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Breaking down the coverage schemes of new Cowboys defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer’s defense

It is time to understand who Mike Zimmer is as a defensive mind.

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NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Carolina Panthers Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys have made the decision to bring in Mike Zimmer as their next defensive coordinator, tabbing the former Vikings head coach to fill the vacancy left by Dan Quinn. Zimmer brings with him a very distinct scheme, whose front seven we broke down previously.

However, the coverage schemes that Zimmer runs are truly what makes his defense special. Zimmer began his coaching career as a defensive backs coach, so he tends to devote extra time to crafting his coverage schemes. Let’s break down what exactly that looks like.

“You better be able to play man coverage”

Zimmer’s coverage schemes are built on their versatility, but one key trait that the coach always seeks out is an ability to play press man coverage. Zimmer loves to run press man coverage behind his creative simulated pressure looks, as it makes things that much harder for quarterbacks to diagnose. And while he’s not opposed to zone coverage, Zimmer definitely prioritizes man coverage ability.

Right off the bat, this preference of Zimmer’s is a huge reason to get excited about his return to Dallas. The Cowboys were at their best under Quinn when he utilized a ton of press man coverage, and it was specifically well-suited for the likes of Trevon Diggs and DaRon Bland. Zimmer’s affinity for bump and run man coverage is also a great fit with cornerbacks coach Al Harris, who has played a pivotal role in developing Diggs and Bland.

One feature of Quinn’s defense that often came under criticism, especially in this past season, was the tendency to give a large cushion to receivers even when playing man coverage. That likely won’t happen under Zimmer, as he prefers to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage and throw off the timing of their routes.

The importance of safety play

Safety play has always been a key component of Zimmer’s defensive schemes. His first stint as a coordinator came in Dallas, where he worked with the likes of Darren Woodson and Roy Williams. Later, in Cincinnati, Zimmer similarly built his coverage schemes around Reggie Nelson and George Iloka. Upon taking the Vikings head coaching job, Zimmer was able to coach multiple Pro Bowls out of Harrison Smith.

Much like Vic Fangio, whose scheme has taken the league by storm as of late, Zimmer often lines both of his safeties up deep and puts a lot on their plate. The two safety positions are practically interchangeable for Zimmer, as both will be asked to handle a wide variety of different roles and alignments. Zimmer frequently rotates his safeties after the snap, and loves to use them as potential pass rushers too.

During Quinn’s time in Dallas, he developed a tendency to play three safeties quite often, but with defined roles: Jayron Kearse was a bit of a linebacker hybrid, Malik Hooker usually played the deep middle of the field, and Donovan Wilson was more of a traditional box safety who occasionally figured into the pass rush.

Under Zimmer, there likely won’t be that much reliance on three safety packages, instead asking just two safeties to fill the usual roles of his defense. Considering how Zimmer used Smith in Minnesota, it’s easy to envision how he might use a similarly talented Wilson. Meanwhile, Hooker’s coverage ability is reminiscent of Anthony Harris, who led the league in interceptions in 2019 under Zimmer’s watch. However it works out, safety play will be a crucial element of Zimmer’s defense in Dallas.

Multiple, disguised coverages

As previously mentioned, Zimmer puts a priority on versatility on the back end. He has a very strong preference for press man coverage, and it’s very common to have two safeties split deep before the snap, but Zimmer often commits to changing things up after the snap. He frequently rotates his safeties, drops players into coverage after showing a blitz, and generally tries to make the quarterback think as much as possible after snapping the ball.

Zimmer makes frequent use of quarters coverage, which drops four defenders back deep, and has several different variations on it. Depending on the offense’s alignment, it can be split into quarters on one side and traditional Cover 2 on the other side (often referred to as Cover 6) or running a version of zone on one half of the field and traditional man coverage on the other half.

Zimmer also incorporates pattern matching concepts into his coverage techniques. Pattern matching was made famous by Bill Belichick and Nick Saban - Zimmer and his disciples have often hired defensive backs coaches from those trees to best teach it - and, in simplest terms, it combines zone and man principles to allow defenders to adjust their coverage based on the route combinations being run. It’s much more complex than that, which is why the coaches that are teaching it are essential, but Zimmer has made extensive use of the concept in his coverage schemes for quite a while now.

All of this works together to result in a coverage scheme that is often very difficult to predict. Zimmer’s willingness to adjust his coverages played a big part in his frequent defensive success against Aaron Rodgers, and has also helped him develop a strong track record against the Shanahan tree of offensive schemes that now dominate the league.

All in all, Zimmer has some well-defined preferences in his scheme that would seem to be a natural fit for the talent he inherits in Dallas, but the veteran coach is also well-respected for his ability to adapt and penchant for trying to confuse opposing quarterbacks. He goes about that in a different way than Quinn did, but the similar approach in philosophy is certainly a welcome trait.

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