The Book of Fangio: Part II -- Coverages & Pressures
The 'Fangio Defense' has taken over the NFL. In a multi-part series, Shawn Syed breaks down Fangio's philosophy, core concepts, and the nuances of a scheme that has altered the geometry of the league.
Editor’s Note: Earlier this season, a subscriber asked a question for an upcoming mailbag about the Fangio defense. Over the past two years, you’ll have heard the term ‘Fangio Defense’ thrown around ad hoc, often as a stand-in for the concept of ‘two-high safety shells’. But what exactly, is the Fangio scheme? What are the general principles and what are the nuts and bolts? Why has Fangs’ style become en-vogue? Answering that in an 800-word mailbag reply is tough. So, I’ve drafted in Shawn Syed, from the indomitable Syed Schemes, for a multi-part series breaking down all aspects of Fangio-ism and its different contours. No coach — not McVay, nor Shanahan, nor Belichick — has had a bigger impact on the schematic makeup of the league over the past 36 months. He has shifted some of the geometry of the field and the game’s aesthetics. For that reason, Shawn is joining The Read Optional as our Fangio Correspondent, charting Fangio’s influence, how (and why) his understudies have evolved or altered the base scheme, and any changes that Fangio will (or should) make to his own style ahead of his anticipated return to coaching in 2023. Fangio might not be in this year’s playoffs, but his fingerprints will be all over the postseason as defenses look for ways to bottle up Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, and the league’s superstar quarterbacks.
In Part Two, Shawn breaks down Fangio’s coverage concepts and pressure packages. If you missed Part One, you can read it here.
Welcome to the Book of Fangs.
The Passing Strength and Field Zones
In the NFL, the majority of snaps come from the hashes. As the hashes are not as wide as they are at lower levels, the ground to cover on each side is comparable. Thus, defenses can more confidently use halves coverages to sides without the same concern college teams may have about a player covering a ton of ground from the hash to the sideline. Instead of setting the defense to the wide or short side of the field, the Fangio Defense sets its secondary based on the passing strength. Simply put, the passing strength is the side with “more” or “better” receiving threats.
Though the Fangio Defense uses different matching rules and variations within coverage that combine man and zone coverages, a basic understanding of field zones is important as we start to dig into pass coverage. The general zone assignment can turn into a man assignment based on the formation or if certain players cross certain zones. Further, certain offensive looks can give a defender freedom to support another player’s responsibility.
When discussing coverages, it is important to note that responsibilities and nuances can change by gameplan. Plus, the terms used are a combination of the verbiage the Fangio tree has used (and continues to use) and other terms that help to simplify the larger picture.
Cover 4 (Trix)
Cover 4 is a basic four deep, three under coverage. It is used in its purest form in the red zone. Offenses like to conflict the quarters flat defender or try to occupy a safety while taking advantage of the cornerback’s outside and deep responsibility. Offenses can try to make the linebackers’ lives hard by running routes above and below their zone. Also, an offense may be able to run the defense out of two-high or be happy with forcing a safety to make the tackle after a run has already gained yards from heavier personnel. Defenses that are forced to bring a safety down into the box before the snap open up other potential play action or matchup issues. Cover 4 is the base for putting a ceiling over the offense’s pass game and is pretty to watch when communication and execution is maximized.
Cover 4 also has an adjustment against 3x1 sets. A Trix call allows the back side safety to read the releases of 3 and 2 to the trips side to see if there are any vertical or deep crossing routes. This would allow the defense to play 3 on 3 against 4 verts and help the defense deal with teams that want to get their fastest receiver matched up on a linebacker. A Trix call would also require the linebacker to play man on the running back, while a cornerback is locked in man on the back side receiver. If the safety does not get a vertical threat, they could zone their quarter or hang in the window to rob a route breaking inside from the back side X receiver.
Cover 6 (Quarter, Quarter, Half)
In the Fangio Defense, Cover 6 and Cover 8 are closely related. The differentiation in the two comes from what is played to the passing strength or to the call. Both are played with a Quarters side and a Halves side. Cover 6 plays Quarters to the passing strength, while Cover 8 plays Halves to the passing strength. One might group these two as one coverage, but the goals, responsibilities, and strengths of the coverages are different and thus should be separated.
Quarter, Quarter, Half (what I will call Cover 6) plays Quarters to the passing strength and a Halves side away from it. The Halves side away from the passing strength is particularly helpful when the offense has a star receiver that the defense wants to cloud. Getting a press from a cornerback can help disrupt timing, and having safety help over the top encourages the offense to look elsewhere. This is of course an allocation of resources that may open up matchups elsewhere.
Cover 8 (Half, Quarter, Quarter, Trix) (Penny Sam 8)
Cover 8 (Half, Quarter, Quarter, Half to the passing strength) is a coverage that is becoming more popular across the league. It is a common coverage against 3x1 sets – and for good reason.
Cover 8 puts a cloud corner over number one while the nickel defensive back and linebacker will play zone match rules. A safety will play deep half, and a trix safety will likely be in play. This lets the defense get five defenders over three receivers and is a key to how Brandon Staley likes to play coverage – lock the back side in man and flood the frontside in zone. Cover 8 is also commonly run from the Penny front. Cover 8 allows the cornerback to play aggressively in the shallow to the intermediate area while pushing the numbers in the defense’s favor. As always, one-on-ones on the back side can undo this coverage.
Cover 9 is a weak rotated Cover 3. One example of the defense having flexibility and multiple ways to play against the offense is an adjustment that the Fangio Defense uses similar to Nick Saban’s “Site”. Against a 3x1 set with the running back set away from the trips, the down safety would be rotating to the running back. Remember from some of our other coverages that the linebacker to the running back’s side may end up taking the running back man to man.
Variations of Cover 3 against 3x1 sets face a core problem against 4 verticals. The biggest concern is known, in coaching parlance, as: “three up is three. Meaning: The weak hook player, who may be a linebacker not suited for the job, ends up having to chase a speedy receiver down the field. The weak hook player ends up responsible for this in coverages that exclude one of the safeties. The Fangio Defense has a different way of dealing with this.
In Cover 9, there are a few ways to take care of the running back and the third receiver. One way is to have the safety take the running back while the linebacker plays their usual three up is three responsibility. Another option would be to either flip it, or more interestingly to read it or game plan it based on the running back’s release and personnel. Site does just that. If a running back is less likely to go out for a pass or checks protection at the line, the linebacker can take the running back while the down safety becomes the three up player. This situation is more indicative of a deeper pass as the six blockers in protection give the offense a chance to develop routes. If the running back is either a significant passing game threat or is out to the flat fast, the safety could take the running back while the linebacker goes to their usual three up responsibility. This situation places the offense in empty pass protection and is more likely to be a quicker pass.
The flexibility of Site allows a defense to leverage what an offense does as well as have the same presentation play out different ways. This adjustability is a way for modern defenses to fight back against offenses. Giving the same look that leads to different coverages is made possible by the two high structure and versatility of the secondary. Sure, there are tells such as alignment of the linebackers that leave space for a likely down safety, or cornerbacks pressed that indicate a likely cloud side, but Fangio’s defensive backs learn to become experts in waiting on when to show their intentions. Even if the coverage is not disguised, the different calls can make a defense less predictable and give the pass rush that extra tick to get to the quarterback.
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