Blanket Coverage: Phillips needs to shake up schemes for AFC title game

There's no question about it: Broncos’ defensive coordinator Wade Phillips needs to have the best schemes of his life in order to beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.
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If the Broncos are to pull off the upset against the Patriots on Sunday, the man that needs to have the game of his life is not QB Peyton Manning: it’s defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. He is charged with stopping what has been an unstoppable force.

And when WR Julian Edelman and TE Rob Gronkowski have been in the lineup together, the Patriots have been just that this season. In the nine games that both players have started and finished (Edelman broke his foot against the Giants on Nov. 15), the Patriots were 9–0, beating opponents by an average of 16.2 points per game. In those games, Brady has completed 68.4% of his passes for 3,011 yards and 24 touchdowns against two interceptions for a passer rating of 112.3.

Without the Mutt and Jeff of football weapons, the Patriots went 3–4, with Brady putting up numbers that were mortal (for him): 59.4 completion percentage, 1,727 yards, 12 touchdowns, four interceptions and 89.1 passer rating.

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New England is at peak performance right now, which means Phillips needs shake things up and match wits with them, both in game planning and during the game Sunday. Phillips likely won’t beat Brady again with his usual scheme (in their Week 12 matchup, the Patriots were without Edelman and Danny Amendola, and they lost Gronkowski for the fourth quarter), and he can’t just hope the Patriots have an off day on the road at Sports Authority Field on Sunday.

Despite his appearance as a country bumpkin, those that have known Phillips over the years feel that he’s one of the underappreciated defensive minds in the game. His track record speaks for itself: since leaving the Eagles following the 1988 season, Phillips has immediately improved every unit he’s directed in terms of points and yards allowed: Broncos the first time around (’89–94), the Bills (’95–2000), the Falcons (’02–03), the Chargers (’04–06), the Cowboys (’07–10), the Texans (’11–13) or, now, back in Denver.

But (and this is where Sunday’s game hinges), Phillips has made his bones pretty much the same way: he comes in, frees the players from more regimented systems and brings a ton of pressure. The players love flying around the field, and it works initially.

“[Today’s] offenses are so complicated, it’s amazing,” Phillips told me for a feature in Sports Illustrated before the first matchup with the Patriots. “If you try to match that as a defense, you’re going to get confused. I’ve always thought: If a guy thinks [his task] is easy to do, he will play better.”

There’s no question: Phillips is going to have scheme up this game or the Broncos have no chance. But the good news is that Phillips showed he’s willing to bend in the victory over the Steelers (who were missing Antonio Brown and running back DeAngelo Williams). Instead of playing mostly man to man, the Broncos played a lot of zone, causing Ben Roethlisberger some problems.

The Patriots present a different challenge not only because of Edelman and Gronkowski, but also because Brady gets rid of the ball so quickly. The Patriots usually go shotgun with no backs in the backfield or shotgun with one back. They almost exclusively used one back, one tight end and three receivers.

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Against the Steelers, the Broncos countered that formation with a dime package that featured strong safety T.J. Ward at linebacker and brought on Josh Bush as the second deep safety. That’s a step up from what the Chiefs tried to do with nickel against the Patriots, but for Denver, assignments are going to be more important.

The Patriots look at all the tendencies and personnel matchups that an opponent likes to use, allowing them to anticipate how the opponent is going to defend them. Brady’s preparation is based on that.

So Phillips, with the urging of coach Gary Kubiak, needs to completely flip the script to throw the Patriots for a loop, even if it only lasts a half. The more possessions that leave the Patriots scratching their heads, the fewer points they can put on the board, allowing the Broncos to stay in the game.

My suggestion: put cornerback Aqib Talib on Gronkowski with help over the top. Talib’s talents would be wasted covering, say, Brandon LaFell. Use the physical Ward on the inside with Edelman and cornerback Chris Harris, who is beat up, on the outside. Let Von Miller cover running back James White, and rush only three. Invite the Patriots to run the ball, because it would shorten the game for the Broncos. And if Brady beats the Broncos running the ball and throwing to LaFell and Amendola, then so be it.

The Broncos have been excellent on defense over the course of the season, but this is an entirely different challenge which calls for drastic measures. Phillips hasn’t always been up for those during his career, but it’s now or never.

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Settle down

Trash talk: Please, enough with the dumb talk about how the Broncos are talking trash about Tom Brady and the Patriots in advance of Sunday’s AFC Championship. Here’s a bulletin: Brady does whine for calls (he’s admitted it) and you have to tackle Rob Gronkowski low to bring him down (his teammates have admitted that). Find something real to talk about.

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Amendola’s block was OK: Football Twitter went nuts during the Patriots-Chiefs game, saying that Danny Amendola’s block on Jamell Fleming was a dirty hit. Not only was it perfectly legal by the rules, but it’s also part of the game. Amendola deserved to be penalized for hitting the player in the neck area, but the block itself was fine. Fleming has no rights to camp under the ball, and he knows this. The opposing team isn’t just going to let a gunner catch the ball with no interference inside the five-yard line. Fleming should have been looking around for a possible hit, and that’s what most special teams coaches coach.

