “the original 81,” a shot at Randy Moss, who was wearing No. 81 with New England, and telling fans to get their popcorn ready.
The only thing that wasn’t ready, apparently, was Phillips’s defense. Dallas had allowed an average of 285 yards to its first five opponents, and the Patriots came in to Texas Stadium and rolled up 448 yards, with Brady completing two-thirds of his passes for 388 yards, five touchdowns, and no interceptions.
New England won, 48-27.
In 2006, Phillips was the coordinator for a 14-2 Chargers team that had rolled to the top seed in the AFC when New England arrived in San Diego for a divisional-round matchup.
Brady had to make do that season with a second-rate group of receivers and wasn’t in command of an offense like the ones we’ve become accustomed to seeing the last five or six years.
Statistically, the difference wasn’t that stark between what the Chargers had allowed and what the Patriots totaled that day, but the fact remained that a defense that had totaled 61 sacks and averaged nearly two turnovers per game that year couldn’t hold onto the lead — or a game-sealing interception — in the closing minutes.
Some of the problem for Phillips and his defenses simply could be playing against one of the best quarterbacks of this or any generation.
But in a fight of strength against strength, Brady against Phillips’s D, shouldn’t the results be more back and forth? The last time the Brady and Patriots lost to Phillips was Week 4 in 2005, when the Chargers came to Gillette and won, 41-17.