Editor’s note: In case you missed part one, be sure to go back and read that here.
As with every season, we saw a slew of coaching changes after 2021 ended. Getting sacked is never fun, but it’s very part of the job in the NFL. 31 teams are always going to be disappointed, and someone has to take the blame.
With new coaches in place, we’ll see defensive systems and philosophies change – some drastically. Defense is always changeable because it’s reactive by nature. But understanding the nebulous concept of “scheme” gives us a great baseline of understanding to build expectations for IDP performance.
It’s important to note that scheme means vastly more than simply 3-4 or 4-3. That’s an entirely inadequate way to describe how different defenses are, not least because all teams run a four-man front most often. If you want to dive much deeper into this concept, you can read a guide here.
Las Vegas Raiders
Old primary defensive coach: Gus Bradley ran the Raiders’ defense in 2021 but lasted just one season there. He’s had a long career as a big-name HC and DC based on his involvement with the early Pete Carroll Seahawks. It must be noted that Bradley had departed for the Jaguars by the time the Seahawks rolled out their great 2013-2014 defenses.
While Carroll and his other coaches have altered that system over time, Bradley remained fairly true to the old system and has become increasingly less effective.
He took over the Chargers in 2017, and they got worse every year until he left. In 2021, the Raiders started well but faded badly and finished as a bottom-half unit.
New primary defensive coach: New HC Josh McDaniel hired Patrick Graham away from the Giants. This news has been greeted by much excitement (of course all fans think their new coordinator is a star) that is based on very little substance.
Graham worked at the Patriots under Bill Belichick from 2009 to 2015. That certainly gave him a lot of exposure to great thinking and game-planning but that was in-between the two periods of really good defense the 21st-century Patriots managed.
He spent a few years on the Giants and Packers before landing the DC job for the 2019 Dolphins. That defense was one of the worst five defenses of the past 12 years, and he was fired. They were deliberately tanking, so he does not take all the blame, but it’s not a good look.
Then Graham took over as DC/assistant HC for the Giants for 2020 and 2021. In 2020 they were a top-ten defense with some innovative thinking, but the 2021 unit was a bottom-ten group that looked lost.
Expectations: Expect a very different defense from last year. Both systems are hybrid and multiple – but in different ways.
Bradley uses a combination of Four, Edge-in and over/under fronts. Graham will use more odd fronts and is unlikely to use over/under looks (where the classic Sam LB is an extra edge).
In the secondary, you should expect a switch towards using a third safety on the field. Graham likes to deploy more big nickel looks (as opposed to basic nickel) as well as big dime.
Safety shells are likely to be complex too. Bradley likes a classic box/high safety split. Graham will be much less obvious.
Winners: Divine Deablo, LB – As with Bradley, we’re likely to see just one full-time LB role in 2022. But that’s less likely to be Denzel Perryman in Graham’s defense. He’s such a limited player that it’ll be a shock for him to average over 50 snaps per game again.
Deablo is no guarantee at all, but he has an intriguing skillset and impressed late in 2021.
This position is an IDP gamble either way, and likely to be a banana skin. Perryman in particular is one of the more obvious regression candidates in the NFL.
Losers: Johnathan Abram, S – Abram has never come close to looking like he was worthy of the first-round pick he cost. But in Bradley’s system he was at least doing what he’s good at (hitting people in the box). In Graham’s system, the safeties are asked to fill a more varied role. They’ll line up in more two-high and be asked to play in the slot too. Abram has never shown he can do these things.
Old primary defensive coach: Josh Boyer was the DC under HC Brian Flores in 2020 and 2021. They ran one of the most unique systems in the NFL. Obviously, it was derived from the Patriots system, but Flores and Boyer made it their own with fierce blitzing and even more flexible fronts.
New primary defensive coach: New head coach Mike McDaniel has already announced that Boyer will retain his job for 2022.
Expectations: This is very interesting. The obvious expectation was for McDaniel to move more towards some of the defensive concepts that have worked well against the Shanahan-tree offenses in the league – more two-high safety looks, more four-man rushes.
We may see a hybridization of the two anyway. Every year the NFL catches up terms of defensive adaptations to offensive trends, and everyone is looking for ways to slow down innovative offenses like the Rams and 49ers.
The obvious changes will likely be a lower amount of blitzing, and less use of man coverage in all positions (bar defensive line). Even with Boyer retaining his job, it’s tough to think that the team will not slide those levers down a bit from their current extreme outlier positions.
