How did Phillips' 3-4 work in Houston?

How did Phillips' 3-4 work in Houston?

Published Jan. 11, 2012 8:42 a.m. ET

Wade Phillips and the Texans installed an entirely new scheme to their personnel and found great success in year one.

If I am going to allow the Cowboy's Rob Ryan a mulligan for not having an
offseason program to make sure everyone was comfortable with his scheme, then certainly Houston
could have the same excuse for moving from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense.

In fact, much of the offseason, the narrative in Houston was that they had players — most notably one of the very best players in the NFL Mario Williams — who would not fit the 3-4 scheme. Williams was exceptional as a 4-3 defensive end, but perhaps without a home in Phillips' new scheme. He weighed nearly 300 pounds and as much versatility as the OLB position required, seemed to suggest that this move would have been crazy. But, they tried it with brave faces.

In the Texans' fifth game of the season, at home against the Raiders, Williams got to Jason Campbell for his fifth sack of the year. In doing so, he ripped his left pectoral muscle and was lost for the season. The Houston equivalent of DeMarcus Ware was going on injured reserve, and now Wade Phillips and his staff would have to navigate with both a new scheme and a season-ending injury to their best pass rusher. Surely, everyone said, this would be the start of a very rocky learning experience.

And clearly, nobody knows what they are talking about. Because how do we explain this?

Houston Texans - Defense 2010-2011

Year PPG Vs Sacks Takeaways
2010 26.7 (29th) 30 (23rd) 18 (30th)
2011 17.4 (4th) 44 (6th) 27 (12th)

Not just improvement in every category, but substantial improvement in every category. Now, there are some mitigating circumstances that are beyond their control, such as no meetings against Peyton Manning this year, but that across-the-board improvement shows a team that won 10 games and their division despite losing their quarterback and best defender for the season.

So, how does a team improve in every category like this in one year? Especially when switching to a completely different scheme and having no offseason to work through all of the bugs? And then, losing their best player within one month of the new season?

When Frank Bush was fired at the end of 2010, Pro Football talk wrote the following: there wasn't a soul that watched the Texans defense this season that didn't know that this move was coming. They finished 30th in yards allowed, 29th in points allowed and made quarterbacks from Tim Tebow to Bruce Gradkowski to Kerry Collins look like All-Pros at various points this season. Of course, all those numbers are just part of the reason why this news raises no eyebrows.

It seemed clear to those who did not follow the team closely that adding Wade Phillips and his scheme that helped get him fired in Dallas would end poorly in Houston, too.

And that is when we were reminded again that players play. And when you wonder why a team is as good or bad as it is, you should spend most of your time looking at what kind of players are being put on the field.

Let's look at the same graphic from above to show how Dallas did in 2010-2011.

Dallas Cowboys - Defense 2010-2011

Year PPG Vs Sacks Takeaways
2010 27.3 (31st) 35 (16th) 30 (8th)
2011 21.7 (16th) 42 (7th) 25 (16th)

Perhaps the most important statistic to notice here is that while points allowed and sacks were improved, the Rob Ryan defense generated less takeaways than the 2010 defense that most people agree did not exert much energy in the last half of October and the first part of November.

is what I wrote on the topic of Rob Ryan's 1st season

The Cowboys offered almost no personnel changes in 2011. The marginal swap of Kenyon Coleman for Igor Olshansky at DE (which is one veteran replacement level DE for another) and Abram Elam for Alan Ball which appeared to be an upgrade, albeit a incremental upgrade rather than the big dollar upgrades that were available last summer at safety.

In the draft, they offered little to no defensive support. The one potential impact addition would have been in the 2nd round, but the Cowboys took LB Bruce Carter who was returning from a major knee surgery, and he wouldn't be ready until mid November. Essentially, there was no support at all from the 2011 draft, despite the issues the Cowboys faced in 2010 defensively.

So, everyone was invited back. No free agency strikes. No draft support. No dollar investment in the team aside from discount purchases of players of the Cleveland defense who were not heavily sought after in the league.

But, in the end, I think Rob Ryan did as much with the same defense that he was left with as anyone could reasonably be expected to do with no offseason.

