Former Pupils Explain Phillips' Philosophy

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson will be in for a lesson in the 3-4 defense Sunday, as new Dallas Cowboys coach Wade Phillips brings his style to the NFC. Three former Phillips pupils, now in purple, talk about the 3-4 defense and Phillips' philosophy. See what Ben Leber, Antoine Winfield and Pat Williams had to say about their former coach.

For years, the Dallas Cowboys have been a team on the cusp of greatness and many people believed that the signing of Terrell Owens and the emergence of Tony Romo last season was enough to put the Cowboys over the hump. However, a botched hold by Romo on a potential game-winning kick ended the Cowboys' season and, as it turned out, proved to be the final game with Bill Parcells as head coach.

While the Cowboys publicly said they weren't expecting Parcells to quit, the organization had a short list of replacement candidates ready almost immediately. As luck would have it, the San Diego Chargers fired head coach Marty Schottenheimer after a 14-2 regular season with a playoff loss to the Patriots – not exactly a choke job on the part of the Chargers to lose to a three-time champ. As a result, his coaching staff was also in limbo and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was quickly tabbed as the Cowboys' new head coach.

While the Cowboys appear to the offensive pieces of the puzzle in place to make a Super Bowl run, Phillips' job has been to improve the defense. Regarded as a master of the 3-4 defense, Phillips has excelled with that style both in Buffalo and San Diego. In a short period of time, he transformed both defenses into one of the league's best. Several current Cowboys are talking about how much more relaxed the situation is in Dallas this year – Parcells was well-known as a micromanager who had his hand in nearly every aspect of the organization. Three Vikings players who played under Phillips are preparing to go against their former mentor Sunday, and they provide insight to why Phillips' defenses are so good on a consistent basis and why the Vikings will have to be prepared for just about anything.

Phillips is meticulous about how his complex blitzing defense operates, but one of the attributes his players like best is that he isn't an in-your-face, grab-your-facemask taskmaster who makes your life miserable. He is an affable coach who enjoys what he does and teaches his players to make the adjustments needed without berating them or threatening specific players with reduced playing time if they make a mistake.

Pat Williams played the critical position of nose tackle in the Phillips defense while playing for the Buffalo Bills and he said the approach Phillips takes is considerably more relaxed than the emotional styles of many coaches.

"Wade is a laid-back coach," Williams said. "He's always been like that. He was in San Diego and I've got friends in Dallas, DeMarcus Ware, all of them say he's a laid-back guy, just like he's always been."

While Phillips can be somewhat sedated, his defense doesn't reflect that all. His style is aggressive and he takes risks in order to get rewards. The Cowboys – and all of Phillips former teams – use a three-man defensive line, but that doesn't mean that only three guys are coming at the quarterback on pass plays. In fact, it's just the opposite. Four, five and even six players come charging in on most plays, and his reputation as something of a defensive guru has come from his ability to disguise where the heat is coming from.

Ben Leber played under Phillips in San Diego and his experience in that defense showcased his strengths and impressed the Vikings front office to offer him a free-agent contract. Leber credits Phillips with his improvement as a player and continues to marvel at how his defensive philosophy has translated so effectively from one organization to another.

"The things he does work consistently – no matter who he has had running it," Leber said of the 3-4. "The basis of it is to bring pressure with the linebackers. On some plays, the pressure will come up the middle. On other plays, it will come from the outside. What makes it work is that you don't know when and where the pressure will come from. He'll give you a pre-snap look that might get you to think there will be a blitz on the edge and, right before the snap, he'll back out of that and bring it up the middle. It keeps everyone on their toes and can cause a lot of confusion."

What it also does is occasionally leave the defensive backs on an island with a receiver. In the Phillips defense, pressure is the key, but it works both ways – especially for a D-back locked up on a receiver.

"A lot of his (coaching) philosophy deals with numbers," said cornerback Antoine Winfield, who played under Phillips in Buffalo. "When he's bringing the blitz, he wants to have more guys coming than they have to block them. It puts pressure on us (in the secondary) to lock onto the receiver we're assigned to. The idea is not to give the quarterback a lot of time to let a route develop, so our job was to jump the route and try to make big plays."

Phillips has a distinct advantage coming into Dallas because typically a coach who takes over a new team does so because that team underachieved and their coach was fired. Parcells quit a team that was only a bad hold away from advancing in the playoffs and potentially making a post-season run for the NFC Championship. He has many of the component pieces already in place to have a defense that can dominate a game to go along with an offense that can light up the scoreboard. His team has embraced his style and he will showcase that for Tarvaris Jackson and the Vikings offense Sunday.

While Dallas is just the latest stop on Phillips coaching resume, one thing that remains constant is his 3-4 defense and the success it has.

"It's no fluke that Dallas has the best record in the NFC," Leber said. "They have the players on both sides of the ball to do the job and Coach Phillips can only make the defense better. It's worked everywhere else and once the players all buy in to play their own role in the defense, you can bet it will be successful in Dallas, too. Hopefully not Sunday, but they're good and getting better."


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