Losers: Jerome Baker, LB – Baker has played less orthodox linebacker, and more on the edge every season since he entered the NFL. At this stage, he has a similar role to that of Dont’a Hightower. Given we can expect less man coverage, it seems unlikely that this reverses course. Baker could absolutely still be a useful IDP, but there’s a lot of ways his value could erode significantly, and his name value means he looks like a sell.
Brandon Jones, S – Jones led all safeties in pass-rush snaps in 2021, and played a huge amount in the box. We can safely expect him to do less of both. Safety is so unpredictable and unstable, so when a player like Jones sees his scoring heavily dependent on a risky stat like sacks, it sets alarm bells ringing.
Those with him on their roster will expect him to improve and score more simply because he’s young, but that’s far from a given. He’ll need to play much more than the 644 snaps he managed in 2021 to even hit the same points.
Jevon Holland, S – Holland played really well as a deep safety in his rookie season. But his big plays (two interceptions and three sacks) covered up the fact that he had a typical deep safety’s tackle efficiency at just 7%. Incredibly he was second in the NFL in safety pass-rush snaps – largely on the back of that single game against the Ravens (that game was over a third of all Holland’s blitzing).
That’s absolutely not going to happen again, and it’s very difficult to trust specialist deep safeties in IDP.
Old primary defensive coach: Mike Zimmer had run the Vikings defense since he took over as HC in 2014. In his time he was a superlative defensive coach. But it seemed in recent years that his system had failed to move with the times. In the last two years, the Vikes were flat-out bad. Regardless of injuries and personnel, responsibility for that has to sit with Zimmer.
New primary defensive coach: New Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah is hiring 36-year-old Kevin O’Connell as head coach, and 65-year old Ed Donatell as defensive coordinator. In a classic wunderkind and mentor partnership.
Donatell has worked under Vic Fangio on three separate teams since 2011 when they were together at the 49ers.
Expectations: Although it’s tempting to lump older coaches together, the two systems represented here are wildly different. Fangio and his scheme has been at the forefront of some current defensive trends, while Zimmer’s was clearly outdated in several respects.
The defensive line is going to be less rigid. Zimmer used a four man line all the time. Donatell will use an odd front on 25-30% of snaps. This will obviously generate much hand-wringing and angst about player fits, but it’s not a big deal.
Linebacker deployment will be a big change. Zimmer has consistently liked to put a third LB on the field. That approach leads to poor matchups in today’s NFL. The new system is likely to see virtually no three-LB looks, and instead we’ll see circa 30% of snaps with just one orthodox LB on the field.
We can expect Donatell to deploy a secondary system heavily favoring two-high safety looks in a left/right alignment. Expect more use of a third safety (to go with single-LB packages) too.
Winners: Eric Kendricks, LB
Losers: Harrison Smith, S – Smith has had a fantastic career, but this is not a great development for him. He can still be a good IDP, but it’s more dependent on volume.
Number two LB – Anthony Barr is out of contract, but whoever fills this spot is not going to be a full-time option. This means they’re not going to be a top-30 IDP linebacker. Top-40 is a stretch too.
D.J. Wonnum, DE – It’s not really the system change that hurts Wonnum, but it’s worth raising. He was atrocious last season, but the box score didn’t show it. He was second in pass-rush snaps among all edges, but 39th in pressures, and joint 32nd in sacks. It’s unthinkable he’ll get that sort of volume again.
New Orleans Saints
Old primary defensive coach: Dennis Allen has run the Saints’ defense since 2015. He inherited an awful unit, and his first two seasons were very poor, but since then he’s transformed them into consistently good defense. They’ve (arguably) been the only team in the NFL to be a top-ten unit in each of the past three seasons.
New primary defensive coach: Allen has been promoted to head coach in the wake of Sean Payton leaving the team. The record of defensive coaches promoted to HC is not particularly inspiring, and in Allen’s stint as Raiders’ head coach he was distinctly underwhelming, but his recent work at the Saints has earned him the opportunity at least.
Expectations: We should not expect any significant changes at all. Naturally defensive personnel will change, but systemically we should see a virtually identical defense.
Winners: There are no obvious winners. All the same players who flourished in this system should continue to do so.
