Mandatory Credit: Photo by Abbie Parr/AP/Shutterstock (13577596he) Arizona Cardinals defensive line coach Matt Burke signals to his team during the first half of an NFL football game against the Minnesota Vikings, in Minneapolis Cardinals Vikings Football, Minneapolis, United States – 30 Oct 2022
You won’t find many defensive coordinators who graduated from Dartmouth with a psychology degree, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, went on safaris in Botswana, did charity work in Uganda, and made J.J. Watt bawl like a baby.
But Matt Burke, hired by DeMeco Ryans, isn’t your ordinary defensive coordinator.
Let’s start with Watt. You remember him, right? In 2022, his second season at Arizona, Burke was Watt’s defensive line coach. Watt retired in style. He started 16 games and recorded 12½ sacks. If you watched HBO’s in-season “Hard Knocks” series with the Cardinals, you saw Watt and Burke develop a special relationship.
After Watt announced his retirement, Burke surprised him before the Cardinals’ last game against the 49ers with a video featuring some current and former players and coaches paying tribute to the three-time winner of the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award who played 10 years with the Texans. The video began with Watt’s wife, Kealia, talking about him as a husband and new father to Koa James. As the video was being played – and shown on “Hard Knocks” – Watt sat in the back of the defensive line’s meeting room crying like his baby.
“I spent the year with J and got close to him in the short time I was with him,” Burke said this week at his introductory news conference. “When the news came out about him hanging it up, I felt responsible for shepherding him out the right way and wanted to do something special for him. I’ve been in the league for 20 years now, and you don’t get a lot of opportunities to work with guys like that, that level of player at that time frame of his career. It was a cool experience for me.”
You could tell by Watt’s emotional reaction to the video just how much he appreciated Burke’s gesture.
“He’s got all of the accolades (for) for all the stuff he’s accomplished and what he’s been through,” Burke said. “It (video) was about the people and the connections he made through his time — the people that played with (him) and competed against (him). I just thought that would be a cool message to send him out. I hope he’s thankful for that. It sounds like he is.”
Now, about those trips to Africa in the 2015 and 2016 offseasons.
“That started with Dillon Gandy, a former player (and) a Texas Tech guy who played for us in Detroit,” Burke said. “He tied in a couple of us – me and one other coach went over there (Uganda). They were working to help build an orphanage and school system that had a hospital. I was on-site and living at this little school, helping to build roads and do some stuff there.
“It was a really cool experience, getting to be part of that and sort of feeling like you’re contributing to something. Then I flew to Tanzania and spent eight days hiking Kili. It was probably the most challenging but most rewarding adventure I’ve done. I did six days to summit and then two days back down, so it was a challenging eight-day stretch for me.
“It’s the only time in all of my travels I got altitude sickness. On the third day, I was probably at about 14,000 feet, and I was in the weeds. I was in my tent panicking with fever symptoms. I’m sweating, and I didn’t sleep all night. My guide, as I was freaking out, was like, ‘You’re fine. We’re good.’ He gave me aspirin, and I was like, ‘That’s your solution?’ He knew the next day we’d be dropping a little, and I was going to regulate my body. So the guide talked me through it. When I reached the summit, it was a joyous thing. I was really blessed.”
Now Burke feels blessed to work for Ryans and the Texans, his eighth team. He spent the first five years of his NFL coaching career working for the Titans and coach Jeff Fisher. He was coaching at Harvard when Tennessee defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz discovered him and convinced Fisher to hire him as an administrative assistant. That experience gave Burke a foundation that’s helped him get his second job as a defensive coordinator. The first was with Miami in 2017 and 2018.
“My job is to try to help DeMeco execute his vision for what he wants,” Burke said. “Through this hiring process, DeMeco’s vision and mine lined up in terms of how we see defense being played. We’re going to be an aggressive attack front and try to get these guys getting off the ball and try to dictate a little bit instead of being reactionary on defense. We’re still in the process of getting to know those players. Foundationally, we’re exciting with some of the pieces that fit what we’re looking to do.
“This defense and this scheme start up front. As a baseline philosophy, we all believe if you can get after the passer with a four-man rush and not have to commit extra resources to that so your coverage elements can stay pure, that’s the best thing. If you don’t have that D-line (and) you have to start adding pieces to the (pass) rush, you’re taking away from the coverage.”
In his last season as the 49ers’ defensive coordinator, Ryans had three first-round picks in his defensive line and none in his back seven. Caserio will bolster the defense in free agency that begins Wednesday and in the draft that starts April 27.
“I think there’s a lot of options,” Burke said. “I think there’s a lot of depth across the league in terms of free agency and the draft. In general, the biggest thing for us is there’s not a lot of teams the play the style we’re going to ask these guys to play, so there’s going to be a lot of project for us. As a starting point, we want smart, tough, and fast players that can play physical and play in space. The league has become a little bit of a space league, so you want guys that can operate in space, whether that’s a linebacker that can run and cover or defensive ends that can close from the edge.
“Our task is to really dig into these guys, whether it’s draft or free agency, and sort of project them into the schemes and techniques we’re asking these guys to play. Can they have success doing that? That’s what we’re undergoing right now.”
Ryans made the defensive calls for the 49ers in his two seasons as the coordinator. He said at last week’s scouting combine he hadn’t decided if he’d do it with the Texans or have Burke handle that responsibility.
“We’re still going through that process,” Ryans said. “Haven’t decided just yet, but Matt’s very capable of calling defenses. He’s done it before. He’s knowledgeable of our scheme and how we want to play, so I’m very confident in Matt calling the plays as well. He’s another guy who’s a passionate coach and a great teacher – energetic (and) a very knowledgeable coach. I’m excited about what he can do, what he can bring to our team. I think the guys are going to love him.”
(John McClain writes four columns a week for GallerySports.com. He can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on Sports Radio 610 and Thursday on Texans Radio. He does three weekly Houtopia podcasts for 610. He also can be read three times a week on SportsRadio610.com).