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Arizona Cardinals new head coach Steve Wilks is full of surprises

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Wilks defenses were varied and aggressive in Carolina, find out for yourself.

Carolina Panthers training camp Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/MCT via Getty Images

The Arizona Cardinals hired Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks to be their newest head coach.

He has big shoes to fill in fans eyes, but he comes at it from a very different way than his predecessor Bruce Arians.

Steve Wilks is a defensive backs coach and coordinator first and foremost.

His work in Chicago and San Diego with the defensive backs is legendary, does an excellent job of working through just how dynamic Wilks is as a defensive coordinator:

Wilks, a Charlotte native, returned home from the San Diego Chargers, where he oversaw the secondary from 2009-11. He added the assistant head coach title in 2011. Prior to Wilks’ arrival, San Diego ranked 31st in the NFL against the pass but stood 11th in 2009, first in 2010 and 13th in 2011. In 2010, Wilks and then San Diego defensive coordinator [Ron] Rivera formed a formidable duo when the Chargers led the NFL in total defense and pass defense. San Diego limited opponents to a 76.2 passer rating, fourth lowest in the league, and surrendered 18 touchdown passes, fifth fewest in the NFL.

Wilks came to San Diego after three seasons as defensive backs coach for the Chicago Bears. From 2006-08, cornerbacks and safeties accounted for 42 of the team’s 62 interceptions, including 16 in 2006 when Chicago - with Rivera as defensive coordinator - led the NFL with 44 takeaways and advanced to Super Bowl XLI. The Bears’ defensive backs also forced 20 fumbles during Wilks’ tenure, the most in the NFL in that span.

He is also willing to try different ideas as a defensive coordinator, from Billy M of Cat Scratch Reader: (I highly recommend reading all of these articles I post from Cat Scratch Reader)

When Wilks was promoted, there was an expectation that he would implement more man coverage. The Panthers were in zone coverage close to 80% of their snaps last season. Did those numbers come close to fruition on Sunday?

72% zone, 28% man.

It’s way too early to make any sweeping conclusion based on one week, but there was a small shift to more man coverage. In addition, the Panthers were in man coverage four times on the first drive alone. So what type of man and zone coverage did the Panthers employ on Sunday?

Wilks does like zone coverages, but his cover three looks are highly complicated pattern matching, from CanadianPanther:

What is pattern matching? Well, normally in zone coverage, players will backpedal to their zones and wait for a receiver to enter. This is also called “spot dropping”. The problem with spot dropping is every zone has weak spots, and many route concepts are designed to overwhelm a zone with multiple receivers attacking one zone defender. The flood concept is one of the most popular zone coverage beaters because it sends three receivers towards one side of the field, where there are likely only two defenders in zone coverage. In theory, one receiver will eventually get open.

The short version, the Cardinals will use their vast talents on defense to help defend in a number of ways, but what they lack, at least initially, is someone like Luke Kuechly. That means they’ll have to find other ways to attack in zone coverages.

The other thing is, Wilks defense is complex and asks a lot of the defenders:

There are two simple coverage principles taught when playing zone defense. Spot dropping or pattern matching. Spot dropping is simply dropping to a landmark of the field. Pattern matching involves a set of rules designed to match with the route concepts. Spot dropping in today’s NFL will simply not work. Despite every fan base despising their offensive coordinator, play callers are still smart enough to beat any defense that spot drops.

This is why Wilks defenses struggled at times in 2017, they need not just great athletes, but they need players who can make on the fly adjustments.

That is something the Cardinals have in Budda Baker, Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu.

Wilks is a master at maximizing his players abilities and tools at their disposal. He asks a lot of his players, but they love him for it because he gives them freedoms and is overtly aggressive.

This may scare writers, but it is what makes Wilks a dynamic defensive play caller, this is Billy on the Panthers against Aaron Rodgers:

The best way to slow him down is to apply reasonable pressure and play sound coverage. I was skeptical of sending aggressive blitzes due to his pocket mobility, scrambling skills, and arm strength. However, it seems that some of Steve Wilks’ blitz concepts allowed Carolina’s front seven to apply pressure.

It is not just about applying pressure, but it is also about putting the right type of pressure on a dynamic player, like Aaron Rodgers.

Wilks’ defense will undoubtedly have growing pains, his concepts are high level and he asks quite a bit from them, but all in all, they love him for it: