Saturday, June 06, 2009

DC.COM: Phillips Knows An Outside Linebacker When He Sees One

Rush To Judgment
Phillips Knows An Outside Linebacker When He Sees One
Rob Phillips - Email Staff Writer

IRVING, Texas - This is the natural evolution of a NFL roster: At 26 years and 10 months, DeMarcus Ware is now the Cowboys' oldest and most experienced 3-4 outside linebacker.

Twenty-five-year-old Anthony Spencer isn't quite the self-described "young guy on the block" with 11-year veteran Greg Ellis gone. Now is his turn to become what the Cowboys envisioned all along the past two seasons - a strong-side complement to Ware.

The new pups are a pair of fourth-round picks, Brandon Williams and Victor Butler. Like the above-mentioned former first-rounders, Ware (2005) and Spencer (2007), both '09 rookies will enter the workforce with little experience at their new position.

That's fine with Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips. He knows a 3-4 outside 'backer when he sees one.

"It's something that we've done for a long time and had success with a lot of guys that we thought were athletic enough to stand up and rush," said Phillips, who has coached the 3-4 scheme in the pros since 1976. "I think you have to have a little bit of a feel for it, having seen a lot of players being able to do it."

A certain "feel" is required because many of the league's most successful 3-4 outside linebackers, like Ware and San Diego's Shawne Merriman (another Phillips protégé), were traditional 4-3 defensive ends in college.

Pass coverage wasn't part of their job description. As Ware says, mainly it's just "How do you I beat this tackle?" and "What type of run plays do they have?"

A stand-up linebacker is not only asked to harass the quarterback, but he also finds himself chasing tight ends and running backs in the pattern. That takes a special kind of athlete, fluid and agile enough for both tasks - moving forward and backward.

That said, pass rush is the most important skill because outside linebackers, not ends, are the primary pressure players in a 3-4.

"Sacks aside, it's how they (rush)," Phillips said, "and whether they can do it at the next level."

Phillips sees that potential in Williams and Butler, which is one reason why Ellis will continue his solid career elsewhere.

His official release Tuesday wasn't much of a surprise - the drafting of Williams and Butler in April signaled the Cowboys' shift toward a youthful direction - but the timing seemed a little premature. After all, Williams has participated in only a handful of non-contact practices and Butler won't complete his schoolwork until mid-June, just in time for the team's first full mini-camp.

But neither will be asked to start as rookies like Ware did in '05. The Cowboys feel Spencer, also a former college end, is ready for full-time duty after an injury to each leg (knee and hamstring) slowed his second season. The third-year vet has just 4.5 sacks in 24 career games but looked dominant at times last year and feels more comfortable in Phillips' scheme.

"Leaps and bounds," Spencer said. "I learned so much my first two years being able to play and be out there with these guys and then have experience with Greg and D-Ware around me. Those dudes helped out a lot, too."

The depth behind Ware and Spencer is unproven, but that's where Phillips and linebackers coach Reggie Herring step in. Although arguably the biggest adjustment is understanding and dropping into coverage, Phillips says the Cowboys are working "heavy" with Williams on proper pass rush technique. Butler will receive the same lessons when he's eligible to practice again.

Phillips said Williams has gotten "better and better as we've gone along" in meetings and the OTA (organized team activity) practices at nearby Standridge Field.

"He's got a tremendous first step that not many players have off the football and he's got a lot of strength," Phillips said. "Of course, he rushed well in college but I think he's gotten better. I see a lot of good things in him.

"We've got to be able to teach them to rush. They (Williams and Butler) knew how to rush some, but to teach the techniques and getting off on the ball every play, where you use your hands, where your feet are, all those things. Even though they can rush well, they don't come out of college as polished pass rushers."

Ware has taken an active role in accelerating Williams' transition by working with him on hand placement and rush moves after practice. Like Ware, both rookies were high sack producers in college; Williams led the Big 12 with 13 sacks last year while Butler's 12 ranked second in the Pac-10.

"(Ware) is showing me a lot of ways to get off blocks, standing up and getting off the ball fast," Williams said. "He said he knows I'm fast enough and strong enough. That's why he's working with me like that."

And with Ellis out of the rotation, Ware also realizes the rookies might be called upon sooner than expected.

"It is an opportunity," Williams said, "because that's giving me the right to step up and show that I can come in and play my rookie year."

Phillips believes both his young guys eventually can do so if needed.

He knows them when he sees them.