By Juan C. Lozano | Aug. 1, 2018
There are a host of new offensive and defensive coordinators throughout the NFL this season. Over the next few weeks, HCR will take a look at these coaches, who will have a profound impact on their new team’s fortunes.
There are seven changes at defensive coordinator in the AFC in 2018. What is old is new again as Romeo Crennel returns to the defensive coordinator position in Houston after a season away from the controls. Crennel’s replacement for a season in Houston, Mike Vrabel, is now the head coach at Tennessee. Joining him is former Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees.
Below is the list of new AFC defensive coordinators and what to expect from their defenses and what challenges they face.
PRIOR DC EXPERIENCE: Western Illinois (1999), Western Kentucky (2000–2003), Denver Broncos (2010)
REPLACES: Dean Pees
BIGGEST CHALLENGES: Martindale assumed the defensive coordinator responsibilities when Dean Pees elected to retire after the 2017 season. Pees’ retirement was short-lived as he later agreed to take over the same role with the Titans.
The Ravens defense is aggressive and generates turnovers. In 2017, the Ravens were plus-17 in turnover differential and scored five defensive touchdowns. There is no reason to expect much of a drop-off as every 2017 starter returns in 2018.
Age and injury will be the Ravens’ biggest challenges in 2018. In 2017, defensive lineman Brandon Williams was lost for four games and defensive end Brent Urban missed most of the season. Cornerback Jimmy Smith is coming back from a torn Achilles. Meanwhile, veteran safety Eric Weddle and linebacker Terrell Suggs are entering their 12th and 16th seasons respectively. There are young, highly touted players waiting in the wings as reserves in Baltimore but it seems that the Ravens feel they can get one more year out of their veteran core.
PRIOR DC EXPERIENCE: Florida (2010), Detroit Lions (2014–2017)
REPLACES: Paul Guenther
BIGGEST CHALLENGES: Austin likely will implement a 4-3 base defense in Cincinnati.
It’s a solid defense with one excellent player at each level. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins is quietly one of the best interior defensive linemen in the league and is stout against the run and an excellent pass rusher.
Vontaze Burfict is an above-average linebacker when he is on the field. However, Austin and the Bengals must overcome being without him for the first four games of the season as he must serve a suspension. Cornerback William Jackson III played like an elite player toward the end of the season and looked fearless when going up against top competition.
The Bengals defense must generate more turnovers as they were 27th in the league in turnover differential (minus-9). This number may increase as Austin is known to utilize more blitzes and pressures to cause turnovers.
PRIOR DC EXPERIENCE: Cleveland Browns (2000), New England Patriots (2001–2004), Kansas City Chiefs (2010–2011), Houston Texans (2014–2016)
REPLACES: Mike Vrabel
BIGGEST CHALLENGES: Crennel is back as defensive coordinator after spending a season away from calling the defense.
The Texans defense excelled under Crennel’s leadership from 2014-2016 but was one of the league’s worst in 2017 as the team was decimated by injuries, especially along the front seven. J.J. Watt is coming off a significant injury (broken leg) for the second consecutive season. Linebacker Whitney Mercilus missed most of the season.
Crennel is known for having heavy blitz tendencies and this season should be no different.
The Texans addressed a shaky secondary by acquiring a number of veterans during free agency and used their first pick (third round) in the draft on safety Justin Reid. Houston added safety Tyrann Mathieu, cornerback Aaron Colvin and Johnson Bademosi in the offseason. Getting them to gel will the rest of the defense will be Crennel’s biggest challenge.
PRIOR DC EXPERIENCE: Missouri (2001–2008)
REPLACES: Ted Monachino
BIGGEST CHALLENGES: The Colts defense struggled mightily in 2017. In 2018, they are expected to run a 4-3 “Tampa 2” scheme to help speed up the learning curve and allow the team to be competitive. There is a desperate need to upgrade talent at every position group.
