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With Wade Phillips, aggressive defense is back in town

Check out photos from Wade Phillips' coaching career, including a stint as the Broncos' defensive coordinator from 1989-1992 and head coach from 1993-1994. All photos from Associated Press.

With Wade Phillips as the Broncos' new defensive coordinator, expect the Broncos to turn loose their pass rushers.

Phillips and Defensive Backs Coach Joe Woods became the final pieces to the puzzle of the Broncos' defensive coaching staff Wednesday night. They joined Bill Kollar and Reggie Herring, who were named to coach the defensive line and linebackers, respectively, in the previous week.

Woods is new to Phillips, having coached with the Buccaneers, Vikings and Raiders in 11 previous NFL seasons, but Herring and Kollar are not, having worked under Phillips during his three-year stint as defensive coordinator with the Texans from 2011-13.

Together, they will oversee an expected transition to a 3-4 alignment, which has been a Phillips trademark for decades.

The switch should be a smooth one for the Broncos. Although they worked out of a base 4-3 alignment the last four seasons, they interspersed 3-4 looks. And with the nickel package essentially being the base defense in the modern NFL, the Broncos' personnel groupings may not look all that different.

Check out photos of new Broncos linebackers coach Reggie Herring. All photos by Associated Press.

"With Jack [Del Rio] here the past four years, we've played 3-4, we've played 4-3, we've played everything," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. "So us playing in every scheme since we've been here, I don't think it will be hard to adjust at all."

Further, with edge rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, prototypical 5-technique defensive ends in Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson and quick tackling machines in Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall, the Broncos have the personnel to succeed in the 3-4. The only question is at nose tackle, where Terrance Knighton is set to become a free agent in March.

"I want a defense where we can create our own identity," Miller said at the Pro Bowl. "You've got the Seahawks defense, the old Bears defense. I want to get back to the Broncos defense (as) the Orange Crush. I want for us to start developing our own identity."

And with the personnel on hand, that identity should be an aggressive one. That style has been a hallmark of Phillips' defenses since he spent three seasons on Buddy Ryan's defensive staff with the Philadelphia Eagles from 1986-88.

Ryan came to Philadelphia after leading the Chicago Bears to their only Super Bowl win on the strength of their famed "46" defense, the unit Miller referenced, which was arguably the best pressure defense in NFL history. Ryan took those principles to Philadelphia, where Phillips joined him to craft a swarming unit led by Reggie White, Jerome Brown and Clyde Simmons.

But Phillips knew he needed to step out of the long shadows in which he coached for his first decade in the NFL: first his father, O.A. "Bum" Phillips, and then Ryan. That led him to Denver for his first Broncos stint in 1989, where he revitalized the Orange Crush for a new generation, applying the aggressive tactics to a defense featuring two elite safeties -- Steve Atwater and Dennis Smith -- and a pair of premium outside linebackers in Karl Mecklenburg and Simon Fletcher.

The Broncos rocketed up the defensive table in Phillips' first season, going from 22nd to 3rd in yardage allowed, 18th to third in yards per play permitted and 14th to fourth in sack rate.

Massive improvement is typical for Phillips when he joins a new team. In his eight previous stops as a defensive coordinator or head coach, his defenses shot up the league rankings, improving by an average of 10.25 spots in yards per play, 9.5 positions in sack rate and 12.5 spots in yardage allowed per game.

"He's a great defensive mind," said Harris.

His biggest turnarounds came in Denver in 1989, Buffalo in 1995, Dallas (as head coach) in 2007 and, finally, Houston in 2011, where his arrival and the drafting of J.J. Watt turned the Texans defense from one of the league's worst into one its best overnight.

Phillips' task is different for his second stint in Denver -- and different than at any other stop in his career. This is not a defense in need of complete restoration; it ranked second in the NFL in yardage allowed per play and third in yardage per game.

But a defense built on two Pro Bowl edge rushers in Miller and Ware ranked a disappointing 21st in sack rate. Although it could generate pressure, it didn't finish the job nearly as often as expected.

Its nadir in regards to pressure came in the divisional-round loss to Indianapolis Jan. 11, when the Broncos blitzed just eight times and never sacked Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who is one of the league's most mobile quarterbacks, but also played behind one of the league's most unstable offensive lines. In the postseason, that line got the better of a Broncos pass rush that featured a front four at full strength.

That day, the Broncos defense lacked the identity it wanted and Miller later cited, and the Colts gashed it.

Phillips' job is simple: to use pressure to make opposing offenses uncomfortable. He has the tools -- perhaps more of them at once than he has ever possessed in a career that has seen him guide stars like Elvin Bethea, Rickey Jackson, Reggie White, Bruce Smith, and, in recent years, Ware and Watt.

In fact, in Jackson, the Saints' Hall of Fame linebacker from the 1980s and 1990s, Phillips has an early prototype of Miller, a strong-side linebacker with the speed to rush from the edge and the power to get past a tight end from a strong side to disrupt the run.

And that's why Phillips appears to be a good fit, as he becomes the first former full-time Broncos head coach to return to the team's staff as an assistant. (Eric Studesville was an interim coach in 2010.) He's seen it all. He knows how to maximize his talent. He will attack. And he improves the defense, no matter where he goes.

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