What we need to recognize is that he was not given enough to work with. He still had mediocre secondary personnel and one legit pass rusher. Until that changes, bring in any coordinator you want. They may not be as brash as Rob Ryan, but I don't anticipate that they will be able to make this defense elite, either, until some elite players are brought in.

Put another way, of the top 17 Cowboys defensive players (in terms of snaps taken) that were a part of the 2010 disaster, 15 of them were back on the defense this season. Igor Olshansky (573 snaps) and Stephen Bowen (554) were the only non-returners at defensive end.

The Cowboys tried the ultimate experiment of changing a coach, but keeping the personnel almost static. Everyone was back, and aside from the two Cleveland Browns who were brought over (Elam and Coleman) the Cowboys were believing that Rob Ryan could simply deploy them differently.

Meanwhile in Houston, their defense in 2010 was thought of as an even bigger disaster. They were at the bottom of the league in all sorts of defensive metrics and decided if they were ever going to win their division and compete in the playoffs, they would have to solve their defensive issues.

And as one takes a look at how they became such an impressive defense in one year, there are a few that point to Wade Phillips as the difference. Phillips is certainly a capable coordinator, so this is not to dispute that his scheme works in the NFL. But, he surely used all of his tricks in Dallas, and they weren't working. So, why did those same tricks work in Houston? Or did they?

A closer look reveals that in 2011, the Houston Texans overhauled their defense in one short offseason. They are in the final eight of the NFL Playoffs and have that coveted playoff win as they head to Baltimore to go for another.

Of the spine of that defense, there were eight players that played more than 700 snaps this season. Glover Quin, Brian Cushing and Antonio Smith were the three holdovers from the Frank Bush crew that finished in the bottom of the league. However, the other five players were all different pieces that provided Wade Phillips with proper personnel to change the defense to a 3-4.

One of those five players was Connor Barwin, who suffered a major injury in Week 1 of 2010. His return from his nasty ankle dislocation gave them a perfect outside LB edge rusher to snap right into Wade's plans. His 12 sacks and 18 QB hits combined for 30 different occasions where he hit the quarterback — more than any Dallas defender — including Ware (28 - 20 sacks, eight QB hits).

The other four major defensive contributors arrived in the spring and summer of 2011. And all four required major investments on the part of the Texans. They used free agency and the draft, and they decided to get Phillips players that could make a significant difference.

First in the draft, Houston poured all of its resources into the defense. In the first round, they used pick No. 11 on Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt. This was the pick the Cowboys would snag if Tyron Smith was not left on the board. The Cowboys made the pick that they most needed, but Watt gave Houston a DE in the 3-4 that causes havoc every Sunday. According to he graded as Houston's best defender and was able to get to the QB for seven sacks and 11 QB hits, while standing up in the run game.

Then, in the second round, they took OLB Brooks Reed from Arizona at pick #42 (two picks after the Cowboys had grabbed LB Bruce Carter at #40). Reed was thought to be depth and insurance because the Texans were planning on Barwin and Mario Williams at OLB, but when Mario was lost for the year, Reed took over. He then played 799 snaps and totaled six sacks as a rookie. Later in the second round, the Texans traded up with New England to take a cornerback from Miami, Brandon Harris. Harris has played quite sparingly in 2011, but at 21 years old, he has plenty of time to contribute.

In the summer, free agency was the next factor and the Texans used it to make a major strike and to fix their secondary. They signed 27-year old corner Johnathan Joseph from the Bengals. This was a major expenditure of $48.75 million dollars over five years, including $23.5 million guaranteed.

That same day, they targeted a free safety from Chicago, Danieal Manning. They inked his services at the price of $20 million over four seasons, including $9 million guaranteed. He provided kick returning and safety play, and despite missing a month with a fractured fibula, he still played 743 snaps.

So, where do we credit this major improvement and defensive success in Houston? Phillips? The Draft with Watt and Reed? Free agency with Joseph and Manning?

I imagine in Houston it doesn't matter where the credit goes. They covered all of the bases and have a defense that swarmed Andy Dalton and the Bengals and never let them up for air.

Players play and coaches coach. But, from my seat, I suggest that Houston's offseason strategy put them in a spot where they could suffer a major injury and still have their best defensive season ever.