Wade Phillips = Pass Rush

His Houston Roughnecks lead the XFL in sacks

The Houston Roughnecks lead the XFL in sacks.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise — not with Wade Phillips the head coach of the Roughnecks.

Where Phillips goes, a pass rush follows.

Phillips spent 43 years coaching NFL defenses, including 40 coaching a 3-4 scheme. He started with his dad Bum Phillips at the Houston Oilers in 1976 as a position coach, then moved to New Orleans for his first gig as a coordinator in 1981. He went on to serve as a coordinator for the Eagles, Broncos, Bills, Falcons, Chargers, Cowboys, Texans and Rams, mixing in a few head-coaching stints at Buffalo, Dallas and Denver.

Except for his three years in Philadelphia, when he coordinated a 4-3 defensive scheme for Buddy Ryan. Phillips has been the Godfather of the 3-4.

Bum’s Oilers were among the first NFL teams to implement the 3-4 as their base defense in the late 1970s, plugging in Hall of Famer Curley Culp at nose tackle. By 1980, more than half of the NFL’s 28 teams – 15 – were playing a 3-4. That defense peaked in 1988 with 21 of the 28 teams in a 3-4. But it waned in the 1990s and by 1995 only three teams were still operating with a three-man front, including Wade’s Buffalo Bills.

In 2001, only one team was using the 3-4 as its base defense (Pittsburgh) in large part because Phillips was out of coaching that season. He returned in 2002 with Atlanta and brought the 3-4 back with him.

Why leave a good thing? In his 43 years as a coordinator, his defenses have averaged 44.8 sacks per season. His defenses led the NFL in sacks at Buffalo, Dallas, Denver and San Diego. His defenses also had 50-sack seasons at New Orleans, Philadelphia and the Los Angeles Rams.

Hall of Famer Reggie White had the three best seasons of his career playing for Phillips. Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware, J.J. Watt and Aaron Donald had the best seasons of their careers playing for Phillips. White, Bruce Smith, Bryce Paup, Watt and Donald all won NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors with Phillips and Von Miller was a Super Bowl MVP.

There have been only 22 individual 20-sack seasons in NFL history and Phillips has produced four of them by White, Watt, Ware and Donald. White, Paup, Shawne Merriman, Ware, Watt and Donald have all individually led the NFL in sacks with Phillips.

In 1995, Phillips produced three pass rushers in double figures in sacks at Buffalo – Paup (17 ½), Smith (10 ½) and Phil Hansen (10). He had five other seasons with a pair of double-digit sackers for five different franchises – the Saints, Broncos, Chargers, Cowboys and the Rams.

The 3-4 to Phillips is just common sense – it’s less wear and tear on the bodies of his edge rushers.

“A 4-3 defensive end has to play against a 330-340-pound guy every play…and then he has to rush the passer,” Phillips said. “Whereas if you’re an outside backer in a 3-4, you don’t (engage) on every play.”

The 3-4 also produces favorable matchups. In a 4-3, the offense has five offensive linemen to block four defensive linemen. The numbers shift in the 3-4 front.

“You get a (fifth) guy coming and sometimes a back has to block him…or they (offensive linemen) all have to block one-on-one, which is what we want,” Phillips said. “You can find and teach guys to play outside backer. Those guys can be better outside backers than defensive ends – the Wares, Von Millers and those guys.”

Which brings us back to the unbeaten (3-0) Roughnecks. Phillips believed his defense had the potential to lead the XFL in sacks with Austin Edwards and Derick Roberson coming off the edge. But the Roughencks lost both players with knee injuries during the same pre-season scrimmage in February. So Phillips elevated their backups, Trent Harris and Tim Ward. Through three weeks of the season, Harris leads the league with 4 ½ sacks and Ward the runnerup with three. Houston as a team has 13 sacks.

Where Phillips goes, a pass rush always follows.

Here’s a list of the top pass rushers in a Wade Phillips defense:

Pass rusherSacksSeasonFranchise
Reggie White211987Philadelphia
J.J. Watt20 1/22012Houston Texans
Aaron Donald20 1/22018LA Rams
DeMarcus Ware202008Dallas
Reggie White181986Philadelphia
Reggie White181988Philadelphia
Bryce Paup17 1/21995Buffalo
Shawne Merriman172006San Diego
Simon Fletcher161992Denver
Jesse Baker15 1/21979Houston Oilers
DeMarcus Ware15 1/22010Dallas
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