Assessing Performance of the NFL’s New Defensive Coordinators

Last week, we took a look at how the new offensive coordinators in 2020 had their teams performing compared to the 2019 season. This week we look at the other side of the ball.

There are 10 new defensive coordinators in 2020. The results of these coaches’ work is more varying than the offensive coaches. Here is a visualization of how they compare; scoring is on the left and yards is on the bottom. Being in the bottom left quadrant is ideal.

The coaches’ work so far is fairly evenly distributed across this chart, meaning some coaches are having a great deal of success in their new role and others are struggling even more than the coach they were hired to replace. One thing to note is the league-wide increase in scoring. In a year in which scoring is up across the league, it has been a challenge for new defensive coordinators to adjust to the changes in offense at the same time they are implementing the philosophies they want in their players. Defensive coordinators this year are facing a drastic reduction in the number of penalties against the offense and have had to make adjustments accordingly. This makes it all the more impressive what some new defensive hires are doing and gives a bit of leeway to the new hires who haven’t had their team performing as well.

Downward spiral in Dallas

One new defensive coordinator who has struggled thus far on the biggest stage is the Cowboys’ Mike Nolan. The Cowboys’ defense is allowing 32.2 points per game this season, a 12-point increase over their 2019 figure. They are struggling most against the run this year to a tune of 157 yards per game allowed on 5 yards per carry. Defenses that allow the most points tend to have the most rushes attempted against them. The Cowboys’ opponents are running the ball 31.7 times per game, second-highest in the league, and are throwing the ball only 32.7 times per game, which is sixth-lowest in the league. Teams see no reason to throw the ball when they can run with such effectiveness, which may be a reason why the Cowboys are second to last in takeaways, with only 7 on the season. A good indication of win-loss record is going to be the turnover differential, in which the Cowboys are already minus-13 through nine games.

Dolphins ‘D’ on the rise

Similar to how Chan Gailey and the Dolphins’ offense has drastically improved this year, Josh Boyer and the Dolphins defense has also been the biggest improvement in the scoring category over the last year. Just a year removed from a defense that allowed 30.9 points per game, dead last in the NFL, the Dolphins are allowing only 20.2 points per game in 2020, good for fifth-best in the NFL. What is so impressive about this 10.7-point improvement is their schedule. The Dolphins have already been challenged by the quality of their opponents and have the fifth-best scoring defense to show for it. Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan will always be tough to gameplan and execute against and the Dolphins seemed very prepared and won their matchups against the Rams and 49ers. They’ve also faced three of the tougher quarterbacks and dynamic offenses in the league in the Bills, Seahawks and Cardinals. The back half of the schedule will be much easier for the Dolphins’ defense, and will come at a time when they are playing with confidence. The next three opponents are the Broncos, Jets and Bengals. The Dolphins defense has been special up to this point and it will be exciting to see what they can do against the back part of their schedule.

Also very impressive has been the work of Jack Del Rio and the Washington Football Team. While not exactly facing the stiffest competition in the NFC East this year, Washington has shown dramatic improvements on the defensive side of the ball. Most notably, Washington boasts the best pass defense in the NFL, allowing only 194.7 yards through the air per game, which is a 44.2-yard improvement over 2019. The only other teams to allow less than 200 yards per game in 2020 are the Colts and Rams. Also impressive has been the red-zone defense, which is seventh in the league at 56%.

This data is clearly not a full picture of what these new hires are accomplishing and the results they are looking for might be a part of a longer process. Some teams must be very pleased with what they are seeing so far, especially the Dolphins. Both the Dolphins’ offense and defense, with new coordinators, have shown major improvements over last year. Brian Flores has put together a staff that is surprising a lot of people by being in playoff contention 10 weeks into the season.


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