Cowboys' Mike Zimmer, Eagles' Vic Fangio among 7 defensive play-callers in new places worth keeping eye on

Jaguars could boast a dark horse defense

My “question for a new play-caller” series (companion piece? filler?) continues with the defensive side of the ball. Again, there are changes galore across the league for the point negaters, with new and familiar faces alike.

Does Ryan Nielsen turn Travon Walker into Travon Runner?

Nielsen impressed in his first go-around as an NFL defensive play-caller during his only season as the coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons in 2023. The Falcons far outplayed their overall talent level, with Nielsen carrying over a decent chunk from his previous stop as an assistant coach with the New Orleans Saints under Dennis Allen.

That “chunk” was a preference for size up front; a defensive line that features size and a push-the-pocket style meant to suffocate quarterbacks into making poor decisions.

Ideally, the line is backed by linebackers and defensive backs capable of holding up in coverage and blitzing alike. Nielsen, along with Allen in New Orleans, likes to change up the back end of coverage looks after the snap, especially on passing downs like third and second-and-long. It's more than just changing from one coverage look to another. While Nielsen would indeed spin the Rolodex of what the Falcons were running on each down, whether it was man-to-man or zone (typically a cloud coverage featuring at least one side of Cover 2), the Falcons were frequent blitzers and users of simulated and creeper pressure that feature an atypical four pass rushers or even dropping eight into coverage (the generously listed at 281 pounds Calais Campbell had more than a handful snaps in coverage last season, casting a shadow on everyone else down the field while he was likely trying to remember basketball drills from two decades ago).

No matter what the game plan concoction was for a given week, the underlying formula for Nielsen (and, again, Allen) was the same: funk up the coverage look with everything at his disposal, try to get the quarterback to hold onto the ball for a hair longer, squeeze the pocket with jumbo linemen, and make QBs perform and execute mentally and physically into and out of tight spaces over and over again.

The Jaguars have an imperfect roster. When you start to squint at it and reconsider general manager Trent Baalke’s affinity for size, there actually might be something here for Nielsen to work with. Josh Allen is a better pass rusher than what Nielsen had in Atlanta and he fits perfectly into this cloak-and-hammer style. Arik Armstead was another nice fit for this team and can bounce inside and out with how Nielsen sees fit.

The Jaguars' investment at linebacker should also benefit from this defensive system. Streamlining things for Devin Lloyd and putting Foyesade Oluokun into a Demario Davis-like role that does a little bit of everything and shores things up for the defense.

Tyson Campbell will be asked to play aggressive and be tasked with defending some of the league’s better receivers, something he should thrive in, even if there will be times he loses in one-on-one spots. Andre Cisco’s ability to blitz in an aggressive scheme should also fit. After that, there are some question marks, especially across from Campbell and Cisco on the backend and how Darnell Savage will hold up in a full-time role in the slot. (I have some degrees of optimism with Savage’s foray as the starting slot in Duval, by the way. He flashed in the role at the end of 2022 and this scheme might focus his talent in the right way.)

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - NOVEMBER 19: Travon Walker #44 of the Jacksonville Jaguars during introductions prior to the game against the Tennessee Titans at EverBank Field on November 19, 2023 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)
Will a new defensive coordinator help Travon Walker lift his game to new heights? (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)

Perhaps the biggest question mark on this defensive side is the Jags' former No. 1 draft pick in edge defender Travon Walker. His career has been mostly in flashes, but those flashes were enough for Walker to rack up 10 sacks in 2023. Walker’s best plays in his career have generally been against the run, despite those sacks last season. He collapses any poor tight end who has to block him and can disrupt plays by simply shoving the blocker into the running back’s path, helping out the defense even without it showing up in the box score.

As a pass rusher, Walker is still developing. At the end of 2023, his skill set still typically consisted of bull rushes straight down the tackle, with an attempt at a hand swipe or bend around the corner every once in a while. That straight-line style, and reliance on power and length, will actually fit nicely with Nielsen’s defense. It could be further unlocked if Nielsen moves Walker around the defensive front on passing downs, creating matchup advantages with Walker on shorter-armed and, in theory, less athletic interior offensive linemen.

