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Tale of the tape: Outside linebackers in coverage?

Preempting the outrage when we inevitably see Von Miller and Bradley Chubb dropping into coverage for the Denver Broncos this season.

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NFL: AUG 24 Preseason - Broncos at Rams Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As we continue our journey of breaking down various aspects of Vic Fangio’s defense, and see how that will apply in Denver, one of the things that has come up a few times since his hire is his use of outside linebackers in coverage. We have said early on for fans to expect to see Von Miller and Bradley Chubb used a little more in coverage than they were in the past.

This immediately, and understandably draws some pretty strong reactions. We all have flashbacks to Von Miller left one-on-one against Gronkowski on the goal line, and the other times they were mis-used.

Note: We’ll have a whole separate post for the Raiders game so stay tuned for that. This is to ground us in the overall conceptual idea before applying specifically. I think that’s especially important given how poorly Denver played on Monday night. Again, we’ll talk more about this in a later post but I want us to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater as fans when it comes to our defensive scheme. Just because we played poorly doesn’t mean the overall scheme is flawed. That’s all I’ll say for now. We’ll pick this topic back up when we break down the Monday night game.

The most common question is why would you put guys whose strength is rushing the passer back into coverage instead of having them do what they’re best at?

Well, there’s a couple answers for this. First off, let’s level-set expectations. Based on last year’s snap counts, Fangio had Kalil Mack/Leonard Floyd drop into coverage a handful of snaps per game. It was typically around 5-7 snaps per game. Some had more, and others they didn’t drop at all.

So to allay our collective fears right off the bat, it’s not like the best edge rushing duo in the NFL is switching to off-ball linebackers or anything like that. This also held true on Monday night’s game. Von Miller didn’t drop at all, if I remember correctly, and Bradley Chubb only did a few times.

With that said, I brought in some reinforcements to help me tackle this question.

A Coach’s Perspective

I reached out to a coach from whom I have learned a ton about defensive football by following his content - Cody Alexander. You can find Cody on Twitter at @The_Coach_A, and on his site, which is an incredible resource for taking a deep dive into schemes and coverages that Fangio actually utilizes quite frequently.

Here is my conversation with Coach Alexander, with my commentary and examples mixed in.

First of all, can you tell us a little bit about yourself, what you do, and your site MatchQuarters?

I currently coach HS ‘ball in south DFW. I created MQ to give coaches, and myself, a reference guide/resource for defending the modern spread. The purpose was to get my initial thoughts down in regards to modern defense. I GA’d at Baylor under Art Briles and Phil Bennett. Both are renowned for their knowledge within the coaching world. MQ is a stream of consciousness about what I see (trends) and how to defend certain problem formations, personnel groupings, and motions.

Outside of the site I have written two books, ‘Cautious Aggression’ and ‘Hybrids’. ‘Cautious Aggression’ is my thesis on defending the greatest offense ever created, the Briles scheme. ‘Hybrids’ is a look into the past so we know where we are going in the future as well as my thoughts on how modern defenses should structure and function.

We’ve seen Vic Fangio dropping OLB pass rushers like Von Miller and Kalil Mack in coverage at times, often having them cover down the slot receiver. Can you explain the thinking here from a defensive coaches perspective? Why would you utilize a player who is primarily a pass rusher in this role?

It is part of his scheme. Plus, it adds to the blitz package later. If you always rush him then people can work to him every time. The ability to have 2 edge guys that can at least “hang” in coverage is a bonus because now you can start manipulating the offense or bluffing calls. The preseason is a little different as well. Most teams are playing their base.

I don’t think during the season you are going to see both Miller and Chubb dropping into coverage all the time, and if they drop they will have some kind of support. Much like you see the Jack ‘backers used in college systems.

This element of disguise and the offense not knowing what is coming is a sentiment echoed by both Von Miller and Bradley Chubb.

“I feel like last year we had a lot of times where we’d be in man-on-man coverage like six plays in a row,” Chubb said. “The corners are stressing, but it might not be hard for me and Von [Miller] because all we’ve got to do is rush. I feel like now we’re spreading that around, maybe I’m dropping, maybe Von is dropping. You just never know, and I feel like that helps us out and it confuses the offense as well.”

I dug into the tape of the Bears defense from last year to look at examples. The majority of the times you will see the outside linebackers dropping are when they are in their base 3-4 personnel grouping, which makes sense why one would need to drop off, because you can’t rush five all the time and be sound in coverage.

The play above and the play below are subsequent plays. The one above, both linebackers drop into a shallow zone. Below, they both rush off the edge, but show nearly the exact same look pre-snap.

