Since joining the Broncos in 2019, safety Kareem Jackson has regularly arrived at the team facility on a Wednesday morning and been greeted by a surprise.
A new coverage. A new pressure. A new disguise. All from coach/defensive play-caller Vic Fangio.
“He’ll put in something we haven’t done and I’m like, ‘Damn, where did that come from?’” Jackson said in an interview with The Denver Post. “That’s week in and week out. It’s going to be something new depending on who we play.”
Who the Broncos (1-0) play the next two Sundays are rookie quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson, the top two picks in this year’s draft by Jacksonville and the New York Jets, respectively. Lawrence is up first this Sunday.
Fangio may still be in prove-it mode as a head coach (13-20 with the Broncos), but he is universally respected for how he makes it feel like he has 14 defenders on the field and how he can bait young quarterbacks into back-breaking mistakes.
Since Fangio started calling defensive plays in 1995, his teams have gone 18-9 against rookie quarterbacks.
A sampling: Carolina beat Peyton Manning. Indianapolis beat Donovan McNabb. San Francisco beat Andy Dalton, Russell Wilson and Ryan Tannehill. Chicago beat Jameis Winston and Sam Darnold. And the Broncos have beaten Justin Herbert and Tua Tagovailoa.
In those 27 games, the quarterbacks have combined for a 73.7 rating (32 touchdowns and 24 interceptions).
“That’s a testament to the groups of players he’s had, the scheme he’s put in place and the way guys are able to execute it,” said Jackson, who has 152 career starts at cornerback and safety. “He’s definitely a mad scientist in how he sees things and when it comes to implementing schemes.”
Disguising is critical
Fangio entered pro football with the USFL’s Philadelphia Stars in 1984 and often refers to Jim Mora, Sr., and Dom Capers as his primary early-career mentors. Decades later, the Fangio Tree has branched out to the Chargers (head coach Brandon Staley/defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill), Chicago (coordinator Sean Desai) and the New York Jets (head coach Robert Saleh).
Staley was the Broncos’ outside linebackers coach in 2019 after following Fangio from Chicago. Sitting in a coffee shop not far from his house in Parker two years ago, he detailed some of the key components to a Fangio defense.
“One of the reasons why it’s special is we don’t have to pressure (with extra rushers) to have effective pressure,” Staley said. “What that allows us to do is play with disguise and have the math in our favor (downfield).
“If you look at it from the offensive side, when they don’t 100% know whether we have players dropping or rushing, it gives us an incredible advantage and that’s why you’ve seen edge-rusher production wherever Vic has been. We want to have the illusion of disguise and alignment flexibility.”
What makes Fangio unique as a play-caller/game plan designer?
“He’s really special in mitigating risks and he has the ability to stay patient when others wouldn’t,” Staley said. “And I think he has the ability to anticipate problems and play that chess match where he’s working steps ahead of the offense the whole time. You can see that by how he’s done against great quarterbacks. The flexibility we play with, the disguise — everything is meant to be hard on the quarterback. And he’ll get aggressive when you’re not counting on it.”
Exhibit A (aggressive) was last year’s win at New England. Fangio called a “Zero Blitz” — a seven-man blitz with across-the-board man coverage and no over-the-top help — to stop the Patriots on fourth down.
Exhibit B (patience) was last week’s win over the New York Giants. Confident in the four-man rush against quarterback Daniel Jones, Fangio kept things simple — two six-man rushes in 42 drop-backs.
Exhibit C (disguise) could be against Jacksonville. Have inside linebackers Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson stationed at the line of scrimmage before retreating into coverage at the snap. Because the Jaguars won’t know if they are blitzing, their interior linemen have to stay put and not help on the Broncos’ edge rushers.
Disguising the pre-snap look is a Fangio hallmark and he can trust his veteran safeties (Jackson and Justin Simmons) to carry out the fake. It forces the offense to guess. Right before the snap, Jackson could drop closer to the line of scrimmage, turning a two-deep look into a single-high feature. The trap is set.
“When you can present the same pre-snap look as often as possible and then get to different spots in the field, you not only throw off quarterbacks, you throw off coordinators, too,” defensive backs coach Christian Parker said. “We can play the same defense and it can look five different ways on five different plays.”
Said outside linebackers coach John Pagano: “You have to disguise in this league. Fifty percent of the game is getting aligned and disguising and knowing your assignment and the other 50% is when the ball is snapped and being in position to make a play. Vic’s system is one where you can attack and go make plays.”
Big bag of tricks
An easy prediction for Sunday is Fangio will have some tricks ready for Lawrence, but not at the expense of confusing the Broncos’ players.
