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Vic Fangio changed defense in the modern NFL


Vic Fangio is on sabbatical as he sees it. The longtime coach and defensive guru has been out of the NFL since the Denver Broncos fired him in January, but he hasn’t let go of the game.

His office has moved from the corner suite at the Broncos facility to his kitchen table, but his computer is still a digital library of NFL games. Almost every day he checks tapes, makes handwritten notes and saves his results on USB sticks. He has watched every game of 2021, many of 2022 and has no intention of slowing down.

His goal? Finding new ways to make life miserable for opposing quarterbacks: a tweak here, a new cover package there, a different front, a different pressure, a different weapon to keep his defense a problem year after year.

Fangio’s renowned system is a product of his experience spanning nearly four decades of NFL coaching. It’s disguise based, with a signature two-high safety look that can transform into almost any cover. The pre-snap motion is followed by the post-snap motion, and if done correctly, the front should hide clues to the final image.

“I [try] to make it harder for them to figure out what [coverage] we’re in, both before and after the snap,” said Fangio. “The quarterbacks don’t like fighting it.”

“It’s really muddy, so you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get if you fall behind,” Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins ​​told reporters earlier this year.

Like a Russian nesting doll, there are games within games, and the outer shell is just a shell for the layers inside. It can keep quarterbacks guessing at every dropback, and over the years it’s become increasingly successful across the NFL.

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At least seven teams use some form of Fangio’s system, thanks in part to his growing base of assistants who have carried it to various stations. Brandon Staley, once a linebacker coach on Fangio’s staff, runs a version of defense as the Los Angeles Chargers coach. Ed Donatell, a former Fangio assistant, brought it with him when he was hired as Vikings defense coordinator this year. Sean Desai, the former Chicago Bears safety coach under Fangio, introduced it to the Seattle Seahawks. Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry uses it, and Chris Beake, a former Broncos assistant, is working with the Los Angeles Rams on a Fangio-inspired defense. Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero controls the system perhaps better than any other coach, and Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon has relied heavily on Fangio principles.

Each team has given its own touch, but the Fangio foundation is worn throughout. Even as Fangio awaits his next opportunity, his work of continually upgrading the defense remains paramount.

making things “fuzzy”.

The Fangio defense most are familiar with today — with the two high safeties, the pre- and post-snap movement, the light boxes — emerged during his tenure as defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers from 2011-2014.

When Fangio got the job as the Bears’ defensive coordinator in 2015, his library of coverage was chock-full — and only starting to grow. In Chicago, he incorporated post-snap reactions after the ball was caught, then continued to refine the system in Denver.

The premise is simple — Broncos defensive backs coach Christian Parker called it an “illusion of complexity” — but it rarely seems so.

On opposing offenses, safeties (and linebackers) are often the tells; Quarterbacks read them first to see how defense is shaping up after the snap. But Fangio’s defense, Staley said, makes things “muddled.”

“We can play anything we want – two-high, single-high, no-high – in the same look. And we don’t give it away with our fronts either,” he added. “It often happens that the front dictates what kind of reporting it will be. It might not dictate all of the coverage, but it does indicate a lot. We try to be more balanced up front and we do several coverages from the front.”

The system is designed to take away the big plays that can turn a game upside down due to over-help. Although it can make a defense vulnerable to the run because the safeties start lower, it also allows for adjustments.

There are built-in options – if this, then that scenarios – that give backend safeties some freedom to play with quarterbacks. The options add layers and require security guards to fully understand the concepts – and communicate them to the rest of the defense.

As a result, safeties that thrived under Fangio have made a name for themselves across the NFL. In San Francisco there was Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner. In Chicago, Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos. At Denver, Justin Simmons was a centerpiece of Fangio’s system, and in 2021 he signed a contract worth the highest average annual value for a collateral ($15.25 million).

“With Vic, we just seemed to graduate every year,” Simmons said. “There was the baseline, but there were always creases and levels that we could reach.”

