ATLANTA — It's part of his effectiveness, really. It's a reason why he's lasted as long as he has in the league.
Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, 71, looks and sounds like a country bumpkin. The southern drawl. The soft voice. The pudgy appearance. The ruffled hair. If you drew up your long lost uncle from Georgia, Phillips would be the end result.
But Phillips is not what he appears. He's actually quite smart and only plays like he just fell off the turnip truck so others underestimate him.
The Patriots did that in Denver in the 2015 AFC Championship Game. New England thought they'd get the same ol' Wade: Cover 1 man coverage with selective double teams and heavy (40 percent) blitz.
Then the ball was kicked off in Denver, and everything turned upside down for the Pats. Phillips went against his tendencies in every facet. He blitzed just 15% of the time, and he rushed only three defenders 14 times. The Broncos in the first half rushed a different combination at Brady, in personnel, numbers or technique, on every snap. In the secondary, the Broncos mixed coverages almost as often. The Broncos often threw additional bodies at Gronkowski, and occasionally they’d send a lurker to help on Edelman. On second- and third-and-longs, Phillips often rushed three and played one deep safety with six defenders underneath in match man and zone coverages in an effort to take away Brady’s quick, short passes.
Up front, the varied rushes kept the Patriots’ inexperienced line guessing on every snap. And the variety of coverages made the looks very cloudy for Brady. The Broncos executed the plan nearly flawlessly. Brady normally knows exactly what he’s doing before the snap. In this game, it was clear he never had a grasp of what was going on.
The Patriots, three-point road favorites, were stunned and their season ended with a 20-18 loss.
You'd think New England would have learned its lesson in not underestimating Phillips. Yet there was Bill Belichick, on Thursday, sort of poking the old bear with talk Phillips hasn't changed his scheme in 30 years.
"I don’t think he’s out there drawing up a lot of new defenses. I think he has a menu and he selects the ones that fit best against his opponent and the situations as the situations come up in that game. ... I don’t think we’re going to see like three new fronts and three new coverages in this game that he hasn’t run in the last 30 years," Belichick said. "I mean, I just don’t think that’s going to happen. But, if it does, we’ll adjust to it. But, they do what they do in their system, they do it well, they have a lot of confidence in it, which they should. He’s been successful everywhere he’s been. He’s been doing it for 30 years in multiple organizations with multiple groups of players against every kind of offense he could see. I remember dealing with him when I was in Cleveland.
"And to his credit, there’s not many of us that have a system that can last that long. I’ve certainly changed a lot in the last 30 years schematically. Wade really hasn’t, he really hasn’t."
While Belichick seemed to go out of his way to make this point multiple times in that press conference (including the previous quote on a question about whether the Rams play split or post safety), there was a lot of complimentary talk in there was well.
"Wade does a great job of utilizing his personnel and putting his players in position to be productive and make plays," Belichick said. "So, when he had Von Miller, he didn’t change what he did, just the volume and the percentages shifted to accentuate a player like that or Aaron Donald or whoever it happens to be."
But those comments weren't picked up by the national media. The storyline was: Belichick thinks Phillips' scheme is old, boring and predictable.
If you thought ol' Wade didn't hear those comments and take note, you'd be as wrong as the 2015 Patriots offensive gameplan for Denver. It was subtle, like Phillips normally is, but he did answer back.