Flipping the Script
Fangio's Cover 6 is unique to his tree yet probably needs to be a standard practice.
The modern game is a passing one. The Spread won, and there is no going back. Analytics, offensive-based rules, and the explosion of 7-on-7 have created an offensive game, primarily a passing one. Counter to the movement is the defensive shift in the past decade to a coverage-first mentality. Coverage dictates the front and the fits, not the other way around.
One major trend within the past several years has been the uptick in two-high coverages at the NFL level. Quarters coverage has dominated the college level for much of the past decade, but the NFL has been slower to make that move. In 2010, the FBS level was full of 4-2-5 Quarters-based teams running variations of Gary Patterson’s TCU defense or current Pitt Head Coach Pat Parduzzi’s hybrid 4-3 (via Michigan State). Saban brought the Mint/Tite Front to the masses, yet Baylor’s Dave Aranda and Ron Roberts had been running it for several decades. Fast forward to today, and most defenses are a melting pot of all these defenses.
Chiefs Head Coach Andy Reid has been quoted numerous times stating college football is always five years ahead of the NFL. But, beginning in 2020, with the rise of LA Chargers’ Head Coach Brandon Staley (via the Rams), The League started trending towards two-high alignments. In ‘20, the Broncos and Staley-led Rams ran two-high shells over 80% of the time. So when Rams Head Coach Sean McVay put a stamp on Fangio’s defense, the league took notice.
The beauty of the Fangio scheme is in its use of a two-high shell. Instead of sitting in single-high alignments, the Fangio system muddies the reads for the QBs post-snap. Under Raheem Morris, the Rams ran more single-high coverages but still aligned in two-high structures. McVay took a page out of the Saban program building playbook in the way he replaced coordinators while keeping the program’s nomenclature (language) the same.
A two-high shell is not unique to the Fangio system, though. What started in 2020 came to full fruition only a year later. Teams across the league shifted to a two-high shell and rarely blitzed when facing an elite offense in Kansas City. As a result, the AFC has become a petri dish for evolving offenses and defenses in the NFL. As a result, the ‘22 offseason saw many offensive and defensive stars head west.
As teams competed with Patrick Mahomes and the offensive onslaught created by Reid, one common theme was two-high coverages. Below, PFF’s heat maps of Mahomes targets show a massive trend toward low and in the middle of the field. In ‘20, Mahomes targeted the soft areas outside, indicative of MOFC coverages. Looking at ‘21, things got more difficult for the Chiefs when they tried to throw the ball downfield.
Looking at the ‘21 map, most of Mahomes’ throws were behind the line of scrimmage (LOS) or in the middle of the field between 10 and 5 yards. Defenses were putting a cap on the top of Kansas City’s offenses. The ability to limit chunk plays (20+) is the modern equivalent of stuffing the run. NFL defenses forced the Chiefs to be patient, throw underneath, or just run the ball.
As most offensive coaches understand, this is extremely difficult to contend with, primarily when a team is used to getting big plays through the air. It takes a seasoned coach and QB to sit there and throw five-yard crossing or snag routes without getting tempted to say “F’ it!” and throw the ball deep. So one thing to watch this season is how the Chiefs’ offense evolves as more defenses adopt a two-high shell to slow them down.
Being able to stop the run and garner a pass rush is why hybrid EDGE defenders are at a premium in the NFL. We are seeing this trend play out at the college level as teams return to a four-down front and away from the Tite/Mint alignment, most notably the Saban and Aranda trees. Alabama, Georgia, and Baylor all featured four-down fronts. Turn on a Baylor tape, and you wouldn’t see much true Tite 4. Jim Leonhard at Wisconsin featured a heavy dose of his Peso (2-4-5) package.
Even Tite Front enthusiasts will admit that one of the main drawbacks of the front is its inability to get a rush without sending an off-ball defender. You are blitzing to a Bear Front (303) to get a pass rush. With two 4i’s and a two-gap Nose, the defense can be over-reliant on off-ball LBs and secondary players rushing the passer. Thus, the move to more four-down fronts that feature hybrid EDGE players accumulated from running a Tite Front base. Off comes the Nose, and on comes a Nickle CB/Safety, and viola, the defense has morphed into the NFL’s version of a Nickle defense (below).
Though stopping the run to stop the pass sounds counter-intuitive, it is crucial in today’s game to be able to do both. The ability of your defense to stop the run allows the secondary to do exactly what it needs to do, defend the pass. Spacing is a term thrown around as coach-speak, but it is crucial when referencing coverage.
At the extreme, you have nine-man spacing, which in its rudimentary form is 4-Lock (Narduzzi style) or blitz coverage (Max/0). Next, you have eight-man spacing (MOFC) and seven-man spacing (MOFO). Most defenses live in eight- and seven-man spacing, all predicated on MOFC or MOFO coverage. Returning to the beginning, coverage dictates the front and the fits (spacing).
The two leading coaches of the Fangio system, Staley and Fangio himself, differ in their front usage. Staley prefers a five-man front, while Fangio utilized his Ni Front (four-down) more often in Denver. That being said, it comes down to personnel.
The Rams under Staley morphed into a five-man front with a solo box ‘backer. The alignment forces the Rams into more MOFC coverages because there is a potential for a five-man rush. The Rams under Morris had a 90% five-man pass rush when utilizing pressure, which is indicative of their 5-1 alignment.
The Chargers under Staley didn’t have the defensive front to utilize more 5-1 alignments, but that changed this off-season. The additions of ED Khalil Mack (Bears), DE Sebastian Joseph-Day (Rams), and DT Austin Johnson (Giants) all point to more 5-1 fronts for the other LA team. The moves signified that Staley was moving back to what he ran when he was the DC for the Rams.
Though the Broncos moved on from Fangio this off-season, they hired Elijah Evero from the Rams, who worked with Staley and Morris, as their DC. Off-season additions of ED Randy Gregory (Cowboys) and DT DJ Jones (49ers) were brought in to give a hybrid feel to Denver’s defenses and most likely feature more 5-1 alignments. Both LA teams and Denver look entrenched in the 5-1 philosophy.
The former DC for the Broncos, Ed Donetell, is headed to Minnesota. The Vikings’ current personnel looks to feature more of the Ni packages seen in Denver. In the same division, Green Bay drafted an off-ball linebacker in Georgia’s Quay Walker and his teammate in iDL Devonte Wyatt. Joe Barry worked under Staley for the Rams. The offseason moves give the Packers more of a hybrid and fluid feel to this branch of the Fangio tree, allowing them to bounce from four-down Ni to 5-1 Penny alignments relatively easily.
Though the front structures are essential, the defense's coverage aspect makes it unique. Using leverage as a tool, the Fangio system keeps its Safeties deep to read run/pass and cut off deep crossers or double problem WRs. Just because the Fangio system has a two-high shell alignment doesn’t mean they run Quarters, as illustrated from the stats above. When they do, the most famous of these is Fangio’s Cover 6. This isn’t your father’s Quarter-Quarter-Half coverage.