If you watch football for long enough, you realize that the NFL is a copycat league based on trends. This goes for schemes, personnel building, coaching staff, and basically every aspect of an NFL team.
The Eagles were one of the first teams to really understand how to capitalize on a rookie QB deal and win the Super Bowl – although with their backup. They already had a good roster, found a head coach they could trust, and went all-in to draft their guy. If you read only this last sentence, you could easily think it is about the Chiefs trading up to draft Patrick Mahomes in 2017 or the Bills going for Josh Allen in 2018.
Since Sean McVay was hired by the Rams in 2017 and took the football world by storm, teams have been looking for their own McVay, including the Vikings with the signing of Kevin O’Connell last year. And I’ll also mention the number of coaches from Vic Fangio’s coaching tree gaining opportunities to be defensive coordinators – again, the Vikings hiring Ed Donatell last year.
Everyone wants to be successful in everything, and this usually consists in seeing what successful organizations and persons do, copying and altering some things to match your ideas. It’s not the only way though – I find it hard to believe that a team will try to copy the Rams’ all-in strategy due to its multitude of big risks for example.
This was to illustrate how teams copy each other on a daily bases and don’t be mistaken – it’s nothing new. My idea here is to find the trend with defensive coordinators, looking through each hire in the past two cycles (2021 and 2022), and possibly updating it when every defensive coordinator spot is taken for 2023.
Before going to what the best defenses do, let’s go through what teams saw when hiring for defensive coordinator. It won’t matter if the person is calling the plays or not, only if he was hired to be the defensive coordinator.
Since 2021, there have been a total of 21 changes in the DC position (some teams and coaches will overlap). Of those 21, 11 were younger than 45 years old when hired – which follows another trend of hiring a younger coaching staff -, giving us a little over 50%. Their background is also common, with 10 of the 22 coordinators hired (the Saints have co-defensive coordinators) having experience in coaching defensive backs (cornerbacks and/or safeties).
This gives us the idea that teams are looking for young coaches with DB experience on their resumè, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that this will get you success. With teams looking to hire offensive-minded coaches for head coach at a greater pace each year, it’s hard for defensive guys to get a huge buzz, but the most wanted coach is DeMeco Ryans, a former linebacker and LB coach who is only 38 years old. And another coveted DC? Jerod Mayo, also a former LB and current LB coach/co-defensive coordinator for the Patriots.
What Is Working?
Now that we have covered what teams are hiring, let’s take a look at what good defenses do. I asked around about the best defenses in the last two seasons and usually they were the same, with only a few names varying. I also took the freedom to add a name that I find interesting. So the teams that we’ll be looking at are the Bills, Cowboys, Patriots, 49ers, Eagles, Broncos, Lions, and Ravens.
You may have already found something that a lot of those defenses have in common, a good/great pass-rusher or dominant defensive line. Getting to the QB is the first thing you have to do nowadays.
And, as you can imagine, of those 8 teams, 7 had more sacks than the Vikings’ 38 sacks (the Broncos had 36). When we move the conversation to pressures, only the Ravens and the Broncos had less. The big problem is that the Vikings spent way more than Denver to get a similar production.
The way that these teams get to the QB is different though. The Eagles’ defense piled up 70 sacks this year while blitzing only 22% of the snaps – because they have a very talented defensive line -, while the Lions got 39 with a 31% blitz rate. Of course, that this is because different coaches have different philosophies, and personnel may be a factor in this. If you have a defensive line like the Eagles, you can get away with blitzing less.
As said earlier, getting to the QB is the first step to having a good defense, but how you do this will alter.
There are many ways to build a great defense. In the end, it doesn’t matter much how you do it if you know how to adapt to the personnel you have. For example, there’s nothing wrong with Vic Fangio’s system, multiple teams run variations across the league and they’re successful. The problem with Donatell’s defense in 2022 was that he didn’t adapt it to his players’ strengths.
And this youth movement across the league it’s not because young coaches have the solutions. They’re usually more adaptive and open-minded. They have new ideas that an older coach may not have because they’re used to doing things one way and can find it difficult to change.
There’s no right way to call a defense and there’s no prototype of a defensive coordinator. The defense won’t be good just because you hired a young defensive backs coach, but that certainly follows the trend of how teams have hired recently.