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3 & Out with Cody Alexander: Digging deeper on the Broncos’ pass defense

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The Denver Broncos are built to defend the modern NFL offense.

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved football. Back in junior high I played my first game of tackle football and proceeded to go out and spend all my extra money on learning more. In classes I found myself drawing up plays that I imagined, and day dreaming about touchdowns and 50-yard bombs. Back when I was helping my local high school team I remember pitching the zone read and pistol to our head coach, only for him to tell me it was a “fad.”

It wasn’t until recently that I realized my infatuation with offense combined with my background on the defensive front left me behind the curve when it came to modern coverages. Last summer I began working to remedy this, and plan to make it my highest priority this offseason.

Nothing has helped me in this regard quite like Cody Alexander’s Match Quarters. Coach A has spent countless hours helping others learn how to defend today’s offenses. It’s quite easy to follow the link above and find yourself spending hours upon hours poring over different coverages and fronts.

Over Christmas my brother also gave me Coach A’s most recent book, Match Quarters: A Modern Guidebook to Split-Field Coverages. As I’ve read through it, I’ve found all sorts of similarities to Fangio’s defense in 2019.

With that in mind, I had to reach out, and Coach Alexander was happy to oblige. What follows is our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

1st and 10

It feels like every chapter I’ve read in Match Quarters has led me back to instances from the Broncos’ defense last year. Am I misguided in believing that Vic Fangio employs a lot of split field coverage concepts? What do you see?

Coach A: It probably has more to do with front structure than anything, and the pressure being run in front of the coverage. Down and distance is a factor as well. Defenses usually fall into three categories: Single-high, Country Quarters, or Split-Field.

In the NFL, single-high and all its variations are probably the most common, though there is a movement to more two-high looks considering the amount of QB run game and to combat the modern Spread.

Country Quarters is the basic spot drop variations like Tampa 2 and QQH (Quarters on one side, Cover 2 to the other) that have been around since zone was invented. Split-field takes time to learn because there are multiple adjustments that can be made and both sides work independently, so you need to know the whole structure.

Fangio, like most DCs in the NFL, probably incorporates many of these variations, but usually base out of one. So if you are seeing a lot of two-high and one-side, and each side is working independently, then you are most likely seeing true Split-field Quarters.

This should look familiar.

2nd and 6

One of the things I’ve seen thrown around a lot about Fangio is that he’s a “zone guy” but the more I’ve learned about modern defense, the harder that is to buy. The Broncos seem to match in many of their coverage concepts. Do you think that was perhaps one of the reasons it took some time for players to find their stride last season?

Coach A: Don Brown once said he doesn’t like Quarters because you end up always teaching the different variations. When working true match coverages, it takes time to learn the system. That is why you usually see a jump towards the end of the year and into the second year in production because it begins to “click” for the secondary.

A true spot drop zone is good when bringing pressure or when you play an offense that uses landmarks in the passing game. The issue with the latter is, that is not the case anymore. Almost all routes are optioned, or at least the ones that are being targeted.

In blitz coverage, you know the ball is coming out quickly, so the defense can see the eyes of the QB and scan for “hot” routes near the line of scrimmage (LOS). The DBs try and “cap” any verticals, or stay deep to inhibit long throws. On base downs, you are more likely to see true Zone or Man-match principles being played within the coverages. (You can read more about match principles here and here)

Match principles have blurred the lines between man and zone coverage.

3rd and 4

With the NFL clearly in offseason mode, how important do you believe the safeties are in a system like Fangio’s? What do you find as the most important qualities to look for in a safety?

Coach A: Safeties in the modern game, and really for the past couple decades, have been a crucial part of any defense. They protect the middle of the field and are involved in the run game.

As the Spread has permeated through the ranks, offenses began moving their best guys into the slot. That puts pressure on the defense to use a safety to either bracket or man that guy up. Like the Mike LB in the front seven, Safeties are like the QB in the back-end. They make sure everyone is on the same page.

In today’s game, safeties have to be able to cover and tackle. That multiplicity is why good ones are at a premium. There is no such thing as a Box of Center-field safety anymore. They have to be able to play everywhere.

4th and 1

Moving to cornerbacks, there seems to be a decent chance the Broncos are looking to add to that room. How do you see the differences between a nickel and cornerback, and what should readers look for as far as traits when speculating on the free agent market and draft?

Coach A: A Nickel CB to me is someone that has the ability to defend a shiftier athlete. He doesn’t have to be a burner because you aren’t getting so many vertical routes, but has to be someone that can work in space and play off man.

Very rarely are you able to press the slot, that is why most offenses place their top guy there. One overlooked aspect is also the ability to blitz and play in the run game. This is why you see some Nickel CBs look more like Cover Safeties. Someone that has the ability to play Safety, but is a cover guy.

Extra Point

Many teams in the NFL heavily lean upon three deep shells. Fangio’s coverages vary quite a bit from that. At the same time, he doesn’t blitz as much as predecessors like Wade Phillips or Vance Joseph did. Do you believe that’s a better approach for the modern NFL offense?

Coach A: Some QBs like to be pressured because they know there is free access somewhere. With the Broncos’ ability to rush the passer with the front because of talent, it lends itself to a more passive game plan.

When you can hit home with four, it allows the defense to max out the coverage, making it harder on the QB. Simple five-man and simulated pressures are great too because coverage distribution isn’t hurt.