The Xs and Os with Greg Cosell: Five NFL defenses that will be very different in 2023

There are times when, if you want to be truly competitive in the NFL, you have to make major, wholesale changes throughout your defense. From coaches to players, there are five NFL teams who made huge alterations to their defenses in the offseason.

In the newest episode of “The Xs and Os with Greg Cosell and Doug Farrar,” Greg (of NFL Films and ESPN’s NFL Matchup) and Doug (of Touchdown Wire) discuss how the Miami Dolphins, Minnesota Vikings, Cleveland Browns, Atlanta Falcons, and Buffalo Bills will put entirely new defenses on the field in 2023.

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The Miami Dolphins under Vic Fangio.

(David Berding-USA TODAY Sports)
(David Berding-USA TODAY Sports)

Light boxes and two-high coverage shells were the norm through Vic Fangio’s time with the Denver Broncos, and that’s all instructive because he still ran the defense when he was the head coach. In 2019, the Broncos ranked second in the league in light box rate (65%), and they were first in the NFL in percentage of two-high coverage at 78%. In 2021, Fangio’s Broncos ranked second in the league with a 75% light box rate, and they led the league in two-high at 72%.

Christian Wilkins and Zach Sieler should mitigate the run defense issues some teams have with lighter boxes – they ranked 1-2 in defensive stops in the NFL last season among interior defensive linemen.. 

What changed was the percentage of man coverage – and blitz rate. In 2019, the Broncos played man coverage on 32% of their snaps, which ranked 18th in the NFL. By 2021, it had bumped up to 42%, which was the highest rate in the league. Also in 2019, Denver blitzed on 23% of their defensive snaps, which ranked 23rd. By 2021, that was up to 26%, which was 13th. 

Fangio is very high on a 2-4-5 defense – you could call it a 4-2-5 depending on if you term your edge-rushers as ends or linebackers, but that’s been his preference going back to at least his days with Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers in the early 2010s.

The overriding thing about Fangio is that he has his staples, but he will flip his stuff based on his personnel. He’s not dogmatic. 

Last season, the Dolphins played 33% of their snaps with a light box, 32nd in the NFL. That will be a huge change. They also had the NFL’s lowest rate of two-high coverage at 21%. They played more man than zone, and they’ll probably keep that up with Jalen Ramsey and Xavien Howard as the primary cornerbacks. I think the changes with Fangio will both structural and specific.

In this week’s “Xs and Os,” Greg explained why two-high coverage is so important to what Fangio wants to accomplish with his defenses.

“When you have split safeties, you can do anything from that. It can become single-high, it can stay split… your safeties can move in any number of ways. Even your cornerbacks can move in any number of ways. They can line up and play press. They can play off. Pretty much from a split-safety starting look, you can play any coverage. Unlike, let’s say, Seattle when they had the Legion of Boom. Kam Chancellor was clearly in the box, and Earl Thomas was clearly a post safety. You can’t really make a big adjustment there as the ball is snapped. Whereas you can do pretty much anything from a split-safety look as the ball is snapped. And the safeties are a little closer to the line of scrimmage; they’re not deep safeties like one might think of in Cover-2. So, you can move into a single-high look with one safety as the box player.

“It also gives you the ability to play a coverage which has become very common in the league, which is ‘robber’ coverage, where one of the safeties drops down right into the middle of the field — maybe about 10-12 yards from the line of scrimmage.

“The whole premise here is that the look you see before the snap of the ball is not the look you’re going to get after the snap of the ball.”

The Minnesota Vikings under Brian Flores.

(Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)
(Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Brian Flores is one of the NFL’s foremost proponents of the zero blitz, which will be a big change for the Vikings. Under Ed Donatell last season, Minnesota sent six or more pass-rushers on the third-fewest passing attempts, ahead of only the Rams and Jets. And only the Seahawks played fewer Cover-0 snaps than the Vikings did last season. So, when we look at the Vikings’ defensive personnel, how does that work? 

Overall, the 2021 Dolphins played the NFL’s eighth-most single-high coverage, the NFL’s lowest rate of two-high, and they had the league’s highest blitz rate. Flores wasn’t with the Dolphins last season, but defensive coordinator Josh Boyer was basically running a Flores defense. 38% of their defensive snaps had a blitz, and there will be multiple fronts – 3-4-4 as base and 3-3-5 as the nickel, hut there should be all kinds of stuff. They added Marcus Davenport and Dean Lowry to the front, though losing Dalvin Tomlinson to the Browns is a big hit.  

Outside of Harrison Phillips, the secondary is still a major question. The addition of Byron Murphy could be helpful if they get the good version of Murphy, but this seems like a defense that will have to be a lot about scheme until the execution catches up. 

Greg on why Donatell’s schemes were a problem, and what Flores will do to fix it in the context of a defense that is still under development:

“You’re going to see schemed pressure, which you did not see at all under Ed Donatell. Nor did you see a lot of versatility on the back end in how they played. They did not play a ton of different coverage concepts. They played a ton of two-shell… I hate to use the word ‘soft,’ because Ed Donatell would never think, ‘Oh, we played soft,’ But they didn’t do a lot of different things. My guess is, opposing offenses felt that they were not very difficult to scheme against.

“They’ve got some questions in terms of personnel on defense, though. Especially at cornerback. [We’ll see] how Brian Flores feels about playing with a lot of pressure — which he likes to do; he’s an aggressive guy by nature — when your cornerbacks are unproven. “

The Cleveland Browns under Jim Schwartz.

