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Tale of the tape: Vic Fangio’s coverages

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We break down the main tenets of Vic Fangio’s defensive coverage and how the Denver Broncos might benefit from it in 2019.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Los Angeles Chargers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to part two of I’m not sure how many posts exploring Vic Fangio’s defense. Yesterday, we set the stage for this series and gave some overarching principles I have observed from Fangio’s defense based on their performance last year.

If you missed yesterday’s post, you can check it out at the link above. Here’s how we set up the conversation yesterday:

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.

Today’s task is digging into the main coverage schemes of Fangio’s system. I must admit, this is no small task, and I am far from an expert, but after hours upon hours of digging through film as well as analysis from various experts, hopefully I can do the topic justice.

The goal here is to, again, give a broad overview. This is far from comprehensive, and you could do a day-long clinic on each of the coverages employed by this scheme so there’s no way we can cover it all here. I’ll be providing some resources a little further down for those that want to go even deeper.

With the proper caveats in place, let’s get to it.

As I said above, we have been gleaning snippets from various players that give us some insight into Fangio and Donatell’s system. What have we learned about the coverage schemes specifically, from the players?

Multiple

When Kareem Jackson was asked what Fangio’s system was like, the first word he used to describe it was “multiple”.

“Definitely a very multiple defense. For a lot of the things that we put it in, it’s always, you know, something that if the offense is doing something, we have something to stop it, so it’s great to be in that type of defense, going into the games and game-planning knowing that you have different calls for the different things that the offenses are doing. You know you can definitely be sound in every way.”

This continues the thread we talked about at the end of yesterday’s piece about how Fangio mentioned his defense is continuously evolving to adapt to what offenses are trying to do.

Versatility

With a defense that consistently deploys multiple looks and coverages, having versatility on the backend is key. Right now Denver’s secondary is as multiple and versatile as it has ever been. Nearly everyone on the defense can play multiple positions in the secondary which is huge.

When asked about this recently Justin Simmons talked about how excited he was with the versatility they have on the backend now:

I’m really excited about Kareem, too. He brings great versatility in the back end. Safety, nickel, corner, wherever you need to put him is where he’ll go. A lot of experience. Very similar to a guy like [CB] Chris [Harris Jr.]. I’m excited. It’s been a super easy transition back there. We’ve had some reps back there at safety. Communication has been solid. Like I’ve said, there is always stuff that you can continue to work on and get better at, especially with a new defensive system.”

Simmons is another player that has seen time at both safety positions and in the slot, Bryce Callahan is getting reps outside as well as inside, and Will Parks can play safety or dimebacker.

We’ll see as we dig into the tape how crucial it is that everyone be able to cover from all positions.

Disguise

Another advantage that versatility and flexibility on defense gives you is the ability to disguise your looks and confuse the offense, or at the very least, keep them guessing as to what coverage you are in.

This is a key staple of Fangio’s defense as well. The way they line up at the snap, may be different to how they play it post-snap. Often, they’ll come out in the same pre-snap look, but have 3-4 different ways they play the coverage based on various checks or alerts based on what the offense is doing, so the offense never really knows for sure what they’re getting.

Contrast this with years past, and it becomes clear that the players recognize the difference. Adam Gotsis mentioned that during OTAs when talking with the media.

“The other two were pretty similar, Wade [Phillips] and Joe Woods—pretty much the same scheme,” Gotsis said. “Then Ed’s defense is a lot different. It’s a lot more sub [packages]. We’re going to be in and a lot more coverages mixed up in there. So, hopefully we’re not just sitting there and the team just knows what we’re lining up in every snap and expose us as easily.

The other team knowing what defense Denver will be in is an echo from criticism Chris Harris has been vocal about this past year with Denver’s predictable coverages.

“They’ve got the pick routes and they’re running tons of stuff. It’s crazy what the offense is doing. It’s like they know every call that you’re doing and they run the best route for that call. I don’t know how teams—they just set it up this whole season. It’s been like that,” Harris said.

After the season, Harris pulled no punches on his desire to change things up on defense.

“I think we just haven’t evolved here. I think after the Super Bowl we kind of just got stagnant. We haven’t evolved. We’ve got to figure out how we can evolve on offense, defense, special teams and everything—get better as players. We have to evolve with the times of the NFL. We’re behind right now....”

“We’ve just got to get up new with the times. What we’re doing, we kind of just stayed doing the same thing we’ve been doing since 2015. It’s 2019 now, tomorrow. We’ve got to evolve. We can’t do the same thing. I’ve got to evolve my game. I can’t think I’m going to still play the same coverage and the way I played in 2015 or 2013. I have to evolve my game and we have to evolve too.”

Justin Simmons brought this up again when asked about Vic Fangio’s new system in OTAs.

“The defense that we were previously a part of prided themselves on that [man-to-man mentality]. Just playing straight up, smash-mouth football. By the time the route is open, our pass-rushers are getting to you, and vice versa. It was a great concept to be a part of. I loved every minute of it. This defense is very similar but different in a lot of ways like you said. There are a lot of man-concepts and a lot of different zone concepts. I think the biggest thing is you never know what is coming. It’s always a mix and match. We’re always moving around. We try to make it as tough as possible on everybody and spreading the equal plays around.

Communication and trust is required

Lastly, the players have talked a lot about how much it really is the whole defense focused on the coverage scheme, and it requires great communication and coordination with your teammates.

Von Miller spoke during OTAs about how the defense requires all of the players to share the load in coverage:

“It’s a good defense for DBs as well. I’m pretty excited about it. It’s a great system. It passes the [burden] around. It’s not all on the DBs like it’s been in the past. It’s not all dependent on ‘No Fly Zone’ or locking guys up one-on-one and play man-coverage all game. We pass the [burden] all around and I like that. I like for it to be on the outside linebackers, the inside linebackers, it’s a team sport. Whenever you have defense that can pass the [burden] down and around like that, it’s good.”

Simmons took a step further and talked about the importance of communication together in secondary and why he’s excited about Fangio’s system:

“Because it’s really secondary driven. I think the biggest part about the defense is that it is all communication based. I think a lot of defenses are like that, but the vibe of this one is different. It’s about trusting guys and seeing plays develop. Guys not mentally being on the same page, but physically. Like reading it how each other’s bodies would read it, as weird as that sounds. It’s just being in each other’s shoes and feeling out the plays. It’s a great concept and I’ve loved every second of getting to dive into it. We haven’t even scratched the surface yet in OTAs. I’m excited to keep learning.”

Speaking of scratching the surface, let’s turn on the tape and begin to scratch the surface of what this system looks like. Consider this the Day 1 install of OTAs, and we’ll continue to learn together throughout the season as we see this unfold.

Match-Zone

So we’ve heard a lot of different descriptions, but what does it boil down to? At it’s core, Fangio’s system utilizes pattern matching zone coverage concepts. Often these are split field zone match concepts.

So what the heck does that mean? In it’s simplest terms, it is a hybrid between zone and man coverage, attempting to borrow strengths from both.

Full on zone coverage as we typically think of it, players are responsible for a specific area and break on/carry any routes that pass through that particular area. We’ll often refer to this as “spot dropping” where the defender drops back to a spot, and watches the quarterback and the routes develop.

Man coverage is the exact opposite where a player is responsible for a certain man, and they follow that player all over the field.

Now, the reality of NFL defenses is that they’re often hybridizing these things together, but not to the level of a defense like Vic Fangio’s.

If you want to learn more about zone pattern matching and it’s rise in the league, Doug Farrar has a series of amazing pieces on this topic that I would highly recommend. In that series he documents exactly what Chris Harris was saying earlier, how NFL defenses have lost their way, and the majority of innovation is taking place on the offensive side of the ball.

Just as the offense innovation has been fueled by concepts from the “lower levels” of football, the answers for defending the spread offenses has risen up from defensive concepts from the college ranks.

Farrar tells the story of how Nick Saban and Bill Belichick first began experimenting with match zone concepts in 1994 while on the Cleveland Browns coaching staff.

This is a story Saban told about the predicament they were in:

“I was the defensive coordinator in the early 90s and Pittsburgh would run ‘Seattle’ on us — four streaks. Then they would run two streaks and two out routes, what I call ‘pole’ route from 2×2. We got to where could not play 3-deep zone because we rerouted the seams and played zone, and what I call ‘Country Cover-3’ (drop to your spot, reroute the seams, break on the ball). Well, when [Dan] Marino is throwing it, that old break-on-the-ball [expletive] don’t work.

“So, because we could not defend this, we could not play three-deep. When you can’t play zone, what do you do next? You play man (Cover-1), but if their [players] are better than your [players], you can’t play Cover-1. We got to where we couldn’t run Cover-1. So now we can’t play an eight-man front.

“If their players are better than your players, you can’t play Cover-1.” I feel like this quote sums up Denver’s defensive challenges since the Super Bowl. With attrition on the defense, and in the secondary, the Broncos could no longer line up man to man and just expect to out-talent the other teams’ receivers like they did in 2015.

However, when they attempted shifting to zone coverages they either executed poorly leading to busts, or the offense attacked the specific weaknesses for that particular coverage, as all coverages have.

