Vic Fangio’s Defensive Scheme

The Bears have officially hired Vic Fangio as their new defensive coordinator. I covered Fangio’s resume in an earlier post and now I will take a look at the defensive scheme he used in San Francisco, at Stanford, and at most of the other stops throughout his 24 year NFL career. It’s certainly possible that Fangio will ditch his usual scheme for something that better fits the Bears talent, but based on his track record I believe he will implement the scheme he’s had so much success with recently. I will be posting a position-by-position breakdown of how the current Bears fit in his scheme tomorrow, but for now I will cover the specifics of his defensive philosophy.

Before I get started on the details of his scheme, it’s important to grasp just how successful Fangio’s 49er defense was while he was at the helm. In Fangio’s first three seasons (2011-13), the 49ers were the only team in the NFL to finish in the top 5 in points allowed (16.1), rushing yards allowed per game (89.1), average yards per rush (3.7), 1st downs allowed (835), opposing QB rating (76), total yards allowed per game (306.5), plays allowed of 20+ yards (147), takeaways (93), and 3rd down conversion percentage (34.1%). Everyone knows the Niners had a great defense the last few years, but the stats show just how dominant it really was. For reference sake, the 49ers had the 16th ranked defense in the season before Fangio took over as DC. He took a mediocre defense and made it great right away. If he can take the Bears pathetic defense and make it just mediocre by next year, Fangio will be considered a miracle worker.

It’s widely perceived that Fangio’s Niners ran a 3-4 scheme, but that’s not entirely accurate. Occasionally his defense lined up in a traditional 3-4 alignment on obvious run plays, but the majority of the time they ran a 4-3 under scheme. The 4-3 under has been gaining popularity based on the success of proponents like the Seahawks, Broncos, and of course Fangio’s 49ers. At it’s core his scheme is a 4-3 under, but Fangio has made a few modifications that make it unique. The best description of the way Fangio runs his scheme is a 3-4/4-3 hybrid, but I will do my best to explain it in detail below. I’m not a football coach and am still learning the nuances of the more complex schemes in the league, so if you see any mistakes or can add some clarification please do so in the comments.

As I mentioned earlier Fangio’s Niners appeared to run a traditional 3-4 scheme which is due to the fact that he uses 3-4 personnel, but he deploys them in a 4-3 under scheme. In a traditional 3-4 there is a nose tackle (NT) that lines up over the center and two defensive ends (DE) that line up directly across from the opposing tackles (see above). Each player is responsible for the gaps on either side of them.

In Fangio’s scheme, the NT (#90 above) lines up off the center’s shoulder on the strong-side (same side as TE) and is only responsible for the gap in front of him. This requires a different type of NT as opposed to the classic space-eater used in standard 3-4 schemes. The NT in Fangio’s scheme needs to have the quickness to beat interior lineman off the snap and the strength to hold his ground against double-teams in the run game. I’ll get into how the current Bears fit in Fangio’s scheme in my next post.

The DEs in a 3-4 are normally run-stoppers who focus on occupying two blockers, clogging run lanes, and eventually pressuring QBs if the coverage holds. In Fangio’s scheme one of the DEs moves inside to the 3-tech DT position. The 3-tech DT (#91) lines up between the guard and tackle on the weak side and is ideally the D-line’s best pass rusher. The 3-tech DT’s responsibility is to generate interior pressure on pass plays and get in the backfield to disrupt the running game. The 3rd D-lineman in Fangio’s scheme (#94) is close to a standard 3-4 DE but usually shades the strong-side tackle’s outside shoulder. The 5-tech DE’s role requires the ability to hold his ground against the run despite frequent double teams. If the DE can force a double team it frees up the lanes on either side of him for the linebackers. Justin Smith has handled this role the last few seasons and is a special player who was a key factor in the success of Fangio’s D. It is a stretch to think any DE on the Bears roster has the ability to even be a poor man’s Smith, but a healthy Lamarr Houston has the talent to be effective if he gains weight.

