Deep dive: How Mike Zimmer’s defense could lead to an NFC East title

The Dallas Cowboys have not added much outside talent to their roster this offseason. Eric Kendricks, Royce Freeman, and now Ezekiel Elliott remain the only free agents signed that played with other teams in 2023. Everyone else wore a star on their helmet a season ago.

Entering what could be a prove-it year, fans hoped to see more moves made in what was promised to be all-in. Unfortunately, the front office has one hand tied behind their backs with cap constraints and future contracts looming.

Dallas did everything they could in the NFL draft to walk away with plus talent at positions of need to supplement the lack of movement in free agency. Bringing in Tyler Guyton, Marshawn Kneeland, and Cooper Beebe should be great starting points. However, the front office is putting all of their eggs in the baskets of their coaches, hoping they can maximize the talent on the roster to Super Bowl contenders. Head coach Mike McCarthy shouldn’t be expected to do it alone, so Dallas brought in a new defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer, who could become the best offseason acquisition. Here’s why.

Pressure creates diamonds

A staple of Zimmer’s defense is his “Double-A Blitz Package.” Below is a video of former NFL head coach Jon Gruden explaining the strategy.

To make the idea more digestible, the goal of the alignment is to confuse offenses on where the pressure is coming from. Depending on the situation, players on the field, or feeling from Zimmer, the pressure could come from any direction.

This package could benefit the Cowboys’ personnel, with Parsons, Jourdan Lewis, and Donovan Wilson being excellent blitz package players. Having Kendricks as the middle linebacker will be a bonus because of his time with Zimmer in Minnesota.

Could Zimmer end up using blitz packages more than Quinn did? It’s certainly possible, but the numbers for both coordinators look similar. Under Quinn, the Cowboys were 13th in blitz percentage last season, and Zimmer’s blitz percentage varied around the same area when Pro Football Reference started tracking the metric.

The difference between the two play-callers is that Zimmer’s Double-A gap blitz is a simulated pressure, which Quinn didn’t use as much during his time in Dallas. Modern NFL defenses, like Mike MacDonald with Baltimore and Steve Spagnuolo in Kansas City, are increasingly using sim pressures to make cause confusion based on alignments.

It is also a great counter-punch to offenses that use a lot of motion to confuse defenses before the snap. Think about the Shanahan Tree offensive play-callers and Kellen Moore. Zimmer was one of the original godfathers of sim pressure, so he wrote what many defensive play-callers use today. That’s an added resource for the Cowboys.

Mike Zimmer vs. Jayden Daniels

The quickest way Dallas can return to the playoffs is by winning its own division. Looking at the NFC East post-draft, every quarterback has the ability to move outside of the pocket. Daniel Jones could be the most limited coming off a torn ACL injury, but Jalen Hurts, and now rookie Jayden Daniels could be two of the best next season.

Starting with Daniels, his ability to create yardage and magic on his own is what made him a top-two pick and Heisman Trophy winner. However, how he responded to pressure during the 2023 season tells a different story.

What made Daniels special last season was his ability to beat the blitz. Pro Football Focus rated Daniels as the top quarterback in FBS for completion percentage and grade when facing a blitz. However, when he was under pressure, the numbers were drastically different. In situations where Daniels was “kept clean,” his completion percentage was 74.8 percent. The minute he faced pressure, that number dropped to 50 percent.

Bo Nix and J.J. McCarthy had better completion numbers agaisnt pressure for context. That’s not to say Washington can’t correct this problem for Daniels, but the gap between pressured and non-pressured situations was one of his knocks coming into the process and opting to tuck and run instead of keeping the play alive from the pocket. Zimmer succeeded against a similar player in Justin Fields during his rookie season.

In Week 15 of the 2021 season, the Vikings faced off against the Bears. In pressure situations, Justin Fields’ performance suffered a similar decline to that of Daniels. Fields’ completion percentage was 74.1 when he had a clean pocket, but it dropped to 50 under pressure. Fields was also sacked three times and only managed to throw for 63 yards, facing pressure from the defense. Although Zimmer is known for his aggressive blitzing style of play, he appeared to back off during the game, possibly due to fear of Fields’ mobility and ability to scramble out of the pocket.

The Bears didn’t have the best offensive line for the quarterback, but that’s taking advantage of a favorable matchup and going with what works. The Commanders have done their best to give Daniels a re-tooled offensive line, but it could still be a work in progress for year one. Washington is coming off a season in which they allowed 65 sacks, which was the second most for an NFL team last year.

Jalen Hurts and Daniel Jones vs. Pressure/Blitz

Like Daniels, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts is a different quarterback when he is blitzed or under pressure. His gap between a clean pocket and under pressure is wider than that of the rookie in Washington. Last season, when nothing disrupted the pocket, Hurts was a top-five quarterback. He completed almost 75 percent of his passes. When things got messy, his completion percentage dropped to 49.5 percent, and his passer rating was 74.8, the 13th best of quarterbacks who played 20 percent of the snaps.

In blitz situations, Hurts wasn’t any better in 2023. He faced the blitz at around 40 percent of his dropbacks (the most among starting quarterbacks), his completion percentage was 63.1 (17th out of 42), and his passer rating was 82.0 (28th out of 42). The blitz has always given Hurts trouble throughout his career, and going against Mike Zimmer’s sim pressures could be a problem.

Lastly, Daniel Jones is the worst quarterback in the division in terms of handling pressure and blitz situations. He was fantastic in these scenarios in 2022 when the New York Giants made their run in the playoffs. Jones’s improvement in this area is why many thought his development would take another step forward in Brian Daboll’s offense. The clip below showcases higher processing and overall better decision-making.

However, that wasn’t the case last season, even if it was in limited action. In just six games last year before his season-ending injury, Jones had a 60.8 completion percentage (42nd out of 74) and a PFF grade of 35.5 (75th out of 79) when blitzed.

All three quarterbacks can scramble and have offenses that get creative when using that skillset, but Zimmer’s scheme could neutralize those plans, forcing the teams to adjust. The Dallas defense could be getting younger this season with roles developing for Marshawn Kneeland, Sam Williams, Juanyeh Thomas, Marist Liufau, and DeMarvion Overshown in place of veterans who are no longer on the team (Dante Fowler, Dorance Armstrong, Jayron Kearse, and Leighton Vander Esch).

Common logic would tell you that the more pressure the Cowboys’ defense applies to the quarterbacks in the NFC East, the more likely turnovers are to occur and the more opportunities the offense has to get back on the field. In 2023, the Dallas offense gained a league-high 509 points off turnovers, so McCarthy and Dak Prescott have shown they can capitalize on extra opportunities with the ball.

Looking back at the end of this season, fans could consider Zimmer the best offseason acquisition if his defensive scheme leads to success within the division. He will have all the tools and styles of players at his disposal to help Dallas win the NFC East in back-to-back seasons, the first time there is a repeat winner in over 20 years.


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