“There’s nowhere to go but up.” When you are down on your luck, this is one of the last phrases you want to hear, no matter how true or appropriate it is.
But what does one say to someone who has reached the pinnacle of achievement in their field? “There’s nowhere to go but down” seems like you’re just waiting for them to fail, but – at risk of plagiarizing Spinal Tap – one wonders how much more up they can go, and the answer seems to be none; none more up.
That’s the interesting position Vic Fangio finds himself in after accepting the head-coaching position for the Denver Broncos, just a year removed from bringing the Chicago Bears’ defense to the absolute top of the pile in 2018. Fangio will be tasked with redeeming the Denver defense after his Windy City reclamation project, but we’re less concerned with that undertaking than what it means for us as players in Individual Defensive Players (IDP) fantasy football leagues.
Can Vic Fangio’s new tenure in Denver raise his IDP’s a mile high, or will the hype come crashing down?
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Fortunately for the Broncos’ defense, Fangio brings with him a similar defensive scheme to the one former boss Vance Joseph employed. Fangio sets up his defense in a typical 3-4 defensive front (three linemen, four linebackers) in base formations, but the responsibilities differ slightly from the previous regime’s – which we’ll get into in the next section of this piece.
First, let’s see how this change in coaching will change the personnel used – if it will at all. The image below depicts the Broncos’ predicted 3-4 base alignment going into the 2019 season.
There shouldn’t be a huge shakeup in positioning or alignment from 2018, which will help with consistency and keeping the Broncos’ players on track and the personnel steady as Fangio’s tenure progresses. That is a big thing to note, since teams that switch defensive schemes tend to try to fit round pegs into square holes for a few years before they can acquire talent that fits their scheme. Here there will be none of that, so the IDP production shouldn’t really drop off for this defense’s stars in the short term.
It’s also important to examine the formations that defend passing plays primarily, which the NFL uses more and more with each passing year: the nickel (five defensive backs) formation. What does Fangio’s preferred nickel set