The Colts used five selections in the 2018 draft on edge rushers or linebackers. This obviously was an area of concern for the Colts as they were 26th in rushing defense and 31st in sacks.
In the 2017 draft, the Colts spent their first two picks in the secondary and added another cornerback later. Yet the Colts’ secondary was frequently targeted in 2017, especially after rookie free safety Malik Hooker suffered an ACL injury and was lost for the season. The 2017 second-round selection Quincy Wilson has to be more consistent. He was inactive for a number of games last year as a “healthy scratch” and that can’t happen with a player of his talent. A team that isn’t very talented needs to avoid injury and develop their talent. The Colts should improve in 2018, but they will need another season of adding talent and learning the new system to play at an above-average level.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
BIGGEST CHALLENGES: Matt Patricia departed as Patriots defensive coordinator to take over as Lions head coach.
The Patriots officially don’t have anyone named as defensive coordinator, but the understanding is that linebackers coach Brian Flores will have some defensive coordinator responsibilities in 2018. No considerable changes are expected schematically under Flores, but there must be improvement in the team’s performance.
The Patriots were tied with the New York Giants, Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans in opponents’ average yards per play (5.7). Only Tampa Bay (6.1) was worse. The defense needs to improve its team speed and must find someone to set the edge along the defensive line. The return of linebacker Don’t’a Hightower from injury should help the Patriots considerably.
The secondary loses Malcolm Butler but added two cornerbacks in the draft and brought in Jason McCoutry to fight for the spot opposite last season’s free agent acquisition, Stephon Gilmore.
PRIOR DC EXPERIENCE: Jacksonville University (1997), Cincinnati Bengals (2014–2017)
REPLACES: Ken Norton Jr. and John Pagano
BIGGEST CHALLENGES: The Raiders will likely use a 4-3 defense similar to what the Bengals ran under Guenther and, before him, Mike Zimmer. The Raiders defense will look different in 2018, especially in the secondary. Gone are starting cornerbacks Sean Smith and David Amerson. There will be new starters at both cornerback and free safety. There is a mix of young players and veterans that will be competing for starting and contributor roles in 2018. The young players include among others 2017 first-round selection cornerback Gareon Conley, rookie cornerback Nick Nelson and safety Obi Melifonwu. Veteran cornerbacks Leon Hall and Shareece Wright were also acquired during the offseason.
At linebacker, the Raiders will rely on newly acquired veterans, 35-year-old Derrick Johnson and seventh-year pro Tahir Whitehead.
The defensive line should be steady. This could change if defensive end Khalil Mack continues to be a camp holdout. Mack is and has been the Raiders’ most disruptive defensive player and it isn’t even close. Oakland did use three picks on defensive linemen in this draft. Edge rusher Arden Key is a considerable talent that would be expected to play a role similar to Mack’s if Mack has a prolonged holdout.
PRIOR DC EXPERIENCE: Findlay (1979–1982), Miami (Ohio) (1983–1986), Toledo (1990–1993), Michigan State (1995–1997), New England Patriots (2006–2009), Baltimore Ravens (2012–2017)
REPLACES: Dick LeBeau
BIGGEST CHALLENGES: Dean Pees’ retirement didn’t last very long. The 68-year-old Pees, who had been the Ravens’ defensive coordinator, was coaxed out of retirement by new Titans head coach, Mike Vrabel. Pees previously coached Vrabel in New England.
The strength of the Titans defensive is on the line and in the secondary. Jurrell Casey is a steady playmaking presence and they brought in veteran free-agent Bennie Logan. Tennessee is deep in the secondary, especially after the addition of cornerback Malcolm Butler in free agency.
Tennessee only had four selections in the 2018 draft and used three of those four picks on defensive players; two were linebackers/edge rushers and a safety. The two linebackers/edge rusher starters, Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan, are still solid players, but Orakpo is in his 10th season and Morgan in his ninth. First-round draft pick Rashaan Evans from Alabama might end up as a starting inside linebacker in order to place their most talented players on the field at the same time.