Last season, the Browns had a pass rush that consisted of Myles Garrett, Myles Garrett, and Myles Garrett. Per Pro Football Focus, Garrett was responsible for 18 of the team’s 37 sacks, eight of the team’s 23 quarterback hits, and 47 of the team’s 118 quarterback hurries. Not ideal. So, they replaced Joe Woods with Jim Schwartz, and added Za.Darius Smith, Dalvin Tomlinson, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, and Siaki Ika to a group that needed a lot of reinforcement. I’m interested in what Schwartz does schematically here – you know he loves the wide-nine stuff, and he doesn’t blitz, but to me, it’s just as much or more about the new personnel.

Greg on why Schwartz prefers to leave his fronts somewhat static and leave the trickery for the secondary:

“That’s ultimately the way he wants to play. He wants to be able to rush the quarterback with four, and then do some things on the back end. In Philly, he did a lot of disguised coverage looks, where it would look like Cover-2, but it’s Cover-3. He tries to cheat the gray areas in zone coverage so that the quarterback doesn’t get a clean look, and the offensive coordinator, as he’s calling plays to attack specific zone concepts, doesn’t get that clean sense of, ‘Oh, okay, we’re gonna call some routes to attack Cover-3,’ but it’s really Cover-2, and maybe those routes aren’t there. Or you attack Cover-3, but it’s really not Cover-3. So, what he ultimately likes to do is some things on the back end to add just a beat or two the quarterback’s deciphering thought process as he drops back.”

The Atlanta Falcons under Ryan Nielsen.

(Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports)
(Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports)

With new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen, who had been the New Orleans Saints’ defensive line coach,  I’d say to expect a lot more varied fronts and man coverage from the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons played man last season 22% of their snaps, which ranked 27th in the NFL. The 2022 Saints played man coverage on 40% of their snaps, which ranked second. New Orleans especially played a lot of 2-man – the most in the league. Now, we don’t automatically assume that Nielsen will bring everything over from New Orleans, but when you look at their new personnel, they’re telling you what they want to do. They traded for Jeff Okudah, who is a dead-red press cornerback. Okudah had 43 coverage snaps in 2-Man last season. They got Mike Hughes, who was also with the Lions last season, and he’s played that stuff, as well. A.J. Terrell had kind of a down season in 2022, but he’s great when he’s on, and he is very comfortable in man coverage. 

Adding Jessie Bates III certainly allows them to play more two-high stuff. Last season, they were in two-high 44% of the time, which ranked 24th. The Saints were in two-high 54% of the time, which ranked 15th.

Then, you add the guys to a front seven that didn’t do much of anything to disrupt the quarterback last season – they had the NFL’s second-fewest sacks with 21, and the NFL’s second-fewest pressures with 88. David Onyemata. Calais Campbell. Bud DuPree. Kaden Elliss. The Saints ran a ton of different fronts last season, and you’d expect a lot more varied fronts than we saw last season. Not that there will be a ton of blitz – the Falcons did it 19% of the time last season, and the Saints did it 15% of the time – but it’s more about throwing things at the quarterback pre-snap that the quarterback might not be ready for.

Greg on why Nielsen should bring as many things from New Orleans as he possibly can:

“One of the things I’ve done over the years is, when I talk to offensive coaches who game-plan, I always ask them, who are the toughest coaches and coordinators to play against? And Dennis Allen’s name always comes up. So there’s no question that Ryan Nielsen, who’s a younger coach… this is his background right now. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have his own ideas, but this is his background right now. So, you would expect to see a lot of those same principles.

“Now, Dean Pees was there, and Dean Pees is a guy who’s very multiple in how he approached pressures and coverages. So, it’s not as if they didn’t do a lot of different things, but you mentioned 2-Man, and I’ll be very curious to see if they’ll do that [in Atlanta]. Obviously to do that, you have to have a pass rush. Because if you’re going to play 2-Man coverage, that’s seven people in coverage. The five man-to-man defenders, and the two deep safeties. You need to be able to impact the quarterback with four defenders, and doing that within three seconds.”

The Buffalo Bills under Sean McDermott.

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Leslie Frazier had been the Buffalo Bills’ defensive coordinator since 2017, which meant that he was on the staff every year that head coach Sean McDermott has been. There was a parting of the ways this offseason, and while speculation as to why could lead us down a number of paths, Frazier’s general tendency against aggressive pass rush might have been an issue for McDermott, a defensive coach who had always liked to throw the kitchen sink at quarterbacks when he was a defensive coordinator. 

Last season, the Buffalo Bills blitzed on 23% of their regular-season snaps. That rate plummeted to 14% in the postseason, to less than optimal avail.

Greg on why you can expect to see the Bills blitz a lot more in 2023:

“We’re not there, so we don’t know the conversations that are had behind closed doors, but keep in mind that Sean McDermott cut his teeth in this league as an assistant under Jim Johnson with the Eagles. [Johnson] was one of the best blitzing defensive coordinators in the NFL. And my sense is that Sean McDermott will increase that blitz frequency.

“Once they lost Von Miller… he’s back, but he’s an older player, and we don’t know exactly how he’ll be. Just the nature of the injury and the age and the wear and tear. They could not rush the quarterback particularly well with their down four a year ago once Von Miller was out. They didn’t have that player to make that impact play like the sack Miller had on Patrick Mahomes early in the season that helped the Bills win that game.”

(Below, Miller’s sack of Patrick Mahomes with 6:19 left in the game in Week 6 of the 2022 season. The Chiefs had third-and-6 from their own 27-yard line, and this sack ended that drive, allowing the Bills to get on top of what was a 20-17 deficit at the time with a 24-20 win).

“I think there’s going to be a change in the overall world view of how they want to play.”

Story originally appeared on Bills Wire