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Copycats: The Fangio defense is spreading throughout the NFL

Rams, Chargers, Packers, Bears will borrow from the Fangio defensive system. Meanwhile, Broncos were reminded in 2020 that even the best systems need good players.
Credit: AP
Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio walks the sideline during the first half of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

DENVER — There is a new defensive movement spreading across the NFL and the mastermind behind it is Broncos head coach Vic Fangio.

Sean McVay, head coach for the Los Angeles Rams who was considered a boy genius until his high flying offense was grounded to a halt in a 2018 game against Fangio’s Chicago Bears, decided to get his own version last year by hiring Fangio disciple Brandon Staley to run his defense. Staley did such a good job lifting the Rams from 13th in total defense and 17th in points allowed the year before he got there to No. 1 and No. 1 in 2020, he was hired by the cross-stadium Los Angeles Chargers to become their new head coach.

Ring it up. The Rams and Chargers have the Fangio defense. Then Green Bay head coach Matt LaFleur, who developed his coaching chops alongside McVay under head coach Mike Shanahan in Washington in the early 2010s, hired Joe Barry away from the Rams to become the Packers’ new defensive coordinator.

Longtime Packers beat writer Tom Silverstein provided depth to the hire by revealing Barry was all about bringing the Fangio defensive system to storied Lambeau Field where Aaron Rodgers’ terrific quarterback play has too often been wasted by Green Bay’s inability to stop them when it counts.

Add it up. The Fangio system has now spread to the Rams, Chargers and Packers. The Bears, meanwhile, recently promoted Sean Desai to defensive coordinator to replace the retired Chuck Pagano, who had replaced Fangio two years ago. Desai had spent four seasons, from 2015-18, as Fangio’s defensive quality control coach.

This calls for a calculator. The Rams, Chargers, Packers, Bears and Fangio’s own Broncos add up to 15 percent of the NFL that is beholden to Sir Vic’s defense that features relatively little blitzing and considerable zone coverage.

The last time the NFL saw a system mushroom like this, Bill Walsh was immortalized as the primary designer of the West Coast offense.

How in the name of East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania did the Fangio system become the league’s most sought after defense?

"It’s versatile," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who played for Fangio in Denver in 2019 and will play for Staley’s defense in 2021. "He has a wide variety of defenses. And it takes a while to get adjusted. You have to be smart to know how to play your spot, play your zone, play your position. I think that’s why I’ve always like it. It has so much. He has a lot of different looks he can bring."

The Rams replaced Staley at defensive coordinator with Rahim Morris, who grew up in the Monte Kiffin system (as did Barry). But Staley's top three position coaches from his No. 1 defense -- Ejiro Evero (secondary), Eric Henderson (defensive line) and Chris Shula (linebackers) -- return. They can teach the boss about the Fangio system.

Meanwhile, the real McCoy, Denver's D, finished 25th in scoring defense as Fangio was forced from week one, and then on a near weekly basis, to replace his growing list of battered Broncos with defensive players off the street. This after the Denver D ranked No. 10 in scoring defense in Fangio’s first year as Broncos’ head coach in 2019 and the Bears ranked No. 1 in scoring in 2018, Fangio’s final season as defensive coordinator.

Understand, Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense was hardly celebrated when he went 2-14 and 6-10 for the 49ers in 1979-80 with Steve DeBerg as his quarterback. It wasn’t until Joe Montana became the West Coast field general in 1981 that the 49ers started their 18-year run of dominance and Walsh became the wizard behind the most successful offensive system of the past four decades.

New Broncos’ general manager George Paton knows that besides upgrading the quarterback position, getting Fangio better defensive players will be a top priority when free agency and the NFL Draft strike over the next 9 weeks.   

Credit: AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy, right, greets Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay after an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018, in Chicago. The Bears won 15-6.

A December 2018 game in Chicago

Give McVay considerable credit for exalting the Fangio defense to the NFL universe.

The defining moment came December 9, 2018. Until that day, McVay’s offense was unstoppable. Entering that game against Fangio’s Bears, the 2018 Rams were not only 11-1, they had scored at least 30 points in 10 of their 12 games with an average of 34.9 points per game. In one instant classic, the Rams with what we now know was an ordinary quarterback in Jared Goff won a wild, 54-51 shootout from the Kansas City Chiefs and their sensational quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

But in game 13 against the Bears at Chicago’s Soldier Field, the 32-year-old whiz kid McVay met his match in the 60-year-old Fangio. The Rams’ prolific offense was shockingly held to an anemic two field goals and 214 yards in total offense. The Bears won 15-6.

That’s right. The same Rams offense that , 54 against the Chiefs was held to 6 against the Bears. For this matchup, Fangio made a brilliant tactical maneuver by moving a safety down to the line of scrimmage for a unique 6-1 front – six players along the defensive line, with one middle linebacker – to take away McVay’s renowned weakside running game. McVay had no answer. Rams running back Todd Gurley, who seven weeks earlier rushed for 208 yards against the Broncos at Mile High, was held to 28 yards on 11 carries against the Bears.

When McVay employed his three receiver sets, Fangio countered with his 3-4 base defense that featured disguises pre-snap and adjustments post-snap. A thoroughly confused Goff, who had 27 touchdown passes against just seven interceptions through his first 12 games, threw four interceptions without a touchdown in this one and took three sacks.

The Rams rebounded quickly to score 31 points against Arizona, 48 against San Francisco, and 30 against the Cowboys in a second-round NFC playoff win. But in Super Bowl 53, Patriots coach Bill Belichick copied Fangio’s 6-1 scheme and the Rams’ offense was embarrassed on a national stage, scoring a measly field goal in a 13-3 loss.

