You would have needed your head in the sand to miss the meteoric rise of newly appointed LA Chargers Head Coach Branden Staley. At this point in the NFL, we have come accustom to “friends of Sean McVay” becoming quick head coach candidates, but Staley was different; he coached defense.
In the short span of five years, McVay has multiple assistants as head coaches in the NFL. Not bad for a 35-year-old. More importantly, Staley is a Vic Fangio protege - it was only a matter of time before he was sitting behind a Head Coach desk with McVay and Fangio behind your name. Fangio system coaches are becoming en vogue as well.
Before Staley’s move to the Chargers, Matt LaFleur coached one year with the Rams before leaving to be the Titans’ OC; a year later, he would find himself the contentious counterpart to Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. LaFleur also hired Joe Berry as his DC, who worked most recently under Staley (and McVay) in Los Angeles.
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Zac Taylor would take over as the Rams’ QB Coach after the departure of LaFleur. Again, after a one-year stint, Taylor would find himself the head coach of the Bengals (and land LSU’s Joe Burrow). Needless to say, if you are the Rams QB Coach, you’re on the clock for an NFL head coaching job - here’s looking at you, Kevin O’Connell (who was also the OC for Jay Gruden, you know, Jon’s brother…).
Staley is the outlier of the group for the simple fact that he is a defensive coach. After only one year on the job, Staley became a “named” coach and was considered one of the top minds in football as a young, forward-thinking defensive coach. His swift rise came after McVay decided to move on from legendary coach Wade Phillips. The Rams defense wasn’t terrible under Phillips, but McVay felt he needed a change. After three years, the relationship had become stale, and McVay wanted the Rams to move away from the more “simplistic” defenses of Phillips to one that could modify and tweak alignments/schematics week to week as Yahoo’s Charles Robinson reported:
McVay needed someone on the defensive side that saw the game in a similar way he did. The loss in the Super Bowl had forced McVay to look at how he approached his team differently. Ironically, it was another terrible loss in 2018 that put Staley in McVay’s cross-hairs.
At the time, Staley was a second-year LB Coach under Fangio. Before the Week 13 game in Chicago, QB Jared Goff (now a Lion) looked like a bonafide star, and the Rams offense had been as close to unstoppable as it could. The Bears didn’t allow a TD and held the Rams to nine points, winning 15-9.
Fangio focused on stopping the Rams’ vaunted run game, limiting RB Todd Gurley to 28 yards on 11 carries. One of the main features of the defense was a two-high shell that eliminated the power of the quick motions the Rams had utilized all year. The genesis of the Patriots defense that stifled the McVay offense in the Super Bowl came from this game, and McVay has talked multiple times about the ‘18 Bears game and how it affected the way he coaches now. Fangio had created a blueprint for disrupting Goff and eliminating the Rams run game.
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Staley would leave Chicago with Fangio following the ‘18 season and hold the same OLB coaching position in Denver. When McVay moved on from Phillips, most suspected that Joe Barry would ascend to the role of DC (he’s now the DC for LaFleur in Green Bay). Barry and McVay had worked together in Washington, but McVay wanted to go a different way. So in stepped Staley, who doesn’t shy away from his love of the Vic Fangio system as he told Robert Mays of The Ringer:
“I'd studied Vic since I first became a coordinator at Hutchinson Junior College... I felt like I'd been coaching for Vic since 2010. I joke with people about that, but I'm actually quite serious, because that's how far back I went studying his stuff.”
Staley was Fangio’s rising young star, and McVay couldn’t shake that 2018 game. The opportunity came knocking, and Staley hit a home run in his first outing as a Defensive Coordinator. As the image below illustrates, the Rams’ defense was by far the best in the league when defending the pass and arguably the best overall scheme in 2020. Staley did a masterful job of leveraging his two defensive stars in Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. The Rams were the best defense against the pass and only behind the Super Bowl champ Bucs against the run.
