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Five things to know about Commanders defensive coordinator Joe Whitt Jr.

Dallas Cowboys secondary coach Joe Whitt Jr. (left) talks with linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (55) during an NFL football training camp Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023 in Oxnard, Calif. (James D Smith via AP)
Dallas Cowboys secondary coach Joe Whitt Jr. (left) talks with linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (55) during an NFL football training camp Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023 in Oxnard, Calif. (James D Smith via AP)

The Washington Commanders have hired former Dallas Cowboys secondary coach and passing game coordinator Joe Whitt Jr. to be their new defensive coordinator. Here are five things to know about one of the newest members of the coaching staff.

1. His cornerbacks know how to force turnovers.

The Commanders have stressed the importance of creating turnovers for the past three seasons. For all the attention paid to getting more takeaways, the team hasn't done much of it outside of the 2020 season. They've ranked near the bottom since 2021, and the 18 they forced in 2023 was tied for the sixth fewest in the NFL.

Having Whitt on the staff should help fix that, because there haven't been many teams better than the Cowboys at taking the ball away.

In the time that Whitt was on the Cowboys' staff, their defense forced 93 turnovers and led the league in the category in 2021 and 2022. Much of that has come from interceptions; Whitt's secondary has been in the top 10 in each of the last three seasons.

Also, a Cowboys cornerback led the NFL in interceptions in two of the past three years. Trevon Diggs was the first to do it in 2021, leading the NFL with 11 interceptions and tied a franchise record while also earning his first Pro Bowl honors. Diggs was also named First Team All Pro as voted on by the Associated Press.

In 2023, DaRon Bland took on a bigger role in the secondary, starting in 15 of 17 games and grabbing nine interceptions, five of which were returned for touchdowns, setting an NFL single-season record.

Conversely, Washington has struggled to grab interceptions since the 2022 season, getting just 17 in 34 games. Perhaps Whitt has the key to figure out Washington's struggles.

2. His dad convinced him to begin his NFL coaching career.

Whitt had always wanted to be a college coach. From the time his playing career at Auburn ended because of injuries, Whitt believed that his path involved him staying at the college level. That's how things started out for him, too. He went from being a student assistant with the Tigers to coaching wide receivers at The Citadel and cornerbacks for Louisville on top of being the program's recruiting coordinator.

In 2007, Whitt had a choice: he could work for Gene Chizik at Iowa State, or he could follow Bobby Petrino and coach in the NFL for the Atlanta Falcons. Whitt was leaning towards staying in college, but then he spoke with his father, Joe Whitt Sr., who coached at Auburn for 25 years.

"My dad said, 'Joe, you need to get that recruiting tag off your name,'" Whitt said on the "Talking Tigers" podcast. "Nobody was giving me credit for being a good coach. I was just known as a recruiter. He [Whitt Sr.] said, 'If you want to do right by you and your family, you go to the NFL with Bobby.'"

That was enough to sway Whitt, and he was hired as the Falcons' assistant defensive backs coach. The decision to choose the NFL over college led to a 17-year professional career that includes stints with the Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Browns on top of the Cowboys, Falcons and now the Commanders. He even helped the Packers win a Super Bowl trophy, when the Packers defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers, 31-25.

So, assuming Whitt goes on to have a successful time in Washington, you can give some thanks to Joe Whitt Sr. for convincing his son to take a chance on making a name for himself in the NFL.

3. He helped Charles Woodson earn Defensive Player of the Year honors.

Whitt spent most of his career in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on the Packers coaching staff. He started out as a defensive quality control coach but was quickly promoted to the cornerbacks coach, a position he held for nine seasons before being promoted again to the team's defensive passing game coordinator.

It was around the time Whitt first joined the staff that Charles Woodson joined the Packers after eight seasons with the Raiders. With Whitt's help, Woodson rejuvenated his career and had some of the best seasons of his career as a member of the Packers' secondary.

Prior to Whitt taking over as the cornerbacks coach in 2008, Woodson hadn't been to the Pro Bowl or named an All-Pro since 2001. Once Whitt took on a larger role with the team, Woodson was named to four consecutive Pro Bowls, led the league in interceptions twice and recorded 65 pass breakups. In 2009, Woodson won the Defensive Player of the Year award for a career-best nine interceptions, four forced fumbles, 18 pass breakups and three defensive touchdowns, becoming 1-of-11 defensive backs in NFL history to achieve the honor.

Once Whitt was relieved of his duties with the Packers in 2019, Woodson gave his endorsement to his former position coach on Twitter.

"I 100% and whole heartedly vouch for joe Whitt Jr. for any team out there needing to fill their staff.. Great teacher and coach that players can trust.. hard to find that combo," Woodson tweeted with the "100" emoji.

Check out photos of new Washington Commanders head coach Dan Quinn at his previous stops with the Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons. (Photos via The Associated Press)

4. He knows how to stop explosive plays.

Like turnovers, allowing explosive plays has been a longstanding problem for the Commanders. No team allowed more through the air than Washington in 2023, and while that was a low point over the last four seasons, it's not as if the previous campaigns were much better.

The explosive plays should also be limited with Whitt leading the defense.

Although Whitt isn't solely responsible for the Cowboys' success, he did play a role in turning around a unit that struggled mightily in 2020. They have been a top 10 team in points allowed in each of the last three seasons, and in 2023, despite not having Diggs for most of the season, the Cowboys allowed the fifth fewest passing years in the NFL and second fewest in the NFC.

And here's the part Commanders fans will like the most: the Cowboys allowed 27 plays of 25-plus yards, the second fewest in the league.

Allowing offenses to flip the field became a common experience for the team, particularly in 2023. If Whitt can find an answer to the problem, as he's done with other teams, then it should make life easier for not just the defense, but also the offense and whoever is under center for the Commanders in September.

5. He's been Dan Quinn's right-hand man for years.

This is the third time Whitt and Commanders head coach Dan Quinn have worked together. He was on the Falcons' staff during Quinn's final season with the team and followed him to the Cowboys in 2021. Now, Whitt is with Quinn again in Washington, with his first opportunity to be a defensive coordinator no less.

There's a reason why Quinn wants to keep Whitt around; according to the head coach, Whitt has "special traits about him."

"I've just seen the detail, the connection, the play style," Quinn said.

Quinn listed off several areas that Whitt excels at over other coaches. For starters, he knows how to teach proper tackling techniques in the open field, and considering how much modern offenses like to spread out their skill players, that quality matters.

"You better be a good tackling team and you better know how to get the ball away and show good disguises to make the quarterback have to read the coverages after he has the ball in his hand," Quinn said. "And Joe's been exceptional at that through his career."

This will be Whitt's first opportunity to call plays, but Quinn is confident that he is ready for the task.

"I'm thrilled to add him into it because it also allows some of the language for me to stay connected in a good way."

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