A year later, McVay hired Staley away from the Broncos to run the Fangio defense for the Rams.

First of all Vic is a very, very good football coach,’’ said former longtime head coach Mike Shanahan. “He knows offenses, he knows defenses. You look at his history and he’s really had a lot of attention to detail. But let’s talk about the people he’s hired. A guy like Brandon Staley.”

Staley, 38, was an 11-year coaching assistant at six different colleges, but the key, Shanahan said, was he coached at every position – from graduate assistant to defensive line, to secondary to linebackers to coordinator.

"Vic in my opinion was smart enough to hire him because a guy like Brandon Staley is probably an overachiever," Shanahan said. "He’s probably trying to pick Fangio’s brain, I’m guessing, based on what I know of what these young guys do to put themselves on top of the game. So, I think Brandon Staley is a very special guy to start with and Vic was the first coach in the NFL who recognized that."

Fangio actually started getting in the heads of these young offensive sphinxes before that Bears’ shutdown of the Rams in 2018. In 2011 and 2013, when McVay and LaFleur were offensive assistant coaches to Shanahan in Washington and Fangio was defensive coordinator for Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers, San Francisco won, 19-11 in 2011 and 27-6 in 2013 – the latter a game in which Robert Griffin III, the previous season’s Offensive Rookie of the Year, threw for just 118 yards and was sacked 6 times. In 2014 with a 28-year-old McVay in his first year as offensive coordinator, Fangio’s defense prevailed again, sacking RG III five times in a 17-13 San Francisco win.

Three games with McVay on the other sidelines. Three Fangio wins by allowing just 11, 6 and 13 points.

"Vic’s done a great job everywhere he’s been, obviously, defensively," said Wade Phillips, the longtime former NFL defensive coach who coordinated the Broncos’ famed Super Bowl 50 defense and was the Rams defensive coordinator in that not-his-fault, 13-3, Super Bowl 53 loss. “Everything’s complicated because offenses are so complicated. You have to make so many adjustments. But his defense is pretty complicated and people like that. McVay, yeah, Chicago was the one who shut us down first.

"But most of that time it’s not the system, it’s what they do with it and the players they have. But Vic’s been successful as a defensive coordinator at different places so you know what he’s done, not only his defense, but the people that he’s had."

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio watches during the first half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

What is the Fangio defense?

What’s odd about this highly successful, somewhat complicated Fangio defense is it looks so vanilla to the common football fan. He is not big on blitzing.

"No," Shanahan said, "but when he does, he blitzes for a reason."

Up front, his defensive linemen play heavy on blocks – or take on blockers – which has been the soundest way to defend a running game since Red Grange and Ernie Nevers were the NFL’s biggest stars a century ago. In the back, Fangio’s system is cornerback friendly in that he has his defensive backs play more zone with vision than pressing man to man.

It’s a coverage principle that’s supposed to help create turnovers – the Bears lead the league with 36 takeaways in 2018 – but since Fangio arrived in Denver, it seems that only safety Justin Simmons, who had 9 interceptions the past two years, has been able to take advantage.

“It’s about timely calls and you’ve got to have playmakers,’’ Harris said. “There’s a lot of good receivers now. Every team has good receivers, solid quarterbacks. The offensive game is way more wide open. It’s like you’re playing the Warriors in the NBA. It’s a wide-open game. From when I got in the league, the offenses are completely different.”

Fangio, who respectfully declined to be interviewed for this story, has evolved his defenses as the offenses have. He is also known for changing his defensive game plan from week to week to counter the opposing team’s strengths. And there are a lot of moving parts after the ball is snapped.

A key component to the Fangio defense is giving the quarterback one look pre-snap, and then having players adjust after the snap. This is the complicated nature of his defense. There have been times when after the snap, Kareem Jackson or Simmons were spotted rushing up from their safety positions to switch places with a cornerback who began the play by lining up over a receiver.

“You’ve got to be alert for everything,’’ Shanahan said. “When you’ve been in the league as long as Vic has, he’s taking a look at your personnel, he’s taking a look at your scheme, he’s taking a look at your injuries, and he’s going to try to take away what you do best. He’s going to try to make you beat yourself. He’s not going to beat himself. He’s going to try to put you in a situation that he feels your uncomfortable with both in the running game and the passing game. He’s been pretty good at it through the years.”

The bread-and-butter of the Fangio defense is the red zone. For all the struggles the Broncos had in winning just 12 of Fangio’s first 32 games as head coach, Denver became the first team since the beginning of red zone statistics to lead the league in red-zone defense in back-to-back seasons by limiting touchdowns to a combined 43.9 percent on possessions from inside the 20.

The Fangio defense has always been stingy in the red zone, and one reason is he usually keeps two inside linebackers on the field in sub, or passing situations. Most defenses take an inside linebacker off the field in nickel situations and sub in either a third safety or fourth cornerback. Fangio believes having four linebackers on the field – the two inside linebackers, in the Broncos’ case Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell, plus outside linebackers Bradley Chubb and Von Miller/Malik Reed – provide greater defensive flexibility and soundness.

He can mix and match his pressures and coverages more with four linebackers instead of three, and there is better tackling.

As the young mind likes of McVay and LaFleur try to capture the Fangio defense for their own teams, there is one aspect that can’t be duplicated – Fangio’s feel for defensive play calling. He’s quite exceptional in this area, although Broncos fans and Denver media have questioned whether his intense defensive focus comes at the expense of his overall game management.

At his season-ending press conference, Fangio indicated he would consider ways to free up his beautiful defensive mind on game day. But a better solution would be to acquire better players.

The problem is not the Fangio defensive system. The Rams, Packers, Chargers and Bears can vouch for that.

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