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10) What does Zimmer's defense look like? 


(Editor's Note: In the upcoming weeks before the start of training camp, the staff of is looking to answer the 20 biggest questions facing the team heading into the 2024 season. Today, the staff writers continue the series

10) What to expect with Mike Zimmer's return?

Mickey Spagnola: The base defense still is a 4-3, but a truer 4-3 with three actual linebackers on the field against teams lining up in 12 formation (two tight ends), suggesting running options. Think you will see far fewer times the Cowboys trying to stop those running alignments (21 with a fullback) with a "big" safety. But a lot of that will have to do with finding a capable third linebacker to go with Eric Kendricks and Damone Clark. And there are a few candidates, including the return of last year's injured rookie DeMarvion Overshown, third-round draft choice Marist Liufau and possibly even veteran Damien Wilson in certain down and distances. Nickel will be the nickel and Mike doesn't hesitate to man up, assuming Travon Diggs returns good as knee from his ACL repair. Zimm also is a fan of hanging with a large man at the note tackle spot.

Patrik Walker: We're talking about the OG of bluffing the blitz here, so expect plenty of confused offenses when facing the Cowboys' defense. Additionally, Zimmer demands a lot of his linebackers and defensive tackles — hellbent on stopping the run even more so than taking the ball away. Don't get me wrong, he still wants takeaways and has a staff that will coach that into the players, e.g., Al Harris, but Zimmer lives and dies on his defense's ability to stop the run. He's a key reason for the signing of Eric Kendricks and drafting of Marist Liufau, and the decision to require Mazi Smith put weight back on to be a double-team eater at nose tackle, while also adding Justin Rogers in the draft to help the cause. It's a defensive scheme that's going to work from the inside out, not from the outside in and, if you'd like to take a look at what capable running backs did last season and in recent years against the Cowboys, you can probably appreciate it.

Nick Eatman: It'll be aggressive for sure. Zimmer isn't one to sit back and wait for things to happen. Now, don't forget that when you blitz a lot or stack the box, it'll open up more big plays for the offense. I think you'll see a lot of sacks once again and maybe even more turnovers and pressures. But you'll be putting your corners on the island a little more and maybe prone to allowing long passes over the top. That's when you can only hope that Trevon Diggs is fully back to his All-Pro self again. I think you'll also see a change in the linebacker philosophy and they will be focused much more on stopping the run than we've seen in the past. If Eric Kendricks can show he hasn't lost a step, this defense can be pretty good against the run, which allows you to do a lot more things on the back end. Oh, and then there's Micah Parsons. I think Zimmer's defense will allow him to shine as much as ever - from wherever the spot he's lining up at.

Kurt Daniels: We've been hearing Zimmer will have more three-linebacker sets in his defense, but I wonder if that's really true. He was last a defensive coordinator in 2013 with Cincinnati, and of the top-10 personnel formations the Bengals used that season, seven had only two linebackers on the field, including the top three alignments. Likewise, in Zimmer's final year as head coach of the Vikings in 2021, the top six and eight of the top-10 personnel formations featured just two linebackers. So it just doesn't seem like we're going to see a lot of change in that regard. Where we hopefully will see change, though, is in the size of those linebackers, the use of the defensive tackles and the physicality of the defense overall.

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