So how can pattern matching zone coverage help? Farrar continues in his piece with insight from former defensive back, and now ESPN Analyst, Louis Riddick:

“Pattern-matching was always a part of what the safeties and cornerbacks did,” Riddick told me. “If we called it Cover-4 (four-deep, man-based coverage), there were very specific reads for us when routes got into that 10- to 12-yard area. The coverage turned from zone to man. You ‘buy’ a route based on which way the receiver went — whether they broke to your left or your right, and where your help would be coming from. It always started off as a zone call, but once they got into your specific area, the specific depth you needed them to get to, it quickly turned to man.

The way they describe it, match-zone essentially is the defensive version of an option route on offense. Each defender within each coverage has a series of “if/then” statements and they play their technique based on which route concepts the offense is running.

Here’s a very basic example.

What is the number one man coverage beater that offenses will employ? Pick or rub routes. Denver has fallen victim to this many times in their man coverage. I’ve written about this at length over the years.

One of the most common pick/rub routes offenses like to run is the slant/flat combo, or the curl/flat. It works against both man and zone coverage depending on the alignment of the defense.

Green Bay looooves them some slant/flat and curl/flat concepts. Here it is a great call on 3rd and 2. The offense is in an empty set so they’re spreading the defense out.

If this is a straight zone coverage, you’re likely not going to get the safety aligning directly over the slot alongside the corner like he does here.

So they align pre-snap like it’s man, which is how they would likely want to play it, given the short amount of yardage to gain for the first.

However, instead of following the man over which they were aligned, they waited for the receivers to declare their routes, staying over the top of them, and then played their respective assignments.

In match-zone coverage, the secondary players are taught to read the #2 receiver and key off of his movement. The corner is reading the #2 (slot) and if he goes outside, he becomes the new #1 receiver, and he’s all Amukamura’s. If that happens, and the safety then sees the #2 go outside, his attention immediately shifts to the former #1 receiver, who is now in the position of the #2 receiver, and he stays with him.

That’s what’s called a “blue” or “read” coverage, and is a day one install concept for a match-zone quarters team. Sometimes it is referred to as 2-read, because it is essentially a match-up game between the safety and corner. There are a host of various if/then scenarios for different routes the receivers could run. (if you want a deep dive into this specifically, go to the link above for some great content).

For instance, if the #2 receiver goes inside instead of outside here, the corner then locks onto the outside receiver, and the safety will play the inside route of the #2 based on the call he’s in.

Back to our play, #20 Amukamura here, has identified the #2 is going outside, so he breaks on it to take away the quick out. Again, if this is man coverage, that route is likely wide open if Amukamura is chasing the inside route and getting tangled up with the safety who is trying to get outside.

That route combo is exactly where Rodgers is looking to go, and it gets shut down. If he releases this ball with this coverage, it is a house call.

So he holds it and takes a sack.

Now that’s a super simple play, and teams execute route switches like this all the time, but it illustrates the concept well of what you can do with matching zone and man principles together in a pattern matching coverage.

Now that we have some of the basics down, let’s keep going. Many zone based teams will base out of a particular coverage shell. Teams are either a “Cover-3 team” or a “Cover-2” team, etc.

The truth is, teams will and do run any and all coverages across the board, but there are certain ones they stick with as their “base coverages”. This does not necessarily mean the coverage they call in their base personnel, but it is their main coverage call, especially on 1st and 2nd down, or “mix” downs, where the offense is more likely to run or pass.

Fangio’s system bases out of quarters or split field coverages most of the time, although he will mix in Cover-3 match principles, the Nick Saban is most famous for at Alabama.

Now, when you hear “quarters” you typically think of something like this. Often quarters is thought of as a bit of a “prevent” defense. But the way the majority of teams play quarters is much more complex than this.

https://codeandfootball.wordpress.com/2013/07/04/from-cover-0-to-cover-4-in-images/

Fangio’s scheme further utilizes a lot of split field coverages from a “quarters” shell. What does that look like? If you really want to get lost in a black hole of all the various coverage options and rules around these types of coverages, go check out MatchQuarters.com. They have amazing content, and I have spent countless hours just geeking out on that site as I have been preparing for this.

They outline split field coverages like this.

https://matchquarters.com/2017/03/10/defending-trips-stress-coverage/

This is just one version of it, but essentially, the defense is cutting the field in half and playing one coverage on one side of the field, and could play an entirely different coverage with a different set of rules on the other.

This takes us back to our early principles that we heard from the players about this defense. As we dig in, we can begin to see those things come to life. Let’s take a look at another example.

First of all, look at this pre-snap and tell me what the defense looks like they’re playing? This is the disguise that Justin Simmons was referring to. The safeties aren’t tipping their hand, and end up in completely different spots post-snap than where they started.

The offense is running a dagger concept out of a 3x1 formation. Typically this is troublesome for zone coverages because it creates three levels for the defense to defend.