The use of a 5-1 Front and a two-high shell preyed on NFL offenses all year. What looked like a lightbox quickly turned into a suffocating defensive front. However, McVay got exactly what he wanted in Staley, a DC that was willing to leverage his talented roster and use out-of-the-box thinking to create unique weekly game plans. Staley’s defense changed week to week to inhibit the offenses the Rams faced. Versus the Bills, Staley went “back to college” running what looked like a Tite Front (Mint), the Seahawks a four down Nickel package, and against others a 5-1 system that used the D-line to win their one-on-one matchups.
The ability to change the “look” from week to week while still keeping the schemes simple for players to execute is a Fangio hallmark. In addition, Fangio has a knack for building defenses that highlight the strengths of the talent he has at his disposal. In the same article with Robert Mays, Staley discussed this ability:
“…[Fangio] was able to evolve and be who he needs to be based on the players that he has. Going from San Francisco to Chicago to Denver, we were different teams. And certainly just when I was with him, our 3 defenses, we were different every year.”
Looking back at the ‘20 season, Fangio and Staley ran similar schemes. Their use of a two-high shell made them outliers in an NFL dominated by middle-of-the-field closed defenses (MOFC); both the Rams and Broncos were over 80% two-high pre-snap usage! The pre-snap alignment of the Safeties is a trademark of the Fangio system and is used as a leveraging tool for defending modern offenses.
The Fangio system uses the Safeties depth to force offenses to run into a perceived light box. In LA, Staley leveraged his D-line talent to force offenses to win their matchups up front. As a result, the Rams would often only have one box LB on the field, creating the illusion of a six-man box.
As a result, teams consistently tried to run the ball and were stifled. The only better-run defense was the Buccaneers, who ran a similar front structure but focused on man coverage with a Post-Safety (Cover 1). The image below illustrates the philosophy Staley implemented to terrorize NFL offenses all season.
Fangio’s 2020 defensive campaign was not as stout as the Rams. Denver had injury issues from the beginning of the season as Von Miller missed the entire ‘20 campaign. In addition, moves at CB didn’t pan out, and the offense was abysmal. In short, the Broncos’ defense was “just OK.”
2021 looks different as Fangio made moves this offseason to bolster the CB position adding a familiar face in Kyle Fuller (Bears), another starting CB candidate in Ronald Darby (WFT), and drafting Patrick Surtain II (Alabama) in the 1st Round of the draft. Von Miller is back and should give the Broncos tremendous depth at D-line alongside Bradley Chubb (who can move inside) and Malik Reed. Inside, Shelby Harris and Dre’Mont Jones are both very good. At the Safety position, the Broncos finally resigned Kareem Jackson, who pairs with Justin Simmons and is arguably the best Safety duo in football.
Schematically, Fangio was trying to do similar concepts as Staley, but with less D-line capital. For the most part, Fangio opted to play defense against 11 pers. based offenses from his Nickel alignment (4-2). Fangio would take the Nose out and bring in a 3rd CB to play the Slot.
One thing that is noticeable in the Fangio system is the lack of premium placed on ILB play. The Rams arguably have one of the worst LB cores going into the 2020 season. Though Josey Jewell is serviceable for the Broncos, and Alexander Johnson can play in multiple spots, there are no elite players. The money is being spent in the backend and on the edges of the box.
The 5-1 box featured by the Rams was used by Fangio too, but it looked different because of personnel. As stated, Fangio was based mostly out of a 4-2. The Broncos would shift the Will down onto the line to look similar to Staley's Rams defense. In my language, I call this Over Walk (below). “Walk” tells the Will to align as a wide 5 tech. and the DE will shift to a 4i or 3 tech. The front is played with a Shade Nose.
To the weak side of the line, the O-line is leveraged by a defender. The only open gaps are to the front side. The alignment builds a natural wall for modern offenses that like to use the TE in an “off” position and pull him weak (Split Zone/Stretch). As illustrated, the Will can fold back inside versus a run away.