Losers: Pete Werner, LB – Werner certainly flashed some ability as a rookie, and he’ll likely get a shot to play more in his second season. Unfortunately, in Allen’s defense there’re really only one full-time LB job, and Werner is unlikely to own it unless someone gets hurt.
New York Giants
Old primary defensive coach: Patrick Graham ran this defense the last two seasons. In that time he delivered a top-ten and a bottom-ten unit, and his whole career has been unpredictable and bumpy.
Graham is not a bad defensive coach at all, but he’s also absolutely not the sort of genius many have made him out to be.
New primary defensive coach: After Wink Martindale was fired by the Ravens he was quickly hired as a DC again by the Giants. This is an interesting situation.
Optimistic Giants fans will associate Martindale with the long years of excellent Ravens’ defenses. However, he was fired by that team after a particularly poor season.
Is he an excellent coach who just had a poor year? Or is he a guy who the brilliantly-run Ravens decided was not adding much value?
Expectations: Considering that these two coaches run fairly unorthodox systems, there are a lot of similarities between them. So the amount of disruption and change will be way less than it would for most teams moving on from a system like Graham’s.
Both run multiple, versatile fronts and both use a significant mount (20-25%) of single-LB packages. Both are also fairly heavy blitzing schemes.
There are also differences though. Firstly, we can expect coach Martindale to use a more orthodox secondary. Graham runs a lot of three-safety packages in the same way that other recent Patriots coaches tend to. Martindale will do this less.
Secondly, Coach Martindale is likely to deploy a higher proportion of man coverage concepts. Linebackers, corners and safeties are all likely to spend 10-15% more time in man coverage. This is relevant for IDP, because heavy man coverage linebackers tend to be more efficient tacklers.
Winners: Blake Martinez, LB – With the increase in LB man coverage concepts, Martinez is a good bet to match the (exceptional) tackle efficiency that he’s recorded through his whole career. He tore his ACL last season, but it was early enough that we should be confident he’ll be 100% healthy in 2022.
However, be aware that Martinez is a free agent after this season. He’ll still be in his 20s, but there’s every chance his dynasty value takes a big dive after this season. There may be a nice early-season sell window.
Losers: All three Giants safeties: Xavier McKinney, Logan Ryan, Jabrill Peppers – The arrival of coach Martindale signals both clarity and reduction. We can expect the Giants to deploy fewer three-safety looks which makes it easier for us to be able to predict which options can be started on a weekly basis. But it also means that at least one of these three loses their IDP-relevant job. Given Peppers is a free agent, his value is the most precarious anyway.
Old primary defensive coach: Keith Butler retired after 2021. He’s been the DC there since 2015 and had been with the team since 2003. During that time he’d had ups and downs, but had mostly delivered very good defenses, with some excellent ones. His 2019 and 2020 defenses were particularly excellent.
Head coach Mike Tomlin was a defensive coach from 1998 to 2006 and (although he’s more of a CEO type HC) still has significant input into how he wants his defense to play.
New primary defensive coach: Teryl Austin has been promoted to DC after being Butler’s number two and secondary coach for the past three seasons.
Before that, Austin had a four-year stint as Lions DC from 2014-2017. In that time he delivered one very good defense, two average ones and one very poor one.
He had one season as DC in Cincinnati in 2018 which was an unmitigated disaster. That defense was absolutely horrendous across the board, and he was fired for his part in it.
Expectations: It’s extremely unlikely that we see any significant changes to the system in place. Austin has been indoctrinated, and most of the top-down decisions rest with coach Tomlin anyway. So, expect more of the same from a schematic point of view.
Winners: T.J. Watt, and Alex Highsmith, EDGEs – The 2021 Steelers were the worst pass-rushing Steelers defense since 2016. It’s just that Watt’s incredible pressure to sack conversion ratio covered it up. We can expect a bounceback year in 2022.
We’ll go into way more detail on Watt in future articles, but this does not mean for a heartbeat you should expect a better 2022 from him.
Losers: Devin Bush and Joe Schobert, LBs – Both of these players have a huge amount of pressure on them. They’ve got name recognition, and draft capital on their side, but Austin saw firsthand last season just how poor they were. It seems likely that they move on from Schobert, and unlikely that they take up the fifth-year option on Bush’s contract. Bush will still be on the team in 2022, but at this stage it’s hard to imagine they’re happy to simply roll on with him as an undisputed starter playing most of the snaps.