The New England Patriots may not have been big spenders in free agency, but they did add some intriguing talent to their defense in the form of safety Adrian Phillips. With Duron Harmon traded to the Detroit Lions and Nate Ebner signing a free agency deal with the New York Giants, Phillips and his two-year, $7.5 million contract add experience and flexibility to a defensive backfield that was the best in the league during the 2019 season.
A look at his tape, however, shows that he adds much more than just that: Phillips is one of the most versatile strong safeties in football, and as such well-equipped to not just back up but also complement veteran Patrick Chung as a box safety/linebacker hybrid — a role he filled prominently last year with the Los Angeles Chargers. With that said, let’s take a closer look at how they used him and what it might mean for his role in New England.
While a broken forearm forced Phillips to sit out nine of the Chargers’ games last season, he still was on the field for a combined 281 of their defensive snaps. According to advanced analytics website Pro Football Focus, those snaps can be broken down as follows:
Box safety: 122 snaps
Slot cornerback: 72 snaps
Free safety: 60 snaps
Defensive line: 18 snaps
Perimeter cornerback: 9 snaps
Phillips’ versatility was on perfect display during his team’s opening week game against the Indianapolis Colts. The Chargers opted to use him as a linebacker on 34 of his snaps, but also moved him to a more traditional strong safety spot and even to the slot against tight ends and even wide receivers. Given Los Angeles’ defense playing a lot of Cover 3 — a zone-based scheme — Phillips’ man-to-man abilities were rarely on display. That said, his skillset was obvious:
Phillips’ versatility showed up a lot in this game. Looked like Pat Chung taking snaps at LB, from the slot vs TEs and WRs, and hovering around the LOS at SS.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) March 20, 2020
The Chargers are a heavy cover 3 match team, so didn’t get a feel for AP’s true man coverage abilities pic.twitter.com/ghOqTScKYT
As can be seen, the underneath areas of the field are where Phillips (#31) left his mark on the Chargers’ defense. His quick recognition and ability to cover sideline-to-sideline despite not being the most impressive of athletes, helped him successfully serve as a coverage linebacker while also providing assistance against the run.
This role is usually played by Patrick Chung in New England, but the team had to turn to Terrence Brooks last year whenever the veteran starter was forced to leave the field. With Phillips in the fold, the Patriots have another safety/linebacker-hybrid at their disposal and could opt to move Brooks to fill Duron Harmon’s old spot as a second deep-field defender alongside team captain Devin McCourty.
Watched some other 2019 LAC games to get a better feel for Adrian Phillips.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) March 20, 2020
Mostly used near the LOS as a SS or LB, where he was often a couple yards deeper to give time to diagnose w/out worrying about blockers. Willing tackler who’s at his best flying to the ball untouched pic.twitter.com/XzIEtAgQwg
Going back to Phillips, the Chargers usually lined him up near the line of scrimmage but off the ball in a position where he would not have to worry about taking on blockers. He rarely came downhill except on obvious running plays, with the team using him just four times total as a pass rusher from the second level in 2019. Instead, his role was to hover in the underneath area and fly to the ball unobstructed — something perfectly on display on the third play (0:14) in the clip above.
Phillips lined up as in an outside linebacker position, but given the Chargers’ zone scheme did not move towards the middle of the field despite some shifts on the offensive side of the ball. Instead, he patiently waited for the play to develop post-snap and immediately shot towards the ball carrier once he recognized him. Quick read-and-react skills without overaggressively pursuing the ball-carrier (or perceived ball-carrier on play-fakes) are essential for his role, and something the Patriots certainly valued when they brought him on board.
Phillips’ straight-line speed — he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.63 seconds — may not jump off the page, but his range is still good when asked to drop into coverage from his normal role close to the box. That said, he does look most comfortable playing downhill in the running game and locating the football as the following collection of clips illustrates:
Phillips is a twitchy athlete and flashed good range dropping into coverage from the box. Looked most comfortable in a downhill role locating and flying to the football.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) March 20, 2020
Looks like he could fill Chung’s light base LB role which beefs up the run defense without sacrificing pass D pic.twitter.com/ITKpC3NJZk
As noted above, Phillips’ role in L.A. was similar to the one Patrick Chung plays in New England. While Chung has more man-to-man responsibilities due to the Patriots’ aggressive man-coverage scheme — the team runs plenty of Cover 1 and regularly mixes in Cover 0 looks due to the quality of its coverage personnel across the board — he too was used as a linebacker-type defender on a regular basis. The plan behind this is simple: creating flexibility.
In Phillips’ case, him playing as a box safety allowed the defense to stay stout against the run but simultaneously light in passing situations. These days, a lot of times like to use linebackers filling this role but the Chargers — much like the Patriots — opted to go with a player that has a more natural feel for routes developing in front of him from his safety experience. What helps the 27-year-old play that is that he also brings sufficient functional athleticism to the table as the following clip shows:
Better show of his burst and range here. Isn't a blazer but does fine from the box.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) March 19, 2020
Can also see Phillips' command of the defense with his signaling before the snap pic.twitter.com/BfQanAoRyE
Phillips may not be a blazer, and therefore offers only limited value as a deep-field defender in the mold of McCourty or Harmon, but his range is still solid. What helps is his experience within the Chargers’ defense and his quick reaction. The latter does not always work in his favor — the Patriots were able to catch him out of position multiple times during their divisional round meeting in the 2018 playoffs — but he is still serviceable in this area.
Room for growth
As noted above, Phillips was at times too aggressive playing downhill during his last game against New England: the eventual world champions were able to get him twice to bite on play-action during the same drive. While the first play resulted only in a minimal gain, the second allowed wide receiver Julian Edelman (#11) to get behind him in the vacated zone for a big play:
Bit hard on play action twice on the same drive— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) March 20, 2020
Also looked a bit clumsy attempting to turn and find the deep crossing route pic.twitter.com/m1mYA0p7ON
Phillips has shown that he can play patiently, so this overaggressiveness should not be a major issue in New England. That said, it is something that he needs to improve especially against offenses that regularly use play-action to move the football down the field. This aggressiveness does not only manifest itself in being out of position, though, but also when it comes to making or missing tackles.
Despite seeing the field in only seven games during the 2019 season, Phillips registered five missed tackles. As the following clip shows, this is a problem when chasing plays to the outside and falling for potential cuts:
Had some misses in the open field when chasing outside and was consistently taken out of the play when defending the run if blockers initiated contact pic.twitter.com/oCR7p6jnPE— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) March 20, 2020
All in all, though, Phillips has proven himself a reliable player capable of filling a prominent role on defense (as well as the kicking game). He has room for growth, but working in arguably the best secondary in football should help him further improve as a play while also masking some of his deficiencies in terms of pursuing plays overly aggressively.
It remains to be seen whether or not the former undrafted free agent can one day successfully fill Patrick Chung’s shoes as the Patriots’ primary safety/linebacker-hybrid, but he should work well alongside the 32-year-old in 2020. Given that the spot was somewhat open last year and with Terrence Brooks playing out of position, his addition should therefore make New England’s defensive backfield even deeper.
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