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Can co-defensive coordinator work for the New Orleans Saints?

Where we’ve seen it before and why the Saints have hopes to avoid the pitfalls if they go this route.

New Orleans Saints vs Minnesota Vikings, 2020 NFC Wild Card Playoffs Set Number: X163121 TK1

The New Orleans Saints could be looking to go an uncommon direction at defensive coordinator in 2022. After the departure of former head coach Sean Payton, it has been increasingly clear that the team is interested in maintaining as much continuity and cohesion as possible. General manager Mickey Loomis said it then the organization showed it with the elevation of Dennis Allen from defensive coordinator to head coach and the retention of Pete Carmichael at offensive coordinator.

Now, with the inherent absence at defensive coordinator after moving Allen to the lead job, the Saints could be looking at maintaining two key personnel members in defensive backs coach Kris Richard and defensive line/assistant head coach Ryan Nielsen by expanding their roles to co-defensive coordinator.

A path not often taken in the NFL, there are some examples of untraditional approaches to the role of defensive coordinator. The Minnesota Vikings employed co-coordinators (Andre Patterson and Adam Zimmer) in 2020 and 2021, which led to not-so-successful realities for the Vikings. The New England Patriots haven’t listed a formal defensive coordinator since Matt Patricia in 2017. Could the Saints be next with a split approach to the position? And if so, how can they make it work with Dennis Allen’s expressed interest in maintaining defensive play calling?

The easiest way would be to allow Allen that privilege at play caller while splitting the run and pass games between Nielsen and Richard respectively.

Effectively making Kris Richard the team’s passing game coordinator and Ryan Nielsen the run game coordinator could help to do the trick of successfully splitting the responsibilities of game planning, game install, and development as co-defensive coordinators all while Dennis Allen maintains defensive playcalling on gameday.

Reservations to this approach are understandable. Splitting one job between two people is hard enough. Splitting it between three can be even more challenging. However, clear division of labor, decisive leadership, and a detailed understanding of expectations will be key. All things the New Orleans Saints organization has generated a culture to support.

Not to mention that the coordinator roles are much more than just the gameday responsibilities. Richard and Nielsen could also maintain their position coach responsibilities, but perhaps shifting the assistant head coach role away from Nielsen would be a good choice.

The co-defensive coordinator role should not be just about title, as some of speculated. Meaningful elevations and changes in responsibilities should accompany the assignments. Not just for the betterment of each coach’s resume, but for the betterment of the team while will look to maintain the defensive success it has produced since 2017.

If the Saints do choose to go this route, it will be a win to keep Richard and Nielsen on the staff, as ESPN’s Mike Triplett observed. Both have done incredible work since joining the team’s coaching staff and have proven to be effective developers and evaluators of talent. If this keeps them in their roles with expanded impact, that’s a win for the New Orleans Saints.

Whether or not the division of the defensive coordinator role will find more success than it did in Minnesota the last two years will be up to the discipline and cohesion of the Saints coaching staff. A staff that looks to be one that will remain mostly consistent going into 2022.


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