Von Miller has been asked about his thoughts on dropping in coverage throughout camp and the preseason. Here’s what he has said on the topic.

“I feel good. I feel great in coverage,” Von said. “Like I said before, being able to cover and dropping back in coverage it really gives the offense something to think about. Am I coming? Am I going? Am I dropping in coverage? It just gives the offense another thing to think about. When you’re rushing all day there’s only so many fast balls that you can throw until they get a hit. I just like to mix it up and play on the outside and dropping in coverage and whatever they ask me to do.

“You have to have pretty good outside linebacker play to make it good. We have some linebackers in our room that can make plays in this defense......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.”

Aside from just the basic numbers necessity of dropping one of the players from a 5-man front, the flexibility and disguise you can get out of mixing up who rushes and who drops out of the two OLBs is a plus for the defense.

Can you talk a little bit about the thinking behind conflict players and overhangs, if it’s applicable in this situation?

With the two being limited in coverage, many times a DC will try and keep them capped (with a DB on top) so they can work into the box. Another aspect to look at is where is the RB. Many times in the modern game, a DC will take the overhang out of the fit to the RB’s side (this is where most RPOs occur). The use of a 5th DB also helps to keep the edge rushers in the fit or rush. The objective is to force the O to be left-handed and use the conflict player away from the RB in shotgun (Flop Read).

This is a really important point. Having the OLB capped is one of the biggest reasons I am ok with having them in coverage occasionally. It ensures that Von Miller or Bradley Chubb aren’t running 20 yards down the sideline to chase a running back on a wheel route.

This is Denver in the preseason. Even though Von is technically split out over the slot, it’s merely a function of the 49ers coming out in 21 personnel (notice the bottom of the image) and then spreading everything out. Due to this, Von kicks out in coverage, but is only going to be responsible for a shallow zone, with the safety taking anything deep.

You have a similar thing here from Monday night with Chubb capped by a safety.

Related to the above, Fangio also maintains two-high safeties for a majority of his snaps. You have talked a lot about the importance of this on your site. Can you explain some of the benefits from this, or the reasons that coaches want to keep both safeties high if possible?

Two-high shells allow you to give vertical support to your overhangs. When you go single-high, the defense is closing the middle of the field, but you are putting 4 players on an island (Seam and CBs). Using a two-high shell also allows a defense to use post-snap manipulation. In a C3, your players are down near the line of scrimmage. It is easier to go down than to try and go back (think vertical routes).

What are some alternatives to dropping OLBs in coverage in the 3-4? What are the drawbacks of these options?

Going back to the initial question. Placing your OLBs in different spots force the offense to guess or adjust. This also lends itself to sending non-traditional rushers from depths or cutting the OLBs on the LOS under routes. This constant cat and mouse game is where games are won, especially in a league that focuses on pass-protection and blitz pick-up. Being able to look a certain way pre-snap, only to change it post-snap is key in the modern game. Using OLBs that are typically edge rushers in a multitude of ways lends itself later to creative blitzing.

The cat and mouse game Coach Alexander mentions is something Vic Fangio has been great at utilizing his OLBs for. Here is an example of cutting them under routes like he mentions.

Here it’s actually a four man front with Floyd on the edge. They are going to bring a blitz up the middle and he is going to drop directly into the passing lane of this slant pass where the QB is looking to go with the ball.

This is a great way to force turnovers or sacks if the quarterback is expecting to get rid of the ball quickly, and it gets taken away. Here, he moves to his second read and Floyd then rallies to the ball for a minimal gain.

The next example is one that brings an element of disguise. Below you see both OLBs capped with safeties, and either one of them has the potential to drop or rush. Floyd at the bottom of the screen will be the one who drops, while Mack rushes from the offense’s right.

See below for the very next play. Floyd just dropped in coverage and is split out like he will likely drop again, except this time he rushes.

Notice the offensive tackle has already turned away from Floyd since he is so far out of the box, and so he is left with a 1-on-1 rush against the fullback.

This is another way to scheme your pass rushers open or into 1-on-1 match-ups.

I hope this gives you a little more insight into something I know we as fans don’t always understand or agree with when we see it happen on the field. Again, it’s not an effective every-down strategy, but as we’ve looked at here, it can be useful in small doses to mix things up and confuse the quarterback, and is frankly a necessity if you want to play a 3-4 look with both your edge rushers on the field.

Thanks so much to Coach Alexander for stopping by and lending his insight. We hopefully can check in with him again during the season to get some more thoughts on some of Vic Fangio’s coverages.

Stay tuned for a Tale of the Tape breaking down Monday night’s game, but in the meantime, I hope you were able to learn something (I know I always do from Cody) and enjoyed focusing on something other than that train wreck on Monday.