This solid match of personnel and preferred style could make for an interesting defense in Jacksonville. Remember, Nielsen turned a bottom-three defense into a top 10 one in his first year as a play-caller (the Falcons ranked fourth in success rate allowed and ninth in EPA per play allowed in 2023). A leap from their former No. 1 pick, with a boost from a scheme that neatly fits his strengths, could make the Jags a scary defense, even with flaws.

What is Jeff Hafley’s scheme?

Hafley pulled a Nick Saban, making the jump from college football head coach to NFL defensive coordinator, with Hafley heading to Green Bay after leading Boston College much like Saban moved on as Toledo’s head coach to be the Cleveland Browns' defensive coordinator for Bill Belichick in 1991. Yes, there's just a few differences with this comparison, but Hafley indeed moved from being an FBS head coach to call defensive plays for the Packers and head coach Matt LaFleur.

Hafley brings a preference for four-down defensive looks (which means less of Preston Smith in coverage). More important, his scheme features plenty of man coverage and single-high looks. Hafley’s defense feels more like something that was in vogue about five years ago and something that we currently see in only a few defenses in the NFL, like the Browns with Jim Schwartz and Gus Bradley with the Colts.

It’s an interesting zag from LaFleur after living in more of three-down base world under defensive coordinators Joe Barry and Mike Pettine.

The biggest ask for this type of defense is on the defensive backs to live in true man situations and the defensive line to consistently generate pressure with four pass rushers. The Packers' front has some firepower with Rashan Gary, Smith, 2023 first-round draft selection Lukas Van Ness on the outside, Kenny Clark, Devonte Wyatt (who started to come on in the back-half of 2023) and even Day 3 draft standout Karl Brooks.

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - JANUARY 14: Jaire Alexander #23 of the Green Bay Packers reacts to an interception during the first quarter against the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Wild Card Playoff game at AT&T Stadium on January 14, 2024 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
Jaire Alexander had plenty to say in the Packers' road playoff upset of the Cowboys in January. Green Bay's secondary might be even better this coming season. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

Health will be the biggest key for the Packers' backend, but they have a more than solid group at cornerback. There's Jaire Alexander at one outside spot, newly (and highly) paid Keisean Nixon at slot and either Eric Stokes or Carrington Valentine at the other corner spot. That’s not bad! It’s even pretty good. There’s even depth behind that group.

I like when teams zag. But this type of defense relies, perhaps even more than typical defenses, on personnel advantages. Can that group hold up against Justin Jefferson, the Bears and the Lions for six games a season? There’s also the 49ers, Rams and Texans on the schedule, all featuring offenses from Kyle Shanahan backgrounds that typically excelled against this type of defense. It'll be interesting to keep track of what exactly Hafley uses as change-ups for his single-high looks and countermeasures against the league’s more explosive passing games.

How can Jesse Minter make this work?

Michigan’s defenses under Jesse Minter were hyper-game planned. They played more NFL-like than the typical units seen on Saturdays. Michigan offered a smorgasbord of coverages and pressure looks that gave quarterbacks and offensive lines fits, with the defensive discipline to limit explosive plays despite the ever-morphing shape of the final defensive call.

Minter inherits a Chargers group with name recognition, but with more holes than long-term building blocks. There’s still high-octane juice to squeeze from Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa, and Tuli Tuipulotu has a good rookie year to build on. The interior defensive line, along with the entire spine of the defense and defensive back room, are still worrisome.

At linebacker, the Chargers signed Denzel Perryman in free agency and spent their third-round draft selection on Michigan LB Junior Colson. The No. 1 linebacker on my 2024 NFL Draft big board makes a ton of sense for this defense. Not only was he handpicked by his old coaches, but he also should be a solidifying force for this entire group because of his intelligence and sound play as the Chargers transition to a new regime (Colson, in a very Chargers way, already got hit with an injury during OTAs).

