It has been a frustrating season for Shaun Phillips, who has not logged a full sack in five games, a career-long for him. He was credited with a half-sack last week in Pittsburgh, but this represents a sharp drop off for a guy who had 20 total sacks in his last two seasons.
More often than not, it seems Phillips finds himself moving backwards in coverage instead of running straight ahead. Mike Lombardo over at SDBoltReport.com explains it's the opposition who are dictating what the Chargers linebackers do on each down: "Opponents continue to exploit the Bolts by forcing OLBs Shaun Phillips and Jyles Tucker to drop into coverage," Lombardo wrote.
Phillips hasn't been getting as many sacks as he's used to, but is still dangerous
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Another factor in all this is that in past seasons Phillips often exploited the one-on-one blocking he received due to having Shawne Merriman on the opposite side. Now opponents focus those extra blockers on Phillips' side.
When Phillips does blitz or shows as a rushing left defensive end, the man who'll be assigned keeping him off Colts QB Peyton Manning is RT Ryan Diem. Diem is the only Colt offensive lineman who has started every game and has showed tremendous consistency all season. As a result, he is in the midst of a very solid season, probably his best overall season in several years.
Still, Phillips is the type of player who has given Diem problems in the past. As a pass rusher, Phillips will give Diem fits with just his speed and quickness off the ball. He knows how to get low around the edge without losing speed.
Diem's problem against speed is that he has a habit of playing too upright. This in turn hinders his foot speed and ability to slide out and engage speed rushers. He will also get overextended at the top of a speed rush and as a result be out of position. One thing Ryan does do well against speed — and has done exceptionally well so far in 2008 — is use his arm length to engulf rushers or push them past the pocket. He must do this to neutralize the speedy Phillips.
The Colts have not allowed a sack in four of the past five games, but have had trouble in previous meetings with the Chargers, allowing a total of eight sacks in the past three regular-season meetings. Given that bit of history, look for the Colts to copycat recent Charger opponents game-planning of forcing their OLBs into more coverage situations.
Also watch to see if the Chargers test Phillips against RG Mike Pollak by blitzing the OLB straight ahead instead off the edge. Although Phillips' speed should present matchup troubles for Diem, Rivera will likely want to see how the rookie Pollak reacts to the blitzing speed-rusher also. Another Charger technique would be to have LDE Igor Olshansky engage Diem then send Phillips around the edge and see if Pollack is quick enough to step out and protect the edge.
As Brad Keller has noted, ""The key to creating pressure in any 3-4 defense is to disguise where the extra defender is coming from, confusing the offensive line into changing their protection to block someone that is not rushing the quarterback while allowing another defender a free path."
Diem and Pollack must communicate and work well together while remaining aware of their surroundings and assignments at all times.