Why defensive tackle Jordan Phillips is only beginning to shine

Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Jordan Phillips (97) sack of Washington Redskins quarterback Dwayne Haskins (7) Buffalo Bills vs Washington Redskins, November 3, 2019 at New Era Field. Photo by Bill Wippert.
Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Jordan Phillips (97) sack of Washington Redskins quarterback Dwayne Haskins (7) Buffalo Bills vs Washington Redskins, November 3, 2019 at New Era Field. Photo by Bill Wippert.

Bills fans first came to know him from his violent arm waving in between plays as he’d appeal to the Buffalo faithful in the stands to make some noise to help their defense. A waiver claim pickup from Miami last October, Jordan Phillips was just trying to blend in.

After signing a one-year contract to return this season, the teammate they call ‘Big Phil’ is providing Buffalo with a lot more than just his contagious personality.

“He's doing some good things for us, for sure,” said defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. “He did bring a lot of energy when we got him a season ago and he's doing that now. He's bringing a lot of energy and making some splash plays for us that really make a difference in games. Hopefully he can continue that, but he's done a good job for us throughout the season.”

Table inside Article
Name, Team Sacks by a DT in 2019
Jordan Phillips, Buffalo Bills 6.0
Aaron Donald, LA Rams 5.0
Nick Williams, Chicago Bears 5.0
Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh Steelers 4.5
Larry Ogunjobi, Cleveland Browns 4.0

Phillips leads the team in sacks, tackles for loss and quarterback hits this season. His half dozen sacks currently lead the league among defensive tackles including L.A. Rams All-Pro Aaron Donald (5).

After feeling his way in a new system with new teammates in a new environment, Phillips’ game is blossoming in his second season with Buffalo.

“I think the longer you are in the process, the more you start to develop,” said defensive line coach Bill Teerlinck. “Getting to know everybody and buying into the culture of the team first, and day by day his steady work habits have shown up on Sundays. Productivity, more consistency. ‘Phil’ is a contagious personality. People are drawn to him and that’s good. He’s opened up his arms to his team and his community and doing that has helped his game on the field too.”

Blending in wasn’t easy at the start. There was an adjustment period, especially in his first few days with Buffalo.

Adjusting to accountability

Phillips’ level of anger was quickly reaching the boiling point. In his first week in Buffalo, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier had called him out on film in front of the entire defense. Fortunately for Phillips, Star Lotulelei was seated next to him and could see his fellow defensive tackle was about to blow.

“I had to calm him down,” said Lotulelei. “Coach (Frazier) is a straightforward coordinator. He doesn’t sugarcoat anything. I don’t think Jordan was used to that from a coach. So when Leslie told him what it was and called him out in front of the whole defense, it shocked him.

“He was getting heated and he was sitting next to me, I put my hand on his arm and said, ‘You’re good. Calm down. Just take it. Understand who Les is as a coach.’ Jordan is just a great guy. He works hard. It’s paying off for him this year.”

Now fully ingratiated in the team-first culture and feeling the backing of his teammates and coaches, Phillips is in his healthiest state of mind as a pro.

“I’m just enjoying it,” Phillips said. “Going out there, it’s fun to finally play free and not have to worry about anything and go out there and try to do my job and make plays.”

Head coach Sean McDermott frequently talks about how opportunities on his team are earned. Earlier this season, Phillips wasn’t even starting. He had been unseated by first-round pick Ed Oliver in the lineup.

In a different locker room, where Phillips may not have felt supported, his reaction might have been much different. But in Buffalo, the defensive tackle just put his head down and kept working.

“He’s a great guy,” said Lotulelei. “He was more than willing to come in and put in the work and adjust to the way that we do things, as opposed to what he was used to doing when he first got in the league. He’s been nothing but hard-working. He has a great attitude. He’s a big juice guy and gets a lot of guys going. I think there’s a big misconception about his attitude and who he is as a person.”

“I’ve earned the trust of the people, the coaches and everybody in the building and that’s the first time that’s happened since college,” said Phillips. “It’s fun. Coach Frazier, he’s going to have my back. Sean’s going to have my back. Coach Aaron (Whitecotton), Coach Bill (Teerlinck), all of them. I can just feel the trust and that’s the biggest thing. When coaches have confidence in a player, you can go out there and do what you do.”

Buffalo Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes (55) and defensive tackle Jordan Phillips (97) Buffalo Bills vs Cincinnati Bengals, September 22, 2019 at New Era Field. Photo by Bill Wippert
Buffalo Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes (55) and defensive tackle Jordan Phillips (97) Buffalo Bills vs Cincinnati Bengals, September 22, 2019 at New Era Field. Photo by Bill Wippert

Still working on himself

Phillips will be the first to tell you he’s not perfect. As he says he’s working on “his filter.”

When he first arrived last season, Lotulelei largely served as his filter.

“He’s helped me so much mentally and just honestly I’d get mad a lot and he’d calm me down,” Phillips said. “He talks me out of things. He does so much for me that of anybody I’d give credit to here it’d be Star.”

