In searching for an analogy for Adrian Phillips’ dual role on the Chargers — he is part safety, part linebacker — the Prius, Toyota’s signature hybrid car, is suggested. This causes fellow defensive back and locker mate Craig Mager to chuckle.
“You move like a Prius,” Mager said.
Phillips, the fourth-year pro out of Texas, frowned.
“I don’t want to be a Prius,” he said. “They’re kind of slow.”
Mager then reconsidered.
“But they don’t run out of gas, bro,” he said.
“That is true,” Phillips said with a grin. “That is true.”
At 5-foot-11 and 210 pounds, Phillips might not possess the blazing speed to keep up with fleet wide receivers or the brute strength to shed oncoming linemen, but his combination of coverage and run-stopping skills have fit nicely into defensive coordinator Gus Bradley's scheme.
And like a Prius, Phillips has been fuel-efficient. With the exception of a Week 6 win at Oakland, when he suffered a first-quarter concussion, Phillips has played the majority of defensive snaps and most special-teams snaps since a Week 5 win over the New York Giants.
“He’s like a Swiss army knife; he can do so many different things,” Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward said. “The more you can do, the better. You can find a way to get on the field at all times, even if you’re not a starter. He plays starter’s reps.”
Phillips played sparingly on defense in the first four games, all losses. He assumed a more prominent role in the Oct. 8 win over the Giants when Bradley, looking to maximize a strength (defensive backs depth) and mask a weakness (linebacker depth), began employing more dime packages, with four linemen, one middle linebacker and six defensive backs.
That pushed Phillips closer to and often into the box, where he lines up as an outside linebacker, and brought more speed and agility to a unit that has allowed an average of 18.2 points (third in the NFL) and 201.9 passing yards (fourth) per game.
“He’s been more impressive than I thought he’d be in the box,” coach Anthony Lynn said. “We play a lot of dime because of some matchups, and A.P. is stepping up and taking on offensive linemen, fighting them off and making tackles.”
Phillips, 25, ranks seventh on the team with 59 overall tackles, including a career-high 12 solo tackles at New England on Oct. 29. He has two interceptions, one that sealed a 19-10 victory over Cleveland on Dec. 3, and four pass breakups entering Sunday’s game against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium.
“He gives us that ability to play in the box, off the edge, and he can play back,” Bradley said. “He gives us some really good flexibility in certain personnel situations.”
Phillips, who started eight of 26 games in his first three years with the Chargers, spent most of 2016 as a backup to strong safety Jahleel Addae and free safety Dwight Lowery. His versatility has led to an expanded role this season.
“Personally, I feel like anything they ask me to do, I can do,” Phillips said. “Sometimes I’m at an advantage because linemen are typically slower and I can use my speed to get around them. In coverage, I’m right there up on the guy I’m covering, so it’s good for that. It has its advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes, if those linemen get on you, you’re in for a long day.”
Bradley, in his first season with the Chargers after spending four years as Jacksonville’s head coach and four years before that as Seattle’s defensive coordinator, determined early in the season that Phillips could handle more duties.
“He’s really an instinctive player, and that makes him a quick study, so if you put new things on his plate, he can quickly learn it and play it instinctively,” Bradley said. “But we have to be careful.
“We even talked this week about how much we want to put on his plate as far as multiple positions we ask him to play. You get that comfort and trust level where you just kind of pile it on him, and he seems to handle it pretty well.”
Phillips was a full participant in practice this week after suffering what appeared to be a serious right-ankle injury in the third quarter of Saturday night’s 30-13 loss in Kansas City.
Phillips was down for a few minutes. He eventually limped to the sideline medical tent, where he was greeted by a surprise visitor, his wife, Camille, who had jumped from the Arrowhead Stadium stands to the field to check on her husband.
The scene, captured by NFL Network cameras, led to some good-natured ribbing from teammates and fans. Phillips, who married Camille in Cancun last June, wasn’t about to apologize.
“We had a good laugh about it, but I’m not gonna lie to you — seeing her right there beside me made me feel good,” said Phillips, who returned to the game after his wife was escorted to the locker room.
“I wasn’t too surprised because at first, the injury looked super-bad. From the stands, you don’t know what’s going on, so you want to check to see if your spouse is OK. I would have done the same thing.”
Left tackle Russell Okung (groin) and right tackle Joe Barksdale (hip) were limited participants in Friday’s practice after sitting out Wednesday and Thursday. Lynn said their status for Sunday won’t be determined until game time. … Running back Austin Ekeler practiced again with a heavy, club-like protective cast over his broken left hand and is listed as questionable. “He’s handled the cast better than I thought,” Lynn said. “I thought that would be an easy decision earlier in the week, but he’s made it a harder decision.” Ekeler most likely would be limited to special teams. If he is not activated, Branden Oliver would assume the backup running back spot behind Melvin Gordon. Lynn said Russell Hansbrough, signed to the practice squad two weeks ago, could be activated as the third-string back. “He’s looked good every day,” Lynn said. “He knows part of the playbook. Right now, we don’t have time to teach him the whole playbook.”