One nightmare game still haunts Cowboys DC Mike Zimmer 24 years later as he preps new defense

As his second stint as Cowboys defensive coordinator begins, Mike Zimmer already knows what his primary focus will be.

It’s getting after the thing that bit him on his very first day on the job 24 years ago.

It was opening day of the 2000 season. Zimmer, who had already served on the Dallas staff for six seasons, was now wearing the DC headset for the first time, under new head coach Dave Campo. The Cowboys were at home, with the division rival Eagles and head coach Andy Reid paying a visit on a sweltering September afternoon when the temps in the Metroplex reached 109 degrees.

At one point, a thermometer on the Texas Stadium turf hit 130, but it was the Philadelphia run game that ended up cooking Zimmer and the Dallas defense.

“That year, I was coming from [being] secondary coach, and I said, ‘Turn these guys loose, let ’em rush,'” Zimmer told Matt Mosley and Ed Werder on a recent episode of The Doomsday Podcast.

“We gave up 220 yards rushing that day,” Zimmer recalled.

The heat must have gotten to Zim, because in fact, it was even worse than that. With their players famously staying hydrated and cramp-free by drinking pickle juice on the sidelines, the Eagles actually racked up 306 rushing yards in a 41-14 blowout win. It was, at the time, the most rushing yards ever allowed by a Cowboys defense in a single contest.

“The Pickle Juice Game” has haunted Zimmer ever since.

“From that day on,” he admitted, “there’s always been an emphasis on stopping the run.”

By and large, Zimmer’s defenses- in Dallas, in Cincinnati, in Minnesota- have made good on that. As pointed out on the podcast, seven of Zimmer’s 22 defenses (as a head coach or defensive coordinator) finished in the league’s top 10 in stopping the run.

Now, about to turn 68 years old, Zimmer is back, and he’s tasked with working his magic on a Dallas unit that got embarrassed in a home playoff loss to the Packers in January.

The veteran coach is still getting acquainted with his players and hasn’t even met some of his biggest stars yet, but he can already say exactly what he’ll be expecting of each of them.

“I’m demanding,” Zimmer admitted. “I’ve got a job to do: get these players playing the best they can possibly play, be as disciplined as they possibly can be, and play together as a team. We have to get guys understanding their roles and what is asked of them to do. Do your job so someone else can have success doing theirs. You might not like taking on this double-team, but that’s your job. And this guy, because you’re doing it, has got an opportunity to make some plays. Next time, he’s going to help you make some plays. That’s how it all works together, whether it’s corners and safeties, defensive line to linebacker, or whatever it is.”

Of his new centerpiece, Micah Parsons, Zimmer calls him “rare” and praises his intelligence, a trait that will allow him to remain incredibly versatile in whatever Zimmer’s tweaked system will look like.

“Usually smart guys that have outstanding ability,” Zimmer said. Their ceiling is so high that you can do a lot of things with them.”

Zimmer is also complimentary of incoming linebacker Marist Liufau, calling the Notre Dame product “brilliant” and already envisioning packages that use him and Parsons in tandem, creating confusion for opposing offenses by bringing high-motor pressure from two different spots on the field.

The Cowboys’ linebacker corps will be a particular point of emphasis in Zimmer’s overhaul. To help with the transition, the Cowboys have added veteran Eric Kendricks, who played for Zimmer’s Vikings for seven seasons. The DC says Kendricks has been “integral” in getting the younger guys acclimated to his style of play.

Strong secondaries have always been a Zimmer trademark, too, and the one he’s inheriting in Dallas is among the NFL’s best. Cornerback DaRon Bland is no longer a secret after a record-setting five pick-sixes last year, and now Trevon Diggs will be back opposite him after a season-ending injury early last year.

“The thing that stands out about him, probably more so than anything, is he’s got the best hands of any defensive back,” Zimmer said of Diggs.

That’s absurdly high praise, considering some of the DBs Zimmer has worked with over the years, including Darren Woodson and Deion Sanders. One is in the Cowboys Ring of Honor and the other is a Hall of Famer, but Zimmer says Diggs is already approaching that level.

“Obviously, Deion had good hands,” Zimmer said, “but guys have to get a ways up there before you compare them to Deion Sanders.”

Deion’s name isn’t the only blast from Zimmer’s past that’s having an influence on his 2024 crew. The team’s defensive linemen will be learning directly from former end and 1998 first-round draft pick Greg Ellis. Zimmer calls him “the best I’ve ever been around at using his hands and setting guys up with rushes,” and now he’s the team’s assistant defensive line coach.

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It all adds up to a ton of optimism surrounding the Cowboys defense, although Zimmer concedes that things may look a little different from Dan Quinn’s units the past three seasons.

“There might be a little bit of a mixture of pressure and coverage and disguise and things like that that maybe can help us,” he explained. “Maybe not get as many turnovers or all those [things], but I think if you go back and look at my history throughout [my] time, there’s been a lot of sacks, a lot of pressure, low-scoring games. That’s really what we want to try and do: keep the scores down, and if we get opportunities to get turnovers, interceptions, sacks, then so be it.”

And by all means, stop the run… to keep those memories of “The Pickle Juice Game” buried well in Zimmer’s past.

Story originally appeared on Cowboys Wire