But, that’s one rookie at one position. The defensive back room is filled with retreads, rookies and players like safety Derwin James Jr., a former All-Pro who had his worst and most inconsistent season as a starter, often looking disinterested during Brandon Staley’s last season as head coach and play-caller. And the cornerbacks aren’t exactly game-wreckers in their own right.

The Chargers, even with Jim Harbaugh and Justin Herbert, are at the start of a rebuild, or at the very least a revamp, on both sides of the ball. It’s no mistake that Harbaugh brought Minter along for his foray at the helm of this franchise. Minter has shown to be an exemplary game planner and play-caller at Michigan and is one of the brightest young coaches at any level of football. He will run, and coach up, just about every scheme under the sun. How he patches this Chargers defense together in 2024, before the reinforcements start to arrive, will be a fun challenge to watch him tackle.

Dallas Cowboy' s defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer give players directions during an NFL rookie minicamp football practice Friday, May 10, 2024, in Frisco, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
The Cowboys' defense collapsed mightily in the playoffs. Mike Zimmer is in Dallas to fix that. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

What is Mike Zimmer’s plan to stop the run?

Former NFC North opponents are now coworkers in Dallas.

Zimmer replaces the departing Dan Quinn as defensive coordinator under head coach Mike McCarthy, returning to the NFL after two years working as an analyst for Deion Sanders at Colorado and Jackson State. Zimmer, even in his final season in Minnesota, was one of the best third-down play designers and callers in the NFL, with his units often finishing at the top or in the top 10 in conversion rate (the Vikings rankings in third-down conversion rate from 2017-2021 were, in each respective year, first, first, 19th, ninth and fourth). His four-down double-mug looks are copied and emulated throughout the league.

Mike Zimmer's double-mug looks — with two linebackers lined up on each side of the center —
Mike Zimmer set a trend with his double-mug looks — with a linebacker lined up on each side of the center — on defense. (All22)

The Cowboys have a wealth of pass-rush talent in Micah Parsons, DeMarcus Lawrence, Osa Odighizuwa and others, plus Zimmer, whose background is in defensive back play, gets to work with the Cowboys' talented and versatile DB room (side question is who becomes his Harrison Smith chess piece? Donovan Wilson could be a blitz machine under Zimmer). I have zero concerns about the Cowboys getting off the field in passing situations because of that combo of speed and Zimmer’s résumé.

Getting to those passing downs is what I keep coming back to. It was an issue under Quinn that will likely remain under Zimmer, unless there is a level up in play from someone on the roster. That issue is how the Cowboys will consistently stop teams that line up and pound the rock on them.

Their current defensive roster is predicated on speed. Who can eat up blocks up front will be paramount to their success. When Johnathan Hankins, who thrived in this role as the run plugger, wasn’t on the field, the Cowboys' run defense evaporated. Hankins is now with the Seattle Seahawks, so can Mazi Smith improve his anchor in his second season to take on blocks more consistently than he has shown in college or as a rookie. Or can seventh-round selection Justin Rogers outperform his draft slot in a limited role that lets others thrive?

The linebacker position saw improved play from Damone Clark, but that group will rely on Eric Kendricks to be its steadying force. Kendricks looked like he lost a step last season with the Chargers. Perhaps he will get a boost back in a familiar role under Zimmer. I have compared Leighton Vander Esch to Claude Makélélé’s role with Real Madrid in the past; a stabilizing force as the Galácticos around him did their thing. With the playmakers on the Cowboys' defense, Kendricks has to be just passable to help keep the floor high. The Cowboys also have two of their former third-round selections in DeMarvion Overshown and Marist Liufau on the roster, and getting starter-level play out of either would also help so much on this defense, especially since the Cowboys figure to run heavier personnel than the nickel-and-dime personnel looks that Quinn primarily used in Dallas.

