Wade Phillips hasn't lost his magic touch.
Reunited with Gary Kubiak, who hired him in Houston and saw him engineer one of the greatest defensive turnarounds in NFL history, the 68-year-old Phillips has upgraded an already good Broncos defense into a mile-high destructive force. The Broncos are the first team in 17 years to register 14 takeaways and 22 sacks in the first five games. Eleven different Broncos have sacks. The Broncos currently lead the NFL in total defense even though the offense hasn't stayed on the field nearly as well as previous Peyton Manning-led units.
But none of this should surprise anyone.
Phillips has been part of 19 top-10 defenses during his amazing coaching career. He's coached 27 different Pro Bowlers, including five Hall of Famers. Starting in 1989, when the Broncos hired him as defensive coordinator, every team he coached made the playoffs in his first season on staff. This Broncos team should be his seventh successful first-year turnaround.
What is unbelievable is that Phillips sat by his phone last year unemployed. He was a lottery ticket that no one elected to cash. Seven head coaches lost their jobs while he sat. Now he runs the hottest defense in the NFL.
So what's behind the magic of Wade Phillips?
"It's all about having good players and doing what they do well," Phillips said. It's his typical understated fashion. The critique could be that Phillips has coached many great defensive players. The flip side is this reality: Many of those players became great or played their best football when Phillips was coaching them.
Phillips likes to make things simple. He says so often that there isn't much difference between a 3-4 and a 4-3. The only difference, he says, is that in the 4-3, an end has his hand on the ground while in a 3-4, he's standing up. Phillips feels that allowing defensive linemen to attack the quarterback through the one-gap approach allows them to be motivated as playmakers. And one of Phillips' strengths is the ability to find the perfect players for his scheme.
Here are some of the keys to how Phillips engineers his turnarounds.
1. Find and unleash good pass-rushers.
"Most of the time, when I come in I go to teams that have good offenses but their defense is bad, so they changed coordinators," Phillips told me. And quickly, it becomes about putting the personnel pieces together. Phillips wants input.
"We already had Mario Williams, so we moved him to outside linebacker because we wanted to get J.J.," Phillips said. "That helped. It's all about having good players."
The Texans also had Connor Barwin at outside linebacker. He led the team with 11.5 sacks. Overall, the Texans went from 30 sacks to 44. Phillips shaved 61.7 passing yards per game. The 2011 Texans ranked second overall on defense and third on pass defense in what turned out to be a 12-4 team.
In 2004, Phillips brought in Steve Foley as a pass-rushing linebacker and Donnie Edwards as an inside linebacker to start a turnaround of a 4-12 Chargers team that improved by eight games. Foley had 10 sacks. The defense got even better the next year when the Chargers drafted linebacker Shawne Merriman and defensive tackle Luis Castillo.
"We try to get the outside rush people," Phillips said. "In Buffalo [in 1995], we brought in Bryce Paup and he ended up being defensive player of the year, leading the league with 17.5 sacks. He played outside linebacker. We still had Bruce Smith on the team. We had Cornelius Bennett and we moved him to inside linebacker. He played great for us."
With the Broncos, Phillips didn't have to seek pass-rushers. He had DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller. They drafted Shane Ray in the first round and also have Shaquil Barrett. Inside linebacker Danny Trevathan also has speed and pass-rushing ability. The Broncos are a great situation for a coach who is a master of unleashing pass-rushers, because the Broncos essentially have six.
2. Make sure the team has good coverage cornerbacks.
Phillips inherited a great situation in Denver because the Broncos already had two Pro Bowl-caliber man-to-man coverage cornerbacks in Aqib Talib and Chris Harris. In Houston, general manager Rick Smith went out and signed cornerback Johnathan Joseph, who immediately improved the team's coverage ability.
"In San Diego, we were in good shape because they had Quentin Jammer and he could play corner really well," Phillips said. "In Buffalo, we were in great shape because we had Thomas Smith and Jeff Burris. We had good corners in Atlanta." In Dallas, Phillips had a 29-year-old Terence Newman in his prime. Coverage cornerbacks give Phillips the luxury of sending extra defenders on blitzes.
His Broncos duo of Talib and Harris give him even more freedom to blitz, which is why everyone is getting into the sack totals. Quarterbacks have completed only 27 of 47 passes against the Broncos' blitz and the quarterback rating is a meager 52.5.
3. It helps to have a playmaking safety.
One of the keys to the Texans' turnaround was signing free safety Danieal Manning from Chicago. Manning gave Phillips coverage and playmaking ability at free safety.
"Here in Denver we have a safety who can do anything in T.J. Ward," Phillips said. "Our free safety [Darian Stewart] is playing well. We've got corners who can cover. It also helps when you have a safety who can rush."
Ward has been a Pro Bowler in each of the past two seasons. He has two sacks this year and 5.5 sacks over the past three seasons, the most for any safety during that period.
4. Be willing to adjust the defense around your nose tackle.
This might be one of the secret sauces in Phillips' defensive recipes. He's made his defense work with undersized defensive tackles such as Greg Kragen, Jay Ratliff and others. He's made it work with massive nose tackles such as Ted Washington.
Because Phillips uses the one-gap scheme, he likes his nose tackle to penetrate and attack the line of scrimmage. Normally, a nose tackle is going to two-gap or get double-teamed. To counter that reality, Phillips will take the smaller, lighter nose tackle and stunt him.
"They say those smaller guys can't play nose," Phillips said. "Ted Washington [who was 6-foot-5, 370 pounds] didn't stunt much and played more two-gap. He played the one side and was big enough to fill the gap on the other side and penetrate. But the undersized guys you can stunt. It's all about what they can do."
5. Make it fun.
Ware played some of his best football for Phillips in Dallas. That's why he loved the idea of moving from defensive end to outside linebacker in his scheme. He remembers one of the first meetings with Phillips' staff and how they reacted to the new 3-4 scheme.
"Bill Kollar, the defensive line coach, came into the meeting room and said, 'You guys aren't two-gapping anymore,'" Ware told me. "We had been in Jack Del Rio's defense for a while and the players got used to two-gapping. Kollar said, 'You guys aren't going to sit down and be sitting ducks and not get pressure on the quarterback. You are going to get tackles for loss and you are going to get fumbles.' The defensive linemen liked that."
So where does this Broncos team rank among the talented defenses Phillips has been around?
"Wow, there is no way to go back and figure that out because I've had so many good ones," he said. "I've had teams with Reggie White and Jerome Brown and Clyde Simmons when I was in Philadelphia. This is the fastest group I've been with. We probably have more speed than any I've had in the past. We've got a lot of rush and we've got good speed in the secondary to cover."
In Phillips' scheme, speed is magic. But so is the coach himself, and we're seeing it again in Denver.