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Buffalo Bills cross-training rookie Harrison Phillips around the defensive line

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Not even a week into training camp, and the Bills are handing Phillips extra responsibilities.

The Buffalo Bills have seen encouraging signs from the early performance of rookie third round pick Harrison Phillips in training camp. The former Stanford defensive tackle was expected to play this season as a backup nose tackle for Star Lotulelei. In an early training camp interview, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier stressed a desire to leave Phillips at one position and let him develop consistency before trying him in new roles, but as Buffalo’s coaching staff became acquainted with Phillips, they’ve started to put more on his plate.

The day of Frazier’s interview, with Kyle Williams taking a rest day, Phillips rotated with the starters at Williams’s penetrating three-technique role. The coaching staff had mentioned that they didn’t want to overwhelm Phillips, but he handled the new responsibilities and was soon penetrating into the backfield. The coaches took notice, with Sean McDermott having positive comments for Phillips during a Q&A on Tuesday. Speaking to his tackle’s camp performance, McDermott had this to say:

“The thing that stands out right away is how much of a student of the game he is and how seriously he takes his job,” said McDermott. “You guys see that; he’s smart, he’s powerful. There’s times when the older guys are getting him and there’s times when he’s getting the older guys, which is good, for this point in his career.”

McDermott also shared his thoughts about how Phillips could fit into Buffalo’s scheme.

“Our defense is a little bit different than the one he played with in college,” noted McDermott. “I would say for us, at least, we’re more of a packing style defense. The way he played at Stanford, and I don’t know their system, but with respect to what I know of it, it’s a little more ‘read and attack and react’. We’re asking him to penetrate a little bit more and get up the field [...] Ideally what we’d like, for our tackles to be interchangeable on one-three, three-one, two gap occasionally if we need to, if it’s called for by the situation. We’re training him to know both at this point.”

As a refresher, the term “technique” refers to the alignment of a defensive lineman relative to the offensive line. The numbers start at 0, for a player directly in front of the center, and rise to 9 or more, with each number moving a little further away from the middle of the play. The 3-technique lineman aligns on a guard’s outside shoulder, while a 1-technique aligns in between the center and the guard. A 1-technique usually handles the responsibilities of a nose tackle for a 4-3 defense. He’s going to control his gap, and possibly a second gap, but this task usually involves locking up the center and a guard to create one-on-one matchups for his teammates. A 3-technique is the primary interior penetrator. By playing between the guard and the tackle, and knowing that he has an edge rusher to occupy the tackle, the DT knows he should have a one-on-one opportunity. His job is to use his power and speed to blow up the pocket before the QB can throw the ball away.

At Stanford, Phillips was nominally a nose guard, but he lined up anywhere between the tackles on a snap-to-snap basis. That experience playing opposite a center or outside a guard gives him working familiarity with the type of roles McDermott is serving him. With a Combine-leading 42 bench press reps, Phillips can have the strength and endurance to handle multiple blockers if the Bills want him to play the 1-technique. But as he develops his pass rushing technique further and develops a pass rushing plan, he could also become an impact player at 3-technique. As we mentioned in our post-draft scouting report of Phillips, he needs to improve his hand usage and improve his snap-to-snap consistency. His impressive mental makeup suggests that these are issues he can fix. If he can do those things, Phillips can meet Buffalo’s expectations and give them a versatile starting defensive tackle in the future.