It's OK to be defensive this offseason

January, 6, 2009
1/06/09
1:00
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Six coaches are out in Green Bay, including the defensive coordinator. The Chicago Bears have paraded a long-time coaching friend through their facility. The Lions are looking for someone to lift them from the NFL's defensive dungeon. Minnesota will be searching for its eighth new coordinator in 11 years if their current defensive leader moves on.

It's clear that we Black and Bluers are in for a defensive overhaul in 2009. The Packers and Lions will each have new defensive coordinators, and possibly new schemes as well. The Bears desperately want former Lions coach Rod Marinelli to join their defensive staff as a trusted advisor, possibly as their new coordinator. And the Vikings could lose defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who will interview for at least two head coaching jobs this week.

Altering the makeup of a coaching staff is an annual rite of the NFL offseason, but this year's intensity is unusual for one division -- especially when only one team has fired its head coach. But 2008 was an especially dreary year for three of your NFC North defenses, and so it's not surprising to learn that no one is standing pat.

Let's take a deeper look at each situation in reverse order of the team's 2008 defensive rankings:

DETROIT LIONS

2008 coordinator: Joe Barry
Status: Fired
2008 overall ranking: No. 32
Pass defense: No. 27
Run defense: No. 32
Key statistic: Gave up NFL-high 26 runs of 20-plus yards

What's happened so far: The Lions made Barry one of four assistant coaches they fired along with Marinelli last week. Several members of the defensive staff remain under contract, but their status likely depends on the identity of the team's next head coach. Of Detroit's seven reported candidates, five are defensive-oriented.

Why we're here: The Lions gave up more total yards than any team in the NFL during Barry's two-year tenure, one marked by a literal adherence to the "Tampa 2" philosophy. Barry utilized quick but smallish defensive linemen and linebackers, hoping to maximize the pass rush and disrupt the backfield. Instead, the Lions rarely achieved pressure with a four-man rush, requiring blitzes that left their secondary exposed. Detroit intercepted four passes all season. Meanwhile, the Lions' size differential typically left them physically manhandled against the run.

What's to come: General manager Martin Mayhew has said he wants the defense to get bigger, indicating a shift away from a pure Tampa 2 scheme. There are some Tampa 2 disciples among the Lions' head coaching candidates, including Frazier. But it seems pretty clear the Lions won't hire a coach based on his specific philosophy and will evaluate each candidate's ideas for melding a hybrid scheme based on the current roster.

CHICAGO BEARS

2008 coordinator: Bob Babich
Status: Under contract
2008 overall ranking: No. 21
Pass defense: No. 30
Run defense: No. 5
Key statistic: Highest individual sack total was 6 (Alex Brown)

What's happened so far: Defensive backs coach Steve Wilks has been fired, and defensive line coach Brick Haley reportedly is set to join the staff at Louisiana State. Marinelli, a close friend of coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo, has visited the Bears' facility and reportedly been offered the defensive line job.

Why we're here: Although the Bears' overall ranking rose from No. 28 in 2007, their pass defense totally collapsed in 2008. You could point out the Bears had more passes thrown against them (622) than any other team. As a result, it was only natural they would give up the third-most passing yards this season. But anyone who watched the games knows the front-four pass rush -- a staple of the Tampa 2 -- was almost non-existent. Babich responded by blitzing more than any other NFL team, but the Bears still gave up 40 passes of at least 20 yards. And despite a run defense that ranked No. 5 overall, Chicago still had trouble stopping two of its division rivals on the ground. The Packers and Vikings averaged 150 rushing yards in their four games combined against the Bears.

Yet to come: As of Tuesday, Babich appeared to have a decent chance of keeping his job. It seems the Bears' plan is to add new assistants to help him out. Marinelli would be an excellent choice to reinvigorate the Bears' defensive line. The wild card: If he receives an offer to be another team's defensive coordinator. Does Marinelli choose that job or is he willing to return to his previous role as a position coach with the Bears? And is he important enough to the Bears that they would fire Babich in order to secure Marinelli? These questions could play out as early as this week.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

2008 coordinator: Bob Sanders
Status: Fired
2008 overall ranking: No. 20
Pass defense: No. 12
Rush defense: No. 26
Key statistic: Allowed average of 352 yards over final six games

What's happened so far: Sanders and most of his staff have been fired. The only assistants remaining are assistant head coach/linebackers Winston Moss and defensive quality control assistant Joe Whitt Jr. Moss has interviewed for the St. Louis Rams' head coaching position.

Why we are here: Sanders never followed through on promises to bring more creative pressure packages after his bump-and-run scheme was exposed in the 2007 playoffs. The Packers intercepted 22 passes and had seven defensive touchdowns, but that production was mitigated by their inability to stop opponents from gaining huge chunks of yards during a 1-5 finish. A rush defense that allowed 4.6 yards per carry didn't help, either. Defensive end Cullen Jenkins and linebacker Nick Barnett suffered season-ending injuries, but the Packers did not find ways to adjust the scheme to compensate.

What's to come: After three years of playing mostly man coverage with cornerbacks Al Harris and Charles Woodson, the Packers could unveil some fundamental changes in 2009. Harris has speculated h
e will be traded, and the departure of so many assistants suggests coach Mike McCarthy wants to make a clean break from the previous scheme. Former San Francisco coach Mike Nolan, known for his blitz packages, is one of the leading candidates for the job. Expect the Packers' next scheme to be less defined and more flexible than Sanders'.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

2008 coordinator: Leslie Frazier
Status: Under contract but seeking head coach position
2008 defensive ranking: No. 6
Pass defense: No. 18
Rush defense: No. 1
Key statistic: Shaved 50 passing yards per game over 2007

What's happened so far: Frazier has scheduled interviews this week with Denver and Detroit. His ultra-calm demeanor will impress some teams and disappoint others, but he impressed Miami and Atlanta officials during interviews last year. Frazier has an especially good chance of getting an offer from the Lions.

Why we're here: Frazier has done exactly what coach Brad Childress asked him to do: Maintain the NFL's top rushing defense while improving the Vikings' long-time problems against the pass. The Vikings have led the league in run defense in both of his seasons, and their No. 18 ranking against the pass in 2008 was their best in 12 seasons. The arrival of Jared Allen helped raise the sack total to 45, but Frazier deftly navigated a season-ending injury to middle linebacker E.J. Henderson. That success, combined with Frazier's work with two Super Bowl champions, has made him a hot commodity.

Yet to come: If Frazier leaves, Childress will have to decide whether to promote an existing assistant or go outside. Linebackers coach Fred Pagac was a consideration two years ago when Frazier was hired, and he likely would be a candidate again. Childress prefers a Cover 2 scheme that mixes healthy doses of blitzing, so it's possible he would seek out a protégé of Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Johnson.

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