Zimmer is another four-down practitioner (which is why I liked the fit of second-round selection Marshawn Kneeland at defensive end) who won’t likely move Parsons around as much as Quinn did on early downs, which could help solidify the defense more via structure than chaos. (I am extra curious about how Zimmer is going to deploy Parsons on passing downs. Anthony Barr was unlocked in this defense, especially on those double-mug blitz looks. And while Barr was good, he wasn’t near the level of Micah Parsons).

So, again, I'm excited about the third-down stuff! Everything before that? More than a little curious how it will all look. Though Zimmer’s past work as a coach, especially now getting to focus his duties as a coordinator, makes me think he'll get more out of this group than first meets the eye, even if the Cowboys get overwhelmed by the better run offenses in the league.

Does Dan Quinn revert back to more of his Seahawks days?

Onto Quinn’s new team. The Commanders' pass defense was awful last year, allowing .16 EPA per pass, essentially the equivalent of an All-Pro season from a quarterback. Quinn is a play-caller who formerly majored in single-high coverages that reflected his past experience with the Seattle Seahawks. He morphed his defense into a man-coverage heavy defense with Cover 2 being his main change-up call.

These defenses typically overwhelmed overmatched opponents that had poor offensive lines or quarterback play because of their personnel and speed. The defenders forced someone, sometimes a poor guard, to block Micah Parsons one-on-one and forced someone else to win a one-on-one down in two seconds or less.

The Commanders don’t have Micah Parsons. And they don’t have Trevon Diggs, nor the rest of the Cowboys' defensive backs. So, what does Quinn’s formula look like with Washington’s personnel?

Washington Commanders head coach Dan Quinn speaks during a news conference before their NFL football practice in Ashburn, Va., Wednesday, May 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Dan Quinn brings his defensive résumé to a Commanders team in desperate need of improvement. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Daron Payne is a superstar in the middle and an energized Jonathan Allen can still dominate. Mike Sainristil could make an instant impact as a dynamo slot defender. Does he line up into something that looks more like what the Colts do with Gus Bradley, who has never really veered away from the single-high Legion of Boom coverages? Is there a reliance on the beef in the middle, plenty of defensive line movement and a feisty slot player sticking his nose in the mess?

There are a lot of interesting pieces on this defense, in good and bad ways. Frankie Luvu could fit nicely if he gets to move around and Jeremy Chinn is best near the box, something that he will likely be doing in Washington. Bobby Wagner’s name recognition and intangibles have long been carrying his roster spot more than his on-field play, so how Washington covers up his weaknesses in coverage will be something to monitor.

This defensive back room has the length that Quinn prefers, which might tempt him to lean into single-high looks that naturally create more one-on-one situations for the DBs. So, if Quinn carries over the more man-heavy defenses of his time in Dallas and there are some growing pains, the Commanders couldn’t get any worse against the pass than they were last season.

They aren’t without weapons for Quinn to use, but how he unleashes them — with the venom like he did in Dallas or with more of a boa-like suffocating defense like he deployed in Seattle; I’m going to skip Atlanta for this piece — will determine how we assess this grab bag personnel.

Can Shane Bowen find a defensive back group to put this unit over the top?

Bowen and the recent Titans defenses have been the kings (hell, the titans) of mucking it up for offenses, even in overmatched scenarios. Bowen’s defense used a brawling style up front, and a mix of quarters and Cover 3 on the backend. A little bit of everything else mixed in as well.

Bowen is another young smorgasbord defensive play-caller, like Minter, Seahawks head coach Mike Macdonald and others who are starting to proliferate around the league. They throw anything and everything at quarterbacks and offensive lines to slow them down.

The Giants, especially after the addition of Brian Burns through trade, have the teeth up front to take a chomp out of a majority of offensive lines around the league. Dexter Lawrence is a perennial All-Pro candidate and is the rare nose tackle who can disrupt the run and pass. Kayvon Thibodeaux really came on last year, becoming more than a Wink Martindale blitz merchant and a strong secondary disrupter who should pair very well with Burns on the outside.

Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Shane Bowen on the sideline during overtime of an NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
Shane Bowen could shape the Giants into one of the best defensive units in the NFL. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

When looking to the secondary, Deonte Banks already showed off high-end play last year. How Bowen molds the rest of the group will help this defense reach its top 10 potential (that’s how strong I think the front is). All of the moving parts after the snap requires strong secondary communication and timing. How quickly Tyler Nubin and Dru Phillips can contribute will be key. Nubin’s two-way game fits really well in this type of defense that uses a lot of quarters shells before the snap, and Phillips is a smart player who can be a positive player against the run, in coverage and as a blitzer.

There is something really workable here for Bowen and Big Blue. This defensive line is going to overwhelm more than a handful of offenses and their young secondary will surely have growing pains. But this has the makings of a group that rapidly ascends as the season goes along, especially if Bowen can find the right personnel to work with. The good thing is that he has worked with much worse in the past.

How does Vic Fangio solidify the spine of this defense?

There are a few similarities between how I view the Eagles' and the Cowboys' respective defenses. New seasoned play-caller, plenty of pass rush juice and the overarching question of “that’s your linebacker plan?”

Fangio is going to run what he runs, which is plenty of two-high coverage shells, sometimes a late-rotating safety and sometimes with a blitz or two thrown in there, just to check your rules every once in a while.

Like their rival Cowboys, my main question for Fangio and this defense is how do the Eagles consistently stop the run and shore up the middle of the field? With the safeties and the slot defender, there is a pathway to winning plays that will at the very least help solidify the spine of what was a leaky defense in 2023. The Eagles brought back C.J. Gardner-Johnson and drafted Cooper DeJean; both have positional versatility and both are wildly better than the play the Eagles had in those spots last season.

The inside linebacker spots, especially if Fangio uses more nickel personnel, are still question marks. Devin White is best used in focused roles as a man defender and blitzer, and was often lost when playing without Lavonte David in his career. Nakobe Dean hasn’t been able to consistently see the field, Oren Burks was a net-negative on the field in San Francisco and fifth-round selection Jeremiah Trotter Jr. is best going only forward. Fangio has made limited pieces work in the past, but this position was a glaring weakness on this roster last year, a weakness that ended up crippling the rest of the unit into one of the league’s worst. Fangio is an improvement as a play-caller, and they did technically improve the personnel, but this unit could be another weakness in a hurry with a singular injury.

Up front, Jalen Carter tailed off as the season went along but looked like the force he was advertised as at the beginning of the season. Milton Williams is an underrated player who will thrive with more playing time. And Bryce Huff and Josh Sweat will provide plenty of ways to get after the quarterback (I’m curious what Huff’s stat line will look like in an extended role).

PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 26: Jordan Davis #90 of the Philadelphia Eagles runs out of the tunnel prior to an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills at Lincoln Financial Field on November 26, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Perry Knotts/Getty Images)
Jordan Davis' play on the defensive line could be critical for defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.. (Photo by Perry Knotts/Getty Images)

For this type of defense to thrive, especially with the extended fronts that Fangio likes to use, it requires talent and size up front. He needs players to eat up the initial blocks and keep others clean. Otherwise, the off-ball defenders will quickly see offensive linemen in their faces when defending the run. Carter fits that role, and really a role in any type of defense. But Jordan Davis hasn’t shown the style, at least consistently, to help out the Eagles' potentially spotty linebackers behind him. Davis has to start playing to a level that reflects his draft status, both for this Eagles' defense and team to make a run in a wide-open NFC and for his own career’s sake. He can do it without showing up in the box score. Simply using his size to eat up double-teams will boost several teammates on a given play. Fangio’s defense gets a jump in effectiveness with a player of Davis' (theoretical) skills and it would help ease so many other concerns the roster has and actually complement it nicely. Fangio might be the one to finally get that theoretical skill set out of him. Otherwise, the soft middle of this defense, though improved, might again be the juicy area for offenses to pick at as the season goes along.