“He’s not perfect. That’s why I’m there,” said Lotulelei of Phillips. “Every time I feel him getting like a steam pot, he starts whistling a little bit, I stop him and say, ‘Alright, chill out. We’re good.’ And then he’s alright. He’s been great since he’s been here.”

“It’s not that I’m not in control when I’m angry, it’s that I’ll say how I feel,” Phillips said. “That’s just something I had to work on because it doesn’t go good with everybody.”

Jordan Phillips tracks down Tennessee QB Marcus Mariota at Buffalo Bills vs Tennessee Titans, October 6, 2019 at Nissan Stadium. Photo by Bill Wippert.
Jordan Phillips tracks down Tennessee QB Marcus Mariota at Buffalo Bills vs Tennessee Titans, October 6, 2019 at Nissan Stadium. Photo by Bill Wippert.

Special talent

It’s easy to forget that Phillips was a second-round draft choice just four years ago. At 6-6 and 340 pounds, Phillips’ athletic ability combined with his natural strength made him a unique prospect. Those traits are now what provide the Bills with the kind of position flexibility they covet.

“He has all the tools you want in a D-lineman,” said Teerlinck. “He has size. He has strength. He has power and he’s quick-footed for a big man. His build and his ability gives us flexibility. If he had to he probably could go rush at end. Whether it’s third down, short yardage, goal line he can fill the void or take reps and create plays for our team. His variety and ability to play a couple of different spots and excel in different areas of the field is good for us.”

For Lotulelei, who has been around his share of athletic specimens, Phillips, in his estimation ranks right up there.

“He’s very rare,” said Lotulelei. “There are a couple of guys I was with in Carolina, K.K. (Kawann Short) is a big guy whose ability to run was unbelievable. (Julius) Peppers was another guy who had unreal movement skills for a man his size. And then Greg Hardy was just a freak athlete. Jordan is one of those rare guys who you don’t see very often. Just a giant who can move. You’ve seen him run. He can run. He’s putting it all to good work this year.”

Game-changing work to be exact.

Two of his three sacks against the Titans in Week 5 came on third downs. Against the Dolphins up just 14-9 with Miami in a 1st-and-goal at the two-yard line, Phillips blew up the play, forced Ryan Fitzpatrick to fumble, resulting in a loss of 10 yards. One play later, Tre’Davious White had an interception.

“He’s made big plays when we’ve needed them,” said Teerlinck. “Phil has had an ability to find a way to make a big play at a big time, be it down and distance, field position, on the goal line. His game is starting to really shine.”  

For Teerlinck however, there is an even more valuable asset in Phillips’ game than his physical talents. It’s his eye for the game.

“Phil is a smart guy and knows football,” he said. “He’s starting to take the classroom to the field and that’s led to production.”

“The physical abilities are great, but his mentality is pretty different,” said Lotulelei. “He has so much confidence in himself and his abilities, that I don’t think there’s really anybody that he thinks he can’t go out and dominate. Even though his size and physicality and natural athletic abilities are a huge part of it, his mentality sets him apart.”

Scroll through to see the best photos from Buffalo's practice as they prepare for Week 10 against the Cleveland Browns.

Just getting started

No one in Buffalo’s locker room doubts how much Phillips has embraced the team mentality. He and his fellow defensive linemen know individual stats won’t be easy to come by in their scheme and they’re fine with that if it means stacking wins.

“We just do our jobs, and that’s what we preach here and it’s selfless,” Phillips said. “You see everybody across the league getting huge numbers, huge tackles, huge sacks and stuff like that and that’s just not really what our defense is made for. It takes a special person to be able to sit there and say I’m going to go do my job and not go out there and try to get all these crazy things to make me look better.”

Despite that team-first approach Phillips individual numbers are hard to ignore, especially when you consider that he played only about a third of the defensive snaps through the first three games.

“I always knew I had the ability,” he said. “This is just the first year I’ve had an opportunity to even be on the rush team and go out there and try to get the quarterback. So it’s not a surprise to me. It’s not a surprise to the people in the room. It’s just the first opportunity that I’ve gotten.

“As long as I can go out there and dominate and we watch film as a group and we call each other out,” he said. “We tell each other when we have good plays and what’s not. At the end of the day, if I have my teammates’ respect that’s good enough for me.”

As encouraging as his play has been, the teammate that knows Phillips best believes there are even greater heights that ‘Big Phil’s’ game can reach.

“I don’t think this is his peak where he’ll never do better than this,” said Lotulelei. “I feel like the way he’s playing this year is how he can play every year. I feel like he has the ability where he can play consistently like this for a while.”

Not surprisingly, ‘Big Phil’ agrees.

“I haven’t even tapped into what I can do yet,” Phillips said. “I want to be a difference-maker and be able to help this team win any way I can. I want to take over games. Just be more dominant. So we’re going to get into these last eight games where I can really get going and see what happens. I have a lot more to give.”

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