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What to expect from Vic Fangio’s defense

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We begin a series of deep dives into the Vic Fangio defense, it’s principles, and what fans can expect to see with the Denver Broncos.

NFL: Denver Broncos-OTA Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

From players, to media, to the fans, Denver Broncos Country is abuzz with talk of the new coaches and new schemes being installed in camp during OTAs. Rich Scangarello is bringing his zone running, play action heavy offense he learned from Kyle Shanahan, and Vic Fangio is bringing a defense that he’s formed into the best in the league at his last two coaching stops.

We’ve been hypothesizing about how this new defense could help the players shine, and restore the defensive dominance for which Denver has been known, and hearing from the players how excited they are for this defense.

While we’ve been speaking in general terms for awhile now, and hearing snippets here and there from players that give us clues, we still don’t have a super clear picture of what we will see on the field on Sundays.

So I have been digging into the Chicago Bears tape and trying to listen to/read as many smart people as I can find to answer the burning questions that I (and probably most of you) have - what can fans expect to see on the field from this defense in 2019? What does Fangio’s scheme actually look like?

Over the next several weeks we’ll be digging in and exploring particular aspects of the defense from secondary, down to the defensive line, to run defense and coverage packages to blitzes.

For now, we’ll start broad, lay a foundation and then begin to hone in on specifics as we dig into the tape together.

Principles

We’ve heard Vic Fangio talk about building the defense from the ground up, being accountable, tough, and focusing on the fundamentals, so we know philosophically the principles of the defense.

However, there are schematic principles we can expect to see come to life on the field as well. While there are obviously exceptions and times where they change things up, this is what you’ll see a majority of the time from this defense.

Limit big plays

Everyone preaches this on defense, but the Bears actually embodied it last year leading the league in preventing explosive plays. Their goal is to make the offense earn every yard, play sound fundamental defense, and wait for the offense to make a mistake.

Chicago also led the league last year in not only touchdowns given up per drive, but 3 and outs forced per drive. So it’s not just a “bend but don’t break” kind of defense either.

Rally to the ball

How Fangio’s defense is able to make offenses earn every yards and limit the big plays is they are content to trade the underneath reception for preventing the big play, and then rally up to the football and make the tackle with minimal damage.

We’ve talked at length about Fangio’s comments on how it is non-negotiable for a defensive back to be able to tackle, and this is one of the key reasons why. Everyone on this defense must be able to rally up for the tackle and prevent yards after the catch.

Last season, the Bears were one of the better teams in the league at preventing yards after the catch, while Denver fell into the bottom five.

This is significant because yards after the catch are how top offenses do their damage. Pittsburgh led the league in passing yards last season, and had over 50% of those yards come after the catch. Other top offenses like Kansas City, New England, and the Los Angeles Rams all had over 50% of their passing yards come after the catch.

Limited blitzing

While Denver brought 5+ rushers at one of the highest rates in the league last season, Chicago ranked 24th in the NFL in blitz percentage.

However, when Chicago did blitz, they were one of the most effective teams in the league at it.

Some of this is due to the fact that the Bears rarely blitzed, so it was a good change up and caught the offense off-balance.

Additionally, Fangio’s defense rarely brought blitzes because they didn’t have to. They were 3rd in the league in pressure rate, and 3rd in sacks, racking up 50 sacks in 2018.

Expect to see this in Denver as well, as Fangio will have two stellar pass rushers in Von Miller and Bradley Chubb to deploy in four-man pressures to maintain the pass rush without blitzing.

Flexibility/Adapability

Defense is by nature reactionary, to an extent, so it must be able to adapt to whatever offenses are throwing at it. Fangio was asked about this when he was first hired - how he was adapting to the evolving NFL offensive schemes:

“We have to evolve on defense to defend what the offenses are doing. There has been evolution. I don’t want to get into the X and O details because you probably wouldn’t understand them anyway, and I don’t want to give an opponent any insight into my thinking. But it has evolved in evolution. The biggest evolution in football that’s happened in the last few years is that you don’t see fullbacks on the field much, which I’m not saying is right or wrong. You’re seeing three wide receivers on the field most of the time. I believe in Chicago this past year we defended, 82 or 83 percent of the plays we were on defense it was three wide receivers on offense. That, to me, is the biggest change in football. You’ve substituted either a fullback or a second tight end with a third wide receiver. The game has trended towards the speed of the wide receivers and spreading it out.”

This is where we’ll spend the meat of our time. How has Fangio built a scheme to combat modern day NFL offenses that have been lighting the league on fire over the last few years?

Fangio has taken concepts that defensive masterminds at the college level, like Nick Saban have been deploying and adapted them to counter the NFL’s offense evolution of spread concepts. While he’s not the only one, as Bill Belichick and others have been doing their own version of this in the pros, he has been on the cutting edge of defensive innovation.

Next time, we’ll dive into the specifics of these match zone, split field coverage that Fangio’s defense employs and how that comes to life. Stay tuned.