They try to stretch the corner vertically, and slip a dig route underneath, with a flat route pulling the first level of the defense down to create space.

However, Chicago is playing a version of match zone from quarters that initially looks like man pre-snap, and eventually morphs into a version of Solo coverage, from what I can tell.

The boundary safety #38 is going to check the #1 WR on the weak side, and then completely shift his attention towards the trips side of the formation, while the safety to the field side is working over the top of the trips.

This safety here is the key to everything, because he allows the slot defender to release the deep route. Consequently, this puts the backside corner in 1v1 coverage essentially, so while Fangio’s scheme doesn’t often call for matching up 1v1, there are times when the offensive aligment and coverage call dictate it.

In this instance the corner isn’t completely alone as the safety is trailing, and has enough range to help on a deep post if needed. This is why the corner plays the WR with outside leverage, forcing him inside, where he has help.

This is a key piece of Fangio’s system - understanding where your help is and playing your technique to utilize that help. If you have help inside, play outside leverage and squeeze the receiver inside so your safeties have less ground to cover if they need to come help you.

Back to the frontside of the play, where the magic is happening. The two safeties over the top are responsible for the verticals of #2 and #3 so the slot defender can pass off the vertical route in order to drop off and take the #1 now turned #2 WR (confused yet?) on the dig.

He sinks beautifully into the passing lane and takes away Goff’s primary read. The two safeties up top have the inside and outside of the vertical route taken away, whether he runs a post, corner, or continues the streak.

This forces Goff to check down short of the sticks and then Fuller #23 and the linebacker rally up for the tackle.

So in this play alone we have seen nearly all of the principles we have been discussing.

Eliminate the big play - check

Rally to the ball - check

Communication in the secondary - check

Disguise - check

Let’s look at one more for good measure.

This one the defense is showing a single high look pre-snap, but will actually rotate into a similar coverage as the previous play. The corners are once again in the illusion of man.

The backside corner again, essentially is in man, but again, the safety hangs out in the “post hole” to rob it in case the QB looks that way. Again, the corner is in outside leverage pushing the receiver inside where his help is.

The field side safety once again works to top the two potential vertical routes.

This time, however, the offense is running a flood concept, stretching the defense vertically and cutting outside, instead of inside. Last play we saw the slot corner drop off to defend the intermediate route, and released the route vertically.

This time, it’s the corner #23 who will drop off and the slot corner will carry the new #2 WR vertically into the help of the field safety and boundary safety if the receiver drifts over the middle.

Again, this is exactly where the QB was looking to go with the ball, and the defense took it away, forcing him to hold the ball, and the offensive line to get a holding call.

The backside safety is in the most precarious position as he leaves to carry the vertical route, the backside dig route comes open, but since he was reading the quarterback and hung there just enough, it was a non-issue.

This is another great example of communication in the secondary and what Simmons was referring to when he spoke of secondary players reading each other and fitting off of one another.

When it’s functioning on all cylinders, this defense becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Once again, we see disguise; a lesser quarterback likely lets the ball fly anyway the corner cuts underneath it for the pick.

We also see the importance of versatility on the backend. If you’re playing in this defense, it doesn’t matter where you line up, there’s a chance you could be running toe-to-toe with the offense’s best receiver, or carrying a speedy #1 WR deep like Bryce Callahan does here.

But, when it’s working well, no one is carrying the burden alone in coverage, everyone has help, and plays their technique to leverage that help.

Match zone coverages allow you to maximize your secondary, while also making it difficult for the offense to decipher. Guys aren’t standing around in zones with no one to cover, and no one is having to chase someone all across the field.

Like I said at the beginning, this is just beginning to scratch the surface of the potential. A defense could have a multitude of checks and coverages based on how the offense lines up, and they’re all just minor tweaks in technique or who plays what route, that it’s impossible for the offense to know exactly what they are going to do just based on pre-snap alignment.

Hopefully this begins to paint a picture of not only Fangio’s defensive system, but also the potential for Denver and their versatile secondary they are currently building (especially now that Harris is back in the fold!).

Lastly, before we wrap up, if this is such a great system and match-zone is the wave of the future for defending spread offenses, why doesn’t everyone do it?

If it wasn’t apparent from our small sample today, to run this defense, you need it to be extremely well coached. Players must be fundamentally sound, and know their assignments inside and out, and coaches must constantly be adjust week to week, adding in wrinkles to take away how offenses want to attack them.

This is something that is difficult in today’s NFL climate of coaching turnover and shortened practice time, but I believe our particular players, who are all very savvy, cerebral guys, along with this coaching staff are uniquely positioned to make this work.

Sound off below with your thoughts and anything that stuck out to you, or you would like to see more of as we continue this journey through Fangio’s defense together.