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Breaking down the front seven of new Cowboys defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer’s scheme

Bring on Mike Zimmer.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys have found their defensive coordinator, making the decision Thursday night to hire Mike Zimmer. The former Vikings head coach returns to Dallas, where he coached for 13 seasons between the 90’s and early 2000’s. But what does Zimmer’s scheme look like? Let’s take a deep dive into how his front seven operates.

So many simulated pressures

The pass rush has become more important than ever in recent years, as the talent gap between pass rushers and pass protectors has become wildly unbalanced in favor of the defense. However, with the corresponding uptick in lightning-fast passing concepts and intentional creation of YAC opportunities on offense, the notion of blitzing to generate a pass rush has become riskier than ever.

Zimmer practically built his career out of generating pressure without blitzing. Simulated pressures have been around for ages, but Zimmer - as well as a multitude of Ravens defensive coaches in the early 2000’s - was one of the first to fully embrace the concept. The most basic definition of a simulated pressure is having a non-traditional pass rusher go after the quarterback while dropping a traditional pass rusher into coverage; however, as the NFL has become more positionless in recent years, the application of the term can often be applied to any look that bluffs a blitz but actually only sends four rushers.

The thinking behind this is that offenses usually will make adjustments to their pass protection based on the look that a defense shows before the snap. Different offenses have different rules for handling a suspected blitzer, but simulated pressures are designed to trick the offense into adjusting their pass protection scheme to account for a player that isn’t actually blitzing. This then creates more favorable matchups for the real pass rushers, and coaches like Zimmer will often pair this with defensive line stunts to exploit the weaknesses of the pass protection that were created by the fake blitz look.

Simulated pressures have taken the league by storm in the last few years, but Zimmer has been the king of simulated pressures for decades now. He makes frequent use of fake blitz looks and stunts that wreak havoc on the offensive line, and he often succeeds in getting pressure on the quarterback without actually blitzing. Zimmer’s defenses are usually near the bottom of the league in blitz rate (defined as more than four pass rushers) even though he frequently sends linebackers or defensive backs after the quarterback.

Quinn made frequent use of simulated pressures in Dallas, especially after Micah Parsons’ emergence as a premier pass rusher. Zimmer brings a similar mindset, though with a little more routine behind it. While Quinn usually broke out his simulated pressure package in obvious passing downs, Zimmer will usually utilize his on just about any down, which makes it harder for offenses to adjust.

The split mug front

When talking about Zimmer and simulated pressures, the best example is the split mug front, something that became a calling card of his and has since become a staple for NFL defenses all over. The split mug front, also known as the double A gap front, features both linebackers lined up in the A gaps and the slot corner and one safety walked up to the line of scrimmage, threatening to blitz.

In showing this look, offenses potentially have to account for up to four pass rushers on either side of the field, which puts maximum stress on the pass protection. Zimmer rarely sends the house in these looks, but it’s anyone’s guess as to who is bailing into coverage and who is rushing the passer.

Oftentimes, this is determined by the offensive line. A frequent call from the split mug front is the center read, where the two linebackers in the A gaps read the center and determine their pass rush from there: if the center turns to the linebacker on his right, the one on his left rushes while the other drops into coverage, and vice versa. Zimmer also has a similar read for outside blitzes from either the slot corner or safety. This makes it extremely difficult for the offense to read things pre-snap and - when executed well - makes it impossible for the offense to be right post-snap.

Every defense has this look in their playbook these days, and Quinn utilized it at one of the highest rates in the league the last few years. But Quinn and others mostly use this front on obvious passing downs, where it’s been highly effective. On the contrary, Zimmer has a wide variety of different packages built out of this look, which only expands its utility and applications in a game.

Big bodies on run defense

Run defense was a consistent issue for the Cowboys under Quinn, though it was often by design: Quinn was dedicated to stopping the pass at all costs, and often felt okay with compromising his run fits for better pass rush opportunities. That will certainly not be the case under Zimmer.

Stopping the run is a top priority for Zimmer. The former defensive backs coach has built a career out of his unique ability to affect passing schemes, which is why Zimmer puts a premium on stopping the run. The goal is to make offenses one-dimensional, thus allowing his pass rushers to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback.

Since Zimmer’s scheme often uses aggressive, attacking techniques along the defensive line, the coach has frequently sought out bigger bodies to aid in run defense. When Zimmer first became the Vikings head coach, he went out and signed the 330 pound Linval Joseph to plug the middle of the defensive line. Joseph served as Zimmer’s nose tackle for six seasons, at which time he was replaced by the 350 pound Michael Pierce. It’s likely that one of Zimmer’s first priorities will be getting Mazi Smith into a workout routine with trainers named Ben and Jerry.

Zimmer also prefers more heft at the linebacker position, a departure from Quinn’s preference for leaner second-level players. While Zimmer makes frequent use of nickel packages with just two linebackers, he primarily relied on the duo of Anthony Barr (who hovered around 245 and 255 pounds) and Eric Kendricks (who was usually around 235 pounds). The Cowboys were fairly light at the position, both from a numbers perspective and a size perspective, but Zimmer will likely look to change that moving forward.

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