“There’s no sense in making our guys uncomfortable for the sake of (confusing Lawrence),” Fangio said. “Hopefully we do a good enough job of disguising our intentions. A lot of people think pressuring a rookie quarterback is the way to go. But sometimes that makes it easy for him because it identifies the coverage and he gets the ball out quickly.”
That was Houston defensive coordinator Lovie Smith’s plan last week. He rushed four on nearly every drop-back save for two late-game linebackers’ blitzes. Lawrence had to throw 51 times because the Jaguars trailed 37-7 after three quarters and lost 37-21.
“It was pretty simple,” said NFL on CBS analyst Adam Archuleta in a phone interview. “They played maybe three snaps of man coverage and they did a good job executing zone coverage and I have to say that Jacksonville never did anything to get them out of that. It was Trevor having to do a lot.”
Lawrence made several terrific passes, but also threw three interceptions. The final turnover appeared be thrown right to linebacker Christian Kirksey, who was sitting in his zone when the football found him.
“That was me just trying to do too much,” Lawrence told reporters after the game. “I lost the ‘Mike’ (linebacker) playing zone in my sight of vision and just kind of forced it there.”
Archuleta, who was CBS’ analyst for Jaguars-Texans, agreed with Lawrence on over-pressing things down the field instead of taking the short profit.
“I just think the game got fast for Trevor,” Archuleta said. “He tried to make too much happen downfield and that’s when those windows get super, super tight. He needs more patience. The other thing is I felt like when he got interior pressure, he was really quick to slide and back-pedal to his left and that’s when his accuracy got away from him.”
If Fangio remains confident his four-man rush can harass Lawrence, it will follow a similar script to the last two years. He rushed five or more players on 25.3% of the drop-backs in five games against rookie quarterbacks, about the same as his season totals (20.1% in ’19 and 23% in ’20 per The Denver Post’s game charting). In those five games (3-2 record), the Broncos have averaged four sacks and 12.4 “disruptions” (sacks/knockdowns/pressures) per game.
What is definite: Fangio’s plan for Lawrence will be different from the plan he will have for the Jets’ Wilson.
“Just when you think he doesn’t have anything else in his bag of tricks, he adds more things to the arsenal,” Jackson said. “If you have multiple calls to throw off the offense, now they’re guessing what we’re in because everything looks the same before the ball is snapped.
“It’s a luxury to have this type of scheme and this type of coach.”
Upper hand vs. rookie QBs
During his NFL defensive play-calling career as a coordinator and coach for Carolina, Indianapolis, Houston, San Francisco, Chicago and the Broncos, Vic Fangio has an 18-9 record against rookie quarterbacks. The Broncos face top overall pick Trevor Lawrence on Sunday. A look at the victories:
|Tony Banks, St. Louis
||15 of 29, 163 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
|Tony Banks, St. Louis
||14 of 33, 160 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
|Danny Weurffel, New Orleans
||13 of 32, 132 yards, 2 INT
|Tony Graziani, Atlanta
||4 of 18, 24 yards, 2 INT
|Peyton Manning, Indianapolis
||17 of 34, 225 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT
|Akili Smith, Cincinnati
||12 of 24, 122 yards
|Byron Leftwich, Jacksonville
||17 of 36, 231 yards, 1 TD, 3 INT
|Andy Dalton, Cincinnati
||17 of 32, 157 yards, 2 INT
|Russell Wilson, Seattle
||9 of 23, 122 yards, 1 INT
|Ryan Tannehill, Miami
||17 of 33, 150 yards, 1 TD
|Mike Glennon, Tampa Bay
||18 of 34, 179 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT
|Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay
||15 of 29, 295 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT
|DeShone Kizer, Cleveland
||18 of 36, 182 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT
|Sam Darnold, N.Y. Jets
||14 of 29, 153 yards, 1 TD
|David Blough, Detroit
||12 of 24, 117 yards, 1 TD
|Justin Herbert, L.A. Chargers
||29 of 43, 278 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT
|Tua Tagovailoa, Miami
||11 of 20, 83 yards, 1 TD
Rookie quarterbacks to beat Fangio’s teams: Patrick Ramsey (Washington, 2002), Leftwich (Jacksonville, 2003), Alex Smith (San Francisco, 2005), Wilson (Seattle, 2012), Derek Carr (Oakland, 2014), Carson Wentz (Philadelphia, 2016), Dak Prescott (Dallas, 2016), Gardner Minshew (Jacksonville, 2019) and Herbert (L.A. Chargers, 2020).
Total statistics: 18-9 record, 32 touchdowns, 24 interceptions, 55.3% completion, 4,783 yards and 73.7 rating.