The true value of a pass rusher comes not just in his sacks, but also in his ability to pressure quarterbacks in all sorts of ways. Hits and hurries, tabulated by formal and informal game-charting services, can be just as important when discussing the greatest quarterback terrorizers. And if Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller loses his appeal and is served with a four-game suspension to begin the season, no team will be more cognizant of this fact those Broncos. Between Miller and defensive end Elvis Dumervil, who was lost to the team in a free-agency fax fiasco in May, Denver would go into their opener against the Baltimore Ravens without 24 quarterback hits and 64 quarterback hurries from the 2012 campaign. That's how many hits and hurries Miller and Dumervil amassed together.
To put that in perspective, per Football Outsiders' game-charting metrics, Dumervil and Miller combined for 65 percent of Denver's hits, and 70 percent of their hurries. No matter how you slice it, that's a problem.
In a move that was under the radar at the time, the Broncos signed free-agent linebacker Shaun Phillips to a one-year, $1 million contract with no guaranteed money on April 27. And now, Phillips, who was selected in the fourth round of the 2004 NFL draft by the San Diego Chargers out of Purdue, could be the next man up at a position of extreme need for a team that everyone believes is a top-tier Super Bowl contender. The Chargers chose to let him loose at the end of the 2012 season, despite the fact that he put up 9.5 sacks, five hits, and 14 hurries last year. Those aren't dominant totals by any means, but if Miller is out those first four games, Phillips will be the Broncos' 2012 leader in all three categories.
When the Broncos signed Phillips, they saw him as a Miller backup, which certainly seems prescient.
“He’s the kind of guy that we are looking at," Executive Vice President John Elway said of the Phillips acquisition on the day it happened. "We are looking for a backup ‘Sam’ [strong-side linebacker] to play behind Von and we’re also looking for a guy that can also rush the passer. Shaun Phillips can do both of those. When we looked at Shaun, we thought that he would be a guy that’s a perfect fit for us.”
Earlier in his career, Phillips lined up at different depths and all along the formation, which mirrors what Miller did last season, when he put up 18.5 sacks, 12 hits, and a league-leading 41 hurries. In 2012, however, Phillips played predominantly as an edge rusher, detached from the line in four- and five-man fronts in San Diego's varied schemes.
Like most of the top-level pass-rushing outside linebackers (to specifically differentiate from defensive ends), Phillips is less a power player reliant on his bull-rush, and more what I would call a "gap exploiter" -- he quickly finds open lanes in pass protection and shoots through. What sets Miller apart is that he has developed a dominant bull-rush and added that to his palette, which is an unusual trait at his position.
However, Phillips also has his share of effort plays, and one of them resulted in a sack of Oakland's Carson Palmer in Week 1 of the 2012 season. Phillips was lined up outside right tackle Khalif Barnes, and while beating Barnes one-on-one (as Phillips did for another sack in this game) is no big deal, I liked the way he dealt with Barnes and running back Darren McFadden on the play illustrated below. Phillips beat Barnes with an inside counter and simply outlasted McFadden physically as McFadden tried to chip him and keep him away from Palmer. This wasn't Hall of Fame-level blocking, but for a guy who some say is over the hill, I thought Phillips handled this power situation pretty well.
This play against the Tennessee Titans in Week 2 illustrates the way in which Phillips gets the lion's share of pressures at this point in his career, and it also shows the value of pressure that doesn't lead to a sack. (Note: Are we saying that sack totals don't take the full measure of a pass rusher? Yes, we most certainly are). Phillips got inside right tackle David Stewart, and he knew full well that Chris Johnson and pass-blocking don't go together. Phillips wasn't able to get to quarterback Jake Locker, but his pressure flushed Locker out of the pocket, forced a hurried incompletion in the vicinity of receiver Kendall Wright, and that particular drive was over. Again, it's more about movement and gap opportunism than hand moves and top-level power, but if you can upset the quarterback at the NFL level, that's a good thing ... no matter how you do it.
Now, the negative -- unlike Miller, Phillips isn't as adept at dealing with the NFL's better blockers in a one-on-one sense. Witness this play against Ryan Clady of the Broncos in last year's Week 6 loss. Clady is probably the best overall pass-blocker in the league right now, and Phillips could not find a consistent answer to Clady's combination of strength and technique. Clady came off the snap with a wide base and just obliterated Phillips. Look at the sequence, and you'll notice that Phillips isn't operating from a position of strength and leverage at all -- Clady caught him flat-footed, and there was no way Phillips was going to get around Clady with an inside counter or spin.
When Phillips sacked Peyton Manning for a safety in San Diego's Week 11 loss to the Broncos, it was with an inside move on tight end Virgil Green, while Clady was pinching inside to double-team end Corey Liuget. And that's how Phillips operates now -- he shoots through gaps and exploits gap mismatches to bring above-average pressure. it's not done at a top-tier level, per se, but the Broncos can't afford to be choosers right now, and Phillips could be more helpful in his new environs than many imagine.
“I’m a playmaker, so wherever they put me," Phillips said in May, when it was assumed that Phillips and Miller would see the field as pass-rushers at the same time -- which they probably will at some point in the season. "Whether it’s outside linebacker or defensive end, they’re pretty similar positions. The great thing about defensive end is you get to put your hand down and pass rush all the time. Hopefully that’s the case, but we’ll see. Everything will shake out in the end.”
If the Broncos use Phillips to his best advantage, he could turn out to be quite the bargain.