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Offseason | 2024

Zimmer tells 'ideal' plan for Mazi Smith, run defense


FRISCO, Texas — Not since the release of X-Men '97 have so many been concerned with the fate of a Wolverine. But when it comes to former first-round pick Mazi Smith, fans of the Dallas Cowboys are wondering what Year 2 will reveal from the former Michigan defensive tackle, seeing as Year 1 was ultimately one he, and all involved, would probably like to forget.

Enter Mike Zimmer, the former Cowboys' defensive coordinator turned current Cowboys' defensive coordinator with the potential to become Dallas' version of Professor Xavier.

That is to say he's already working through Smith's psyche to determine what went wrong in 2023 — a season that saw Smith, a nose tackle, dip to below 300 pounds from his pre-draft weight of roughly 325 pounds.

But, why did he?

"He lost a lot of weight when he got here," said Xav- … er… um … Zimmer. "He was trying to be an attacking 3-technique to get up the field."

Whilst that was clearly Dan Quinn's plan, it simply will not do for what Zimmer has on the agenda — a coordinator that famously relies heavily on dominant play from both his linebackers and his defensive tackles. And the latter has to include an impact nose tackle that eats up blockers and stops the run on the inside.

It's what Smith did at Michigan, and it's what Zimmer wants him doing for the Cowboys.

"We're gonna probably play blocks a little bit more, and try not to get reached so linebackers know where they're supposed to fit — so forth and so on," he said of Smith. "That's the biggest thing. … Yeah, it's what he did in college."

Smith underwent shoulder surgery this offseason that's forced him into injury rehab, but the good news is he's not only on the mend, but he's also already gained weight toward what he and Zimmer have identified as the "ideal weight"; though Zimmer stopped short of revealing what that number is.

"He told me he's like 305 right now," said Zimmer. "I'll keep his ideal weight to me."

Zimmer has coached many elite defensive talents in his NFL career, and that includes on the defensive line, so Smith is in great hands going forward.

If all goes to plan in 2024, and Zimmer has his way with Smith, the former Wolverine has the opportunity to morph into the Juggernaut of the Cowboys' defense.

"Obviously, he was a high draft pick," said Zimmer. "I heard that he kinda struggled last year, so we're gonna start with the basics: get him in a good stance, get him using his hands the right way, getting his footwork the right way and then go from there.

"I talked to him yesterday and asked him what weight he felt comfortable at, so we've gotta get him to that point first and then get his strength back, and then we'll let him go out here on the field. We anticipate he's gonna be a good player like he was in college, and that's how we have to go."

It all lends to the concrete belief that stopping the run is the highest priority, and not one the Cowboys' can hope to figure out on a game-by-game basis.

This is a defense that has been the best in the league at taking the ball away in the air in the Mike McCarthy era, and one of the best at pressuring opposing quarterbacks, but also one whose Achilles Heel is run defense.

Just ask James Cook and/or Aaron Jones, who both looked like Prime Sentinels when they met the Cowboys in 2023.

For Zimmer, it's perennially about remembering what happened to him on September 3, 2000, when the Cowboys hosted the Eagles in the battle famously dubbed the "Pickle Juice Game" — due to the Eagles drinking pickle juice to avoid cramping in the Texas heat. He learned a lesson in that contest that has formed the entirety of his coaching style ever since.

"My first year as a coordinator, my very first game — the 'Pickle Juice Game' — we gave up 220 yards," he said. "I was [also] the secondary coach and I said, 'Hey, we're gonna go go go, and let those guys go up front.'

"We gave up 220 yards. Since that day … we've concentrated on getting the run stopped. We want to rush the quarterback too, but we feel like in order to rush the quarterback you've got to stop the run, to get him in those kinds of situations."

That has to be music to the Cowboys' ears, but it's also true that it begins with discipline as both individuals (avoiding untimely, game-altering penalties) as well as a defensive unit (moving as a well-oiled machine).

Because another thing Zimmer is known for is his no-nonsense approach to teaching, and while he's learned how to fit it to different personality types, the bottom line is still the bottom line.

"I don't like mistakes," he said. " … I just wanna coach guys and I just wanna get them better."

He readily admits his return to coaching is different in at least one major way — the caliber of the defensive unit he's taking over — but Zimmer is also not pulling punches in setting the expectation that this is no longer Quinn's defense or schematic.

It's his.

"This is a different deal for me," Zimmer explained. "Usually, when I go in, the defense is not good. They're pretty darn good [here]. It's different for me because we have to advance some of the things they're doing good and try to improve on the things they're not doing good.

"… [But] at the end of the day, we've got to do it the way I want it done. I know if you try to come in and do somebody else's thing, it just doesn't go [well]."

In other words, what Zimmer is truly saying is fairly clear:

"To me, my X-Men."

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