Film Review: Patriots Add More Versatility on Defense With Adrian Phillips

The Patriots signed the veteran safety to a two-year deal on Thursday.

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The Patriots began retooling their top-ranked defense that has lost multiple starters this offseason by adding former Chargers safety Adrian Phillips on a two-year deal, according to Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports

Thought of as one of the most intelligent players on the Los Angeles defense, Phillips played multiple roles and occasionally called plays for defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. 

Teammates refer to Phillips as a “genius,” and Bradley said he’s one of the smartest players he has ever coached in over a decade at the NFL level.

Phillips was a significant chess piece over the last two seasons serving mostly as a strong safety, slot corner, and pseudo-linebacker, handling all three linebacker spots at times. 

In the four games we studied, Phillips did everything from spy Lamar Jackson, track Tyreek Hill, cover tight ends, play as an intermediate and short zone defender, and step up with a physical presence in the running game.

Phillips was also a first-team All-Pro selection as a special teamer in 2018, tallying 13 special teams tackles (second in NFL) on five different units. 

The veteran safety can help lessen the blow of Nate Ebner’s departure. With fellow special teams All-Pro Matthew Slater, Jon Jones, Terrence Brooks, Brandon Bolden and others covering kicks, the Patriots should have dominant coverage units once again in 2020. 

But those expecting a replacement for the recently traded Duron Harmon should keep looking; Phillips is good in his role, but he’s not going to play the deep part of the field as Harmon did. 

Below, we’ll go over some of Phillips’s tape to illustrate what makes him an intriguing addition:

RUN DEFENSE

Phillips is a better coverage player than run defender, but I wanted to start here because his effort, tackling technique, and instincts to read blocking schemes were impressive for a safety. 

As we know, the Patriots defense had its fair share of troubles slowing down Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson last season, as did everyone against the reigning MVP. 

In two matchups in 2018, the Chargers held the dangerous Jackson to 93 yards on 22 carries (4.2), well below his career average (6.0), and Phillips was a major part of the game plan. 

Against Lamar, the Chargers put four safeties on the field to match his speed, with Phillips playing the mike linebacker position in the middle of the defense. Baltimore ran its infamous zone-read concept, and Phillips needs to read it out at the second level. He takes a few steps inside to mirror the running back but quickly diagnoses Jackson keeping the football, changes direction with no wasted movement, and closes in a hurry to make the tackle. 

Did Bill Belichick sign Phillips in part to defend Jackson next season? It’s certainly plausible. 

Phillips is uniquely skilled at “scraping” at the second level, which is usually a linebacker technique where they patiently read out the ball carrier and match his movements. 

On this run stop against the Patriots in the 2018 postseason, Phillips is once again the mike. The Pats run a split-zone action, with the line flowing to the left and the jet motion coming to the right to kick out the strong side force defender. Despite the footwork by Brady and running back Sony Michel, Phillips doesn’t overcommit to his right, efficiently diagnosing the scheme to meet Michel in the gap. He stays back long enough to remain unblocked, or clean, squares up Michel, and makes the tackle for loss. 

During the 2018 season, Phillips recorded 29 run stops and was a key reason why the Chargers survived in their safety-heavy packages. 

ZONE COVERAGE

The Chargers are a zone coverage team under Gus Bradley, playing zone on nearly 80 percent of their coverages snaps over the last two seasons. 

Phillips’s job against the pass was to play a mixture of short and intermediate zones, but sometimes he’d play deeper depending on the opponent, which was the case often against the Chiefs. 

In their matchups against Kansas City, Bradley deployed Phillips as a primary defender on speedster Tyreek Hill on several occasions, using him to cut Hill off on deep crossers. 

Here, Los Angeles has a little disguise on by showing a split-safety look pre-snap. Hill is the inside receiver in the bunch formation to Mahomes’s left, and Phillips is “cutting” from the opposite hash. As the play rolls, Hill heads across the field on a deep over pattern, and Phillips gets his eyes on him immediately to cut off the route. Mahomes makes an ill-advised throw, Phillips picks him off and then returns it to the house for a pick-six (the play was called back due to defensive offsides, but the coverage by Phillips is superb). 

Phillips would also rotate down into a “robber” position in some schemes.

On this pass breakup, the Chargers rotate into cover-three with Phillips going down into the rat hole. Lamar locks onto an over the ball route by tight end Mark Andrews, and Phillips clicks into it instantly to break on the throw and separate Andrews from the football. 

Phillips is also a useful shallow zone defender when he plays in the box or at linebacker. 

(video credit: @BillyM_91)

Here, Phillips diagnoses early in the play that he’s a free defender with no receiver running through his zone. As a result, he matches the curl route by Steelers tight end Vance McDonald, taking away Big Ben’s second look. Phillips then locks onto McDonald as he runs across the field and breaks up the pass on third down. 

Due to Los Angeles’s scheme, Phillips got plenty of opportunities to get his eyes on the quarterback and make plays on the ball. 

MAN COVERAGE 

Although the Chargers were mostly a zone team, when given a chance, Phillips was strappy man coverage against tight ends, and they trusted him in those matchups. 

On this play, the Raiders isolate tight end Jared Cook on third down at the bottom of the screen with Phillips across from him. Phillips perfectly plays a soft-press technique, where you crowd the receiver at the line but remain square and stay back to react to the release. The Patriots use this technique often, and Stephon Gilmore especially loves to play soft press. Phillips doesn’t let Cook move him inside with his fakes on the release, gets his hands on the big tight end once he transitions upfield, and pushes Cook’s route into the sideline for a forced incompletion. 

Phillips was an easy target to peg for the Pats in free agency due to his versatility and smarts. 

Belichick has a new matchup player that can move around the defense, giving them another option for covering tight ends, handling the slot, or playing some money-backer in the box. 

The move could make either Patrick Chung or Terrence Brooks expendable, making for some exciting camp battle this summer. 

With Chung turning 33 years old in August, the soon to be 28-year-old Phillips presents a more youthful option.

Still, the Patriots can easily find roles for all three next season.