“When you do cover-four, there’s like 10 different ways that we can do that, depending on what’s giving us offense, where the players are positioned, depending on what staff we have on the field, depending on which linebackers we have on the field,” he added. “I think that makes it great, but difficult at the same time.”

The options increase the complexity of the defense, but also make it inherently flexible.

Fangio cycled through 15 linebackers in Denver last season because of injuries, but the Broncos still ranked eighth in yards allowed and passing yards and had the third-best red zone and scoring defense in the league.

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“The way our defense is laid out schematically helps… a new player to come in and learn quickly,” Fangio said. “Now he might not master the nuances and conquer them right away, but at least he can get in there and line up and know what to do and play well enough from a mental point of view.”

The dissection of the Xs and O’s of Fangio’s defenses can often obscure the heart.

It is a system that requires dedicated teachers who must be willing to accept a change in philosophy.

Staley, a former quarterback at the University of Dayton and Mercyhurst College, began his coaching career as a college defense assistant. He was a coordinator at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas when he began following Fangio, who transformed Stanford’s defense into a top-notch unit in 2010 and then revived the 49ers’ defense.

“The more I’ve studied Vic, the more I’ve tried to incorporate things I’ve seen from those units in San Francisco,” Staley said. “I think it starts with the basics and… sort of the essence of football before you even get into the scheme. … Structurally we just have a lot more opportunities to play you than most people.”

“Most teams might have five chapters in their book,” he added. “…We’re writing 10 chapters about it.”

Complexity is compounded by the need to understand players and coaches why such principles are carried out and why they are carried out in a certain style.

During Staley’s freshman year at Chicago in 2017, Fangio coached the full-backs early in the season before handing the keys to Staley.

“I wanted him to see how I did it and move on with it,” said Fangio. “And so I wanted a young man who was willing to learn and do what I loved doing with these guys.”

The so-called extra chapters in Fangio’s system changed Simmons’ perspective on the game. His lens is wider now, partly because of the different positions he played under Fangio, but mostly because of the coach’s philosophy of confusing quarterbacks.

“I think it’s fun to sit down and play mind games with the guy who gets the most money on the field,” Simmons said.

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Jim Hostler, now a senior offensive assistant for the Washington Commanders, learned years ago that Fangio’s view of the game was rare.

It was 2008, and Fangio was a defensive assistant to Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, working on scouting ahead and defensive game planning. Hostler coached the Ravens’ receivers and recalls that Fangio detailed attacking plans from both sides.

“Vic understands what an offense will do from the perspective of who they are,” Hostler said. “Most defenders understand what an offense will do against them from the perspective of ‘okay, that’s an overall perspective of how offense will attack my defense.’

“He knows enough about offense and how they attack defense that he can communicate with offensive players. The same goes for defence. There aren’t many people who can do that and it’s an art.”

But the more teams use Fangio’s system or parts of it, the greater the responsibility for him to develop further.

Fangio’s first outing as head coach ended after three seasons. The Broncos did not make the playoffs during his tenure, going 19-30 combined. Nonetheless, Fangio’s system continues to draw plaudits; The Broncos have been in the top 10 in the league for scoring defense in two of his seasons, and even now, amid the turmoil on the offensive side of the ball, their defense is third in yards, passing yards, and scoring.

Fangio said he has options to train this season but is waiting for the right fit. In the meantime, he’s traveled to see his kids, watched his beloved Phillies go to the World Series, and continued his research into the game he never really left.

As for his conclusions: The game quality has dropped. The lack of elite quarterbacks outside of Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen could be a factor. The spread of his defense could also add to the passing game’s struggles; The use of dual high collateral systems has increased significantly over the past four years.

And while he’s only able to watch from afar this year, Fangio is confident he’ll be back in the league next fall, pulling the strings of a defense that’s likely to cause even more hell for the quarterbacks.

And surely there will be some new wrinkles.

“I’ve already come up with some coverage to add to the package and watch,” he said.

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