The fluidity of the LBs allows them to fit the ball and concentrate on the RB. To add numbers to the box, the Safety to the TE sinks down. Though the Broncos are in a 4-2-5 personnel, the defense can function similarly to Staley’s 5-1 system in LA.
The front structure is important, but the uniqueness of the Fangio system lies in how he manipulates the secondary post-snap. As noted, the Rams and Broncos were outliers in the two-high shell category. However, that does not mean they run a high volume of Quarters coverage associated with a two-high shell. Instead, Fangio uses the depth of the safeties to leverage the offenses of the NFL.
The two-high alignment can confuse QBs because they have no idea what the coverage structure will look like post-snap. There is no tell. With play-action usage on the rise, the scheme changes the picture as the QB turns to show the ball to the RB. When the QB snaps his eyes back to the secondary, the picture is completely different, and hesitation is death in the NFL.
Early I illustrated the fits versus an 11 pers. 2x2 formation. The Safety post-snap will sink down on top of the TE. If it is a pass, the Safety will play 1st to Flat or the Final 4th, depending on the play. Another favorite concept in the Fangio system is illustrated above. Versus a 3x1 formation, the Safety will sink from depth and read the QB while cutting off any crosser from the front side. One of the major building blocks of the modern offense is the Y-Cross concept (below) that features a deep crossing route from one of the front side WRs. The depth of the Safety leverages the defender against the Crosser.
The weak rotation has multiple uses too. 3x1 has become a standard formation at the higher levels of football. One common alignment in the NFL is a reduced “X” that creates a “nasty” split for a TE off the box. The alignment creates leverage in the run game because the TE can block down on an EDGE, or the split can widen the defender to create space outside the Tackle. Fangio’s weak rotation concept not only cuts a crosser from the other side but allows the Safety to “CAP” the fit on the weak side.
As a bonus, the Safety lives near the hash, inhibiting popular Dig routes from the reduced alignment. By lining up the WR near the box, the offense is toying with popular divider rules. Since the WR is off the numbers, the CB is most likely going to align outside. The alignment creates space inside.
If the Safety is too low in many weak rotation schemes, the QB can hit the Dig (or Glance) behind him. Fangio’s deep two-shell pre-snap alignment allows the Safety to see the development of the entire play. I have always felt it is easier to play down than to play back, and Fangio exemplifies this point.
Two clips demonstrate this philosophy. The Chiefs are notorious for running Tyreek Hill across the field and throwing the ball to him on the run. Fangio uses Jackson as a lever to Hills’ speed. Depth and leverage inhibit the Crossing route. Kansas City uses a Sail concept front side to push Hill vertical, attempting to get Jackson to lock on Hill. Below, the Chiefs run a backside Dig with TE Travis Kelce, and Jackson reads the play perfectly, almost picking it off. Once Hill broke outside, Jackson snapped his eyes to the QB and “felt” Kelce’s route.
Later, in Week 17, the Raiders chose to use a similar concept. The Raiders set their TE Darren Waller (back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons) at the #3 position in the clip. Again, the “X” is reduced to create a similar look as the Chiefs. Las Vegas runs a Double-In/Corner or DIC route to stretch the field vertically and then break outside instead of running a Sail with Waller. Jackson, again, plays the read perfectly, this time getting the interception.
At the fundamental level, the use of Safety rotations from depth allows the defense to leverage itself against the modern attack. Early down passing has become a standard way of attacking a defense, and Fangio’s system is ahead of the curve in that regard. In addition, the two-high structure allows him to play with one foot in the box and the other in the passing game.
Though this may sound conflicted, the defense uses the perception of a lightbox to “trick” offenses into running the ball on early downs or to think they have space down the field. When teams opt to throw the ball, the depth of the Safeties makes it hard for offenses to attack the middle of the field while changing the picture post-snap for the QB. Wider, deeper throws are less accurate, and clogging the middle of the field pushes the ball out and puts extra hats near the box versus the run.
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