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The Broncos defense under Fangio could be the best in football.

On this week’s Cover 2 Broncos, Coach Vass and I took a deep dive into the Fangio defense.

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On this week’s episode of Cover2Broncos I had the good fortune to speak with the one and only Coach Vass. Since I started writing for Mile High Report, there are very few people who have taught me more. In case you didn’t know, Vass hosts a couple of podcasts breaking down scheme, runs a Patreon where he shares all sorts of information as well as All-22 college tape, and produces informative content on Youtube.

To say I was excited is an understatement. I’ve wanted to pick Vass’ brain about the Fangio defense since the first time I spoke with him back in 2019. I wanted to share a few of the highlights below, but hope you can make the time to listen to the episode in full.

The philosophy behind the Fangio defense

If you missed it, Jeff Essary and I wrote about the Fangio defense way back in 2019. You can find it here. Going forward from here, I’ll assume you know the defense between man and zone defense, MOFO, MOFC, basic coverages such as Cover 1,2,3,4, and 6 as well as the different techniques defensive linemen utilize.

The Fangio defense is built to stop the pass first and foremost while baiting opposing coordinators into running the ball too often, as rushing isn’t anywhere near as efficient. Fangio does this by utilizing 2-high looks at the highest rate in the league. On any given play, Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons are probably starting out in what looks like a MOFO coverage shell, which means the Broncos look like they have seven or even less players around the line of scrimmage.

The Broncos routinely line up with both safeties back, presenting what should be an “easy” front to run on.

In short, the Broncos are going against the grain while most of the league continues to use an eight man box with a single high safety outside of obvious must-pass situations.

Now, just because the Broncos’ safeties are aligned deep before the snap does not mean that’s where they’ll be after the ball hits the quarterbacks hands. While many defenses in the NFL are static, Fangio’s system is all about creating confusion for the quarterback. Oftentimes Jackson or Simmons will spin down out of the shell into a MOFC look. According to Pro Football Focus’ Seth Galina, Fangio still utilized variations of Cover 3 more than any other coverage. When I spoke with Vass, he revealed to me that Fangio uses a ton of what he calls “Cheat 9” an over front with a 9 technique, and then the coverage is rolling weak to Cover 3.

“Fangio teaches quarters (Cover 4), he teaches two deep zone and then he just moves it around, he teaches Cover 1 which everyone in America does. He teaches Cover 3,”

Over the course of last season, we saw Brandon Staley coordinate the Los Angeles Rams defense and become the buzz of the league utilizing a philosophy he learned from Fangio. It went so well he’s now the head coach of the Chargers.

Digging deeper into the Fangio defense

Philosophically, the Fangio defense isn’t too tough to understand. There’s levels of complexity that make it harder to defeat, however. While it’s easy to label a play Cover 3, there’s a ton of variations off it used to play to the offensive tendencies and adjustments. Vass confirmed what I’ve long suspected: one reason the Fangio defense was a big adjustment for members of the Broncos’ secondary is how the if/then principles built into the coverage calls could change based on the offensive matchup.

One question I had for Vass had to do with what I believed was a misperception that Fangio is just a zone coach. Per Sports Info Solutions’ charting, the Broncos used man coverage at the 10th highest rate in football last year, even as they played 10 corners due to injuries. This led us down the road into the differences between the different coverages and how contrary to popular belief, there’s actually four: man, man-match, zone, and zone-match. The Fangio system heavily leans on zone match principles, which often plays out similar to man coverage.

I’m curious to see how aggressive Fangio is on passing downs this year if Von Miller and Bradley Chubb are both healthy. Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell blitzed a combined 60 times in 2019, 173 times in 2020. The Broncos also mixed in more nickel blitzes last season. Vass agreed with me that at the end of the day, Fangio tends to prefer a four man rush and sound coverage behind it. He tends to blitz as an answer to specific problems or as a change-up, rather than a foundational tenet of his gameplans.

The Fangio defense by the numbers

By DVOA, the Broncos had the second best red zone defense in the league thanks in large part to their league best RZ pass defense.

They ranked 29th against the run.

In 2019 Fangio’s RZ defense was the second best and a top 5 D against both the run and pass.

In 2018 Fangio’s defense with the Chicago Bears had the second best red zone defense in the league, but before that the numbers are pretty hit or miss. Between 2011 and 2018, Fangio only had one top ten redzone defense and that was with the 2014 49ers.

Despite all the strength of their redzone defense, the Broncos’ still allowed 27.9 points per game, which ranked 25th in the league. Keep in mind how the offense constantly left them with short fields to defend, however. By FO charting, the defense allowed 33.29 yards per drive (11th in the league) and 2.37 points per drive (19th). In 2019, a healthier Fangio defense allowed just 1.75 points per drive, which ranked 7th best.

One big reason I love DVOA is that it measures efficiency and accounts for opponent strength. Keep in mind that for a defense, negative is better. The Broncos run defense finished -1.3% and still ranked 25th by DVOA because running the ball is so inefficient in today’s NFL. Through their first five games the worst performance by the run defense came against Pittsburgh when they finished -3.6%, every other game the run defense was -19.4% or better. The 10th best rush defense in football finished the 2021 season with -19.3% DVOA.

Mike Purcell got hurt after logging five snaps in the Broncos’ 6th game. I don’t want to attribute all the issues that cropped up against the run on his injury, but losing a good nose tackle certainly hurt base personnel and in short yardage situations.

Speaking of injuries, the Broncos finished as one of just eight teams to finish 2020 with 100+ adjusted games lost to injury. Outside of Courtland Sutton playing all of 31 snaps, the offense was relatively healthy all season. The defense was another story.

If you go back and look at the initial depth chart, the starting defensive line played all of three games together because of Jurrell Casey’s injury. Shelby Harris was in and out of the lineup due to a variety of ailments and finished with only 441 defensive snaps.

Injuries forced the Broncos into playing 10 cornerbacks, including two undrafted rookies. Bryce Callahan and A.J. Bouye combined to miss 15 games. Parnell Motley wound up starting days after he left the 49ers practice squad.

On top of it all Von Miller missed the entire season due to his freak injury before week one.

A few other topics Vass and I discussed

  • Why Patrick Surtain II will have no problem adjusting to the Broncos’ system.
  • How Fangio covers with elite receivers.
  • Why losing Rich Scangarello is/was an overblown issue for the Broncos’ offense.
  • Can the ‘21 Broncos’ run defense hold up without size like the 2018 Bears had?
  • Why Fangio deserves a fair shot for 2022 even if the offense disappoints.

We also touched on a number of other things, so much that I plan to listen to go back through over everything with a notebook in hand to really soak it all up. It’s by far the longest podcast I’ve ever recorded and if my brain didn’t start to ooze out my ear I’m positive we could have talked ball all night.

My hope is you enjoy the conversation and find it as informative to listen to as I did to record. After chatting with Vass, I’m convinced this Broncos defense could be the best in the league if they stay healthy.

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