Ryan, Phillips as different as they come

Jan. 21, 2011

On the surface, new Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan sounds a lot like the old defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips.

Both are considered masters of the 3-4 defense. Both have reputations for being able to improve a defense. Both are said to run aggressive defenses — although have you ever had a defense described as passive? And both have fathers who were famous NFL coaches.

The similarities pretty much end there.

Ryan’s hire was done in stealth mode. He was reported to be working at the Cowboys’ Valley Ranch practice facility for several days before the club finally issued a press release announcing he’d been hired.

That’s just the way Ryan likes it. He loves to keep ’em guessing, especially opposing quarterbacks.

While Phillips seemed to telegraph his blitzes, Ryan’s defense in Cleveland gave quarterbacks fits trying to figure out how many linemen and linebackers would be rushing, and from where.

His players would move around prior to the snap and gave quarterbacks several different looks to ponder. Sometimes, just one lineman would have his hand on the ground while everyone else rushed from a standing position.

About this “aggressive” style: Anyone who watched Phillips’ defenses in Dallas allow long drive after long drive could see that the Cowboys weren’t aggressive. Oh, they blitzed some, but rarely effectively, and they certainly didn’t create many turnovers.

The Cowboys’ defense under Phillips seemed to be based on hoping DeMarcus Ware, or little buddy Anthony Spencer, could generate enough of a pass rush to cause havoc.

That’s a Phillips trademark — allowing a talented defensive end to produce a lot of sacks.

Prior to Phillips’ arrival, the knock on the Cowboys’ defense was that it couldn’t get sacks. Phillips, the self-described Mr. Fix-It, did repair that area of the defense.

But as we saw in the second half of the season when Paul Pasqualoni took over the defense, Phillips’ stubborn resistance to change held the unit back in many ways. With just a few tweaks by Pasqualoni, including more zone coverage, the defense suddenly started generating turnovers.

Teams still scored points in bunches against the Cowboys, but it’s Ryan’s job to fix that weakness. He will attempt to do it by using a balance of deception and true aggressiveness.

First, it must be understood that there are many variations of the 3-4 defense. Ryan’s 3-4 won’t look a lot like Phillips’ 3-4.

For one thing, Phillips used a one-gap system in which linemen lined up over a particular gap in the offensive line. Ryan prefers a two-gap system, where linemen line up directly over an opponent and can attack either side, or gap.

The two-gap requires linemen to occupy their blockers longer, while the one-gap is more conducive to linemen penetrating. One of the big stories of training camp will be how nose tackle Jay Ratliff adapts to the Ryan scheme. Ratliff is considered small for his position but is known for his ability to get pressure up the middle.

The Ryan clan is known for its aggressive defenses. First it was father Buddy, who created the “46” defense in Chicago. Brother Rex, the Jets’ head coach, also loves to apply pressure. His defense confused and frustrated Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in last week’s divisional playoff win. The week before, the Jets’ defense toppled Peyton Manning and the Colts.

The Jets’ playoff run is similar to what the Browns accomplished this season when two of their five wins were back-to-back defeats of the Saints’ Drew Brees and Manning.

One advantage Rex Ryan has with the Jets is a pair of top-flight corners in Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. Those two allow Rex Ryan to take a lot of chances up front.

Rob Ryan probably won’t have that luxury, unless Cowboys corners Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins bounce back from rough seasons in 2010. Of course, often the reason Newman and Jenkins struggled was because the Cowboys’ safeties were below-average.

Rob Ryan loves to blitz, and to blitz in a variety of unconventional ways. That’s what an aggressive defense does. But to do so, he will have to find a way to get better play out of his secondary.

That’s where the other main difference between Ryan and Phillips should show up: personality. While Phillips asked his players to play and practice with a sense of urgency, Ryan will demand it.

Phillips is an older-generation NFL coach who expects professionals to act like professionals. He earned his players’ respect by treating them like men, unlike predecessor Bill Parcells, who constantly nagged and needled them and felt his respect had to be earned.

Ryan, from all accounts, doesn’t concern himself with such things. He’s bold, brash, fiery, competitive and extremely confident. Will that be enough to restore some swagger to the Cowboys’ defense? Only time will tell, but Ryan’s personality will be reflected in the defense, one way or another.