The Book of Fangio
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.
Welcome to the Book of Fangs.
The sun crests over eastern Illinois and the alarm on your phone blares. You wake up quickly to shut it off, but the headache from studying all of the install material rushes back. The date is July 27, 2017. It is the first day of training camp and your first day as an intern for the Chicago Bears.
You hurry to the facility and make your way over to the defensive meeting room. As you groggily walk in, on your left is one day Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley along with his future defensive line coach, Jay Rodgers. To your right is Sean Desai, future defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears and one-day defensive assistant for the Seattle Seahawks. Next to Desai sits future Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Ed Donatell. Donatell, with his patented rectangular framed glasses, sits next to his future defensive backs coach, Roy Anderson. At the center of the table is Vic Fangio. Fangio, hat in hand, has been through more NFL seasons than you can remember watching. He has spent time with the Saints, Panthers, Colts, Texans, Ravens, 49ers, Bears, and one day will coach the Broncos before being a defensive consultant for the 2022 #1 seed Philadelphia Eagles. He also has spent time in the USFL, college football, and even coached high school ball.
The ideas discussed in the room that day were the product of endless tinkering by generations of gifted defensive minds. Five years later, the flexible two high structures that the 2017 Bears deployed would be commonplace across the league. No single coach has had a bigger impact on the structure – or aesthetics – of NFL defenses in the past 36 months as Fangio.
Fangio had been running them long before that season, and when he decides the time is right for him to return to an NFL sideline, he will run them again.
This series is an ode to Fangio-ism and the schematic shift that the coach and his cohort have thrust upon the NFL. In it, we will discuss the macro philosophy and tendencies, as well as break down the nuts and bolts of the core coverages he uses.
The name Vic Fangio is hallowed in defensive circles. “Fangio” is now shorthand for two-high structures, a base 3-4, light boxes, and modern defense. Fangio did not create any of those things. He does, however, deserve credit for using these now meta schemes before their influence blanketed the league. Fangio has worked with Steve Sidwell, Dom Capers, Jim Mora, Rex Ryan, and a laundry list of coaches currently employed by NFL teams.
The “Fangio Defense'' has a few trademarks. Fangio’s defenses consistently are at the top of the league in two-high shells before the snap. The two-high structure allows for flexibility in the secondary. Safeties can move before or after the snap, react from depth, and ultimately be used as tools to attack the offense. The roll of the safeties often comes very late and can change the picture for quarterbacks who turn their backs to the defense in play action. As the wide-zone-then-boot offense became the orthodoxy for NFL offenses (again) with the rise of the Shanahan-McVay-Stefanski-LaFleur style of offenses, changing the picture on the quarterback while his back is turned to execute a play fake has become a go-to tool for coaches looking to disguise, bluff, and add extra beats to a quarterback’s decision-making process – beats that can lead defenders to crash the pocket or the quarterback to make a poor decision with the ball.
Dissecting what occurred on a play can even be difficult because of the way the safeties’ responsibilities vary so much depending on what the offense presents. To combat Sean McVay’s famed “illusion of complexity” (the idea that a few core concepts are presented in different ways), the Fangio Defense uses the appearance of simplicity. The same exact defensive look can end up in a plethora of coverages, pressures, and assignments.
At the first and second level, the modern iterations of the Fangio Defense are often at the top of the league in light boxes. This is part of a never ending cat and mouse game in football. The Fangio Defense has made the choice to use technique and depth instead of numbers at the point of attack to combat the run game.
Generally, runs are less efficient than passes. Encouraging a team to run into a seemingly attractive look can help set the defense up for a 3rd and long. Defensive linemen are asked to eat up double teams and play with moveable leverage to keep linebackers clean, while safeties trigger downhill in the run game to make what looks like a light box play much heavier. Defenders often spill the ball to the edge and ask safeties to clean up the mess. Fitting the run from depth with safeties also allows the defense to be better suited to respond to play action and the passing game. The Fangio Defense has made a choice to put an umbrella over the offense. The generic strategy is to force teams into inefficient run plays, play coverage with four rushers when it is time to pass, be flexible with coverages that start out similar but end up different, and add enough depth to the proceedings to have the secondary read-and-react from advantageous positions versus the most lethal of offensive weapons: play-action.
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