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49ers follow growing trend in creating new position for defensive assistant Joe Woods

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The evolution of the passing game has resulted in an emerging coordinator role.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers have reportedly hired former Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Joe Woods to serve as passing game coordinator for the defense. The team has not formally announced the move, but it likely will happen at some point this week before the coaching staff departs for Mobile, Alabama to coach the South team at the 2019 Senior Bowl.

Woods is out in Denver because Vic Fangio is bringing in Ed Donatell, his defensive backs coach in Chicago and San Francisco, to serve as defensive coordinator. Woods interviewed with Washington, Arizona, and Jacksonville before deciding on the 49ers. All four teams have open defensive backs coaching jobs, but the 49ers have sweetened the pot with this passing game coordinator role.

Beat writer Matt Barrows suggested the job title could be a way to give Woods a salary bump that convinced him to come to Santa Clara. That would make sense, but the job title also follows a growing trend in the NFL. The idea of a passing game or running game coordinator has been a part of offensive coaching staffs for a while now. However, the past three years has seen teams start adding the passing game coordinator title on defense. The Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons, and Green Bay Packers have all added the role recently.

I have not checked every team, but the Cowboys appear to have been the first when they added the title to that of linebackers coach Matt Eberflus in 2016. Last year he was hired by the Indianapolis Colts to serve as their defensive coordinator. The Cowboys hired former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard to serve as defensive backs coach and also take on the passing game coordinator role.

Position coaches focus on their given unit, but are expected to know enough about other units given the interaction that happens on virtually every single play. The offensive and defensive coordinators are meant to bring everybody together, but given the evolution of offensive schemes and rules to benefit the offense, a passing game coordinator on defense makes a lot of sense.

We don’t know exactly what Woods’ duties will entail, but there have been a couple reports discussing the role of Eberflus when he took on the coordinator title in 2016. The job appears to involve working with the linebackers as well as the secondary. One report said Eberflus, “effectively managed the back seven of the defense and relayed the calls by coordinator Rod Marinelli.” Jason Garrett described the role when the move was first made.

“At different parts, times during the day, the linebackers and the secondary guys will meet and again, working on the coverage part of our defense and we thought there was some real value to that and the continuity across positions,” Garrett said. “We like the combination.”

The evolution of passing attacks, and particularly the use of running backs and tight ends is increasing the importance of having linebackers who can drop in coverage. I’d imagine a secondary coach is working with linebackers at times, but this helps potentially set aside additional time to better coordinate between the units.