The outside linebackers in Fangio’s scheme have two distinct roles. The OLBs basically rotate between stand-up defensive ends and run-stoppers with occasional zone coverage responsibilities depending on which side the TE lines up on. The strong-side OLB (whatever side the TE lines up on) will jam the TE and then drop back into a short zone on pass plays to defend against slants, screens, etc, or maintain the edge on a run play. The weak-side OLB (opposite side of TE) will move up to the line of scrimmage to be a stand-up DE (4th D-lineman) and his role is to rush the QB. The Niners used Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks at OLB and they are both excellent pass rushers who are athletic enough to either pressure the QB as a stand-up DE or drop back in short zone coverage if they are on the strong-side. Fangio doesn’t ask his OLBs to cover anyone man-to-man which opens up the position to players who would be considered tweeners in standard 4-3 or 3-4 schemes. Here is an example of the LB roles on a standard pass play:

The strong-side OLB jams the TE and then drops into a short coverage zone, while the strong-side ILB (Willis or Bowman) covers the TE, the weak-side ILB either covers the RB or blitzes, and the weak-side OLB attacks the QB from the stand-up DE position.

The inside linebackers do have more coverage responsibility than in a standard 3-4 and are also asked to blitz occasionally. Most 3-4 schemes look for at least one big run-stuffer inside, but Fangio’s scheme required elite athleticism from both his ILBs since they will often cover TEs or RBs. They also have inside gap responsibility vs the run and will occasionally switch to OLB in certain alignments, so they need to be elite athletes who can cover, stop the run, and get to the QB. In San Fran ILBs Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman were both high-level athletes and All-Pro players. The Bears obviously don’t have LBs on that level, so this is one area where Fangio may have to adjust his scheme.

Most Bears fans have seen enough of the cover 2 scheme, but Fangio’s 49er teams ran cover 2 fairly often. He also ran plenty of press coverage and bump-and-run, so at least there will be some variety in the coverage schemes this year. Due to his preference for press coverage, the Bears will be looking for big physical corners who can play zone, contribute against the run, and obviously press cover. Four of the seven CBs on the Niners roster last year were 6 foot tall or over and none were shorter than 5’10. Fangio seems to prefer big corners who can slow up receivers at the line but still have the ability to drop back into zone coverage. That makes one of the Bears starting CBs, 5’8 Tim Jennings, somewhat of a bad fit but I will cover that in more detail tomorrow.

Fangio likes his safeties to be interchangeable. That will be hard with the Bears current roster since none of the current safeties are starting-caliber at either position. On early downs Fangio likes to have the strong safety in the box, but he disguises it well and occasionally moves the free safety into the box instead.

Another key difference between the normal 4-3 under scheme and Vic Fangio’s version is versatility. He requires most of his defenders to play multiple positions on all three levels of the defense. Fangio would often switch Smith and Ray McDonald between the 3-tech and 5-tech positions based on match-ups. The NT is locked in place but the other two D-lineman need to be able to switch spots, his OLBs need to be able to play stand-up DE, his ILBs need to be able to play OLB at times, and his two starting safeties need to be interchangeable. Fangio’s defense thrives on the ability to change their scheme at any time and disguise what they are doing pre-snap. Without versatile players his disguised alignments will be more transparent. Fangio’s consistently changing schemes are going to be a welcome addition to Bears fans who are used to watching the same defensive alignment over and over again (good riddance Mel!).

Fangio is great at confusing offenses with disguised coverages and adjusting his schemes on a play-to-play basis. It will take some creative moves by new GM Ryan Pace to give Fangio players with the versatility and talent that he needs to implement his scheme. The Bears lack of overall defensive talent could force Fangio to change his usual scheme, but it’s too early to tell with free agency and the draft still ahead. I’ll be covering how the Bears current roster fits into Fangio’s scheme in my next post. Improvement isn’t going to happen overnight, but at least the Bears now have a legitimate defensive coordinator running the squad. If anyone can get the Bears defense back to it’s Monsters of the Midway heyday, it’s Vic Fangio.

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