Don’t go for two: There has been some discussion about how the Packers should have gone for two points to win the game outright after they tied the Cardinals on another Hail Mary from Aaron Rodgers. Oh, please. The Packers had just pulled off two miracle plays on that drive (fourth-and-20 as well) to even force overtime. They had no timeouts left and were going crazy with adrenaline after Rodgers’ heroics. The only play was to go to overtime.

Go nuts

Playoff overtime rules: I don’t mind the way overtime is played during the regular season because it forces you to play defense and can help reduce some injuries. But in the playoffs, teams have come too far not to get one last chance with the ball. I know the NFL is against having different overtime rules in the regular season and playoffs, but I don’t think that should be a deal-breaker.

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Cardinals taking risks: I’ll admit that I had fallen under Bruce Arians’s spell during the regular season for his devil-may-care attitude in terms of coaching and play calling. But against the Packers, that was exposed as just a façade to not have to make the kind of nuanced game-management decisions needed to win in the postseason. Anybody can say, “No risk it, no biscuit,” and go for everything and never be second-guessed. The best coaches weigh every decision and play the odds when needed. Maybe it just a one-time thing because this was really the first game Arians had coached in the postseason where his team had a chance to win. People grow from each experience, and maybe he’ll coach differently on Sunday against the Panthers. The Cardinals better hope so.

Finally, a female assistant: It’s only in the low-level role of quality control-special teams (for the record, I’ve never heard of such a thing as a quality control coach for special teams; the coaches usually handle the prep work themselves because there are so few plays), but it’s something, so kudos to the Bills and coach Rex Ryan for hiring Kathryn Smith as the league’s first full-time assistant coach. Just about every head coach has gotten his start as a quality control coach somewhere, and it’s a great way to master the little things needed to advance a career.

Humanitarian of the week

Darius Fleming, LB, Patriots

You may have heard about how the reserve linebacker saw a woman trapped in a car, kicked out the window and pulled her to safety, and then played against the Chiefs with 22 stitches in his leg.

“The first concern was, like, ‘Man, Bill’s going to be pissed about my leg,’” Fleming said of coach Bill Belichick on Wednesday. “I explained the story to him and he said, ‘That was pretty cool. I'm glad you were able to help her.’”

You can read more about it here. And yes, that was pretty cool.

10 thoughts going into NFL Championship Weekend

1. Peyton Manning will have to make more stick throws to the middle of the field against the Patriots in order to win. Too many times against the Steelers he passed up throws in the middle of the field to take safer and shorter throws to the outside. However, Manning made a great stick throw on third-and-12 to Bennie Fowler for 31 yards in the fourth quarter, so perhaps that will give Manning more confidence.

2. One thing to watch for with Manning: he has been a much better quarterback this season with rest, which he had before facing the Steelers but not this week. Thought Manning played well overall against the Steelers and was back to throwing his heavy (if wobbly) ball.

3. Phillips brings pressure on over 70% of the snaps on third down and four yards or fewer. It’s kind of an inside joke among league offensive coordinators how predictable Phillips is at bringing pressure. Change it up, Wade.

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4. The Patriots need linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins healthy and effective against the Broncos, or Denver could keep the game close with its running game. Both players left the Chiefs game with injuries. The Patriots could lose if they have to finish another game with Darius Fleming, Jonathan Freeny (has a cast on right wrist and a splint on a figer), Jon Bostic and/or Dekoda Watson.

5. Hopefully Carson Palmer saw a sports psychologist this week because he was completely out of sorts against the Packers. The Cardinals won in spite of him, not because of him.

6. Because of their multi-dimensional run game, the Panthers are going to be a tough out for not only the Cardinals, but also the Patriots or Broncos. Those defenses are all good, but they’re all susceptible to a strong rushing attack backed by a good, clutch thrower like Cam Newton.

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7. The Cardinals need their defensive line of Calais Campbell, Rodney Gunter and Frostee Rucker to have the game of their lives to beat the Panthers. They have to penetrate against the run and make plays in the backfield.

8. If the Cardinals’ line can keep the pass rush off Palmer (big if), they can do some damage down the field in the pass game, as long as Regular Season Palmer shows up for this one. The Cardinals have to manage Panthers NT Kawann Short.

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9. The loss to the Patriots perfectly illustrated why QB Alex Smith will only carry the Chiefs so far: time and time again he passed up making difficult throws down the middle of the field with well-constructed route concepts to take the easy checkdown. You have to make plays to be the Patriots and Tom Brady in Gillette Stadium. You can’t manage a victory.

10. Was hoping that new Browns coach Hue Jackson was going to get his Raiders band back together after naming Al Saunders as offensive coordinator, but NFL Network’s Albert Breer reported that Hal Hunter will be the Browns’ offensive line coach—not Bob Wylie. He was Jackson’s offensive line coach with the Raiders and was impressive in that job. “With Bob as the coach, the offensive line outperformed the expectations of most,” says then-Raiders CEO Amy Trask. “Bob is a sensational teacher who cares deeply for the players he coaches and while his coaching style is thought by some to be unique, it is tremendously effective. He elicits the best performance from his players.” Wylie has coached the line for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers since 2014, but previously coached with seven NFL teams. His Raiders line in 2011 went from 29th in sacks to fourth, and finished seventh in rushing.