THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Wade Phillips played in a 4-3 defensive scheme in college, as a linebacker at Houston in the 1960s. But he went on to become a defensive coordinator who would specialize in implementing the 3-4 scheme, one he will transition the Los Angeles Rams to in 2017.
He just thinks it's a better defense.
"When you have a 4-3, you have four linemen, those are the four guys that are rushing," Phillips said. "When you have a 3-4, you have three linemen and somebody else is coming from somewhere because it’s going to be a four-man rush most of the time. It gives an advantage of them not knowing, protection-wise. I think it helps you, pass defense-wise. If you look at our pass defenses over the years, you look at our sacks over the years, they’ve all been top of the league. And I think that’s the key to beating people is stopping the passing game in this league. That’s why I’ve stuck with the 3-4."
Phillips has presided over 20 top-10 defenses since joining the NFL in 1976. The Broncos unit he oversaw was the game's best each of the last two years, benefiting from a lockdown secondary and a devastating pass rush that didn't require blitz packages to get to the quarterback. Phillips, 69, has incorporated concepts of the 4-3 and the 46 defense over the years, but all within the structure of a 3-4 set.
His defense isn't expected to change much for the Rams' players, even though they used four down linemen and mostly five defensive backs under former coordinator Gregg Williams, a master at disguising pass rushes.
Aaron Donald will remain a three-technique, and though veteran defensive end Robert Quinn may no longer operate out of a three-point stance, he's still expected to spend most of his time getting around the edge to pressure the quarterback. New defensive line coach Bill Johnson, most recently with the Saints, was with the Falcons when Phillips converted their defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4 in 2002. He remembers there being a lot of angst about the transition, but the Falcons went from 26th to 12th in defensive DVOA in Phillips' first season.
The 3-4 defense will only provide "more multiplicity," Johnson believes.
"Really and truly, to me, it’s techniques," Johnson said. "They [the four down linemen from the 4-3 scheme] are going to be playing the very same techniques. And I sort of had the same thing in Atlanta -- this is a four-man front, how are we going to fit these players?
"I learned that you can be more multiple and you can attack protections better. I learned a lot of football with Wade that first time. And I think the advantage is we’ll be able to take our players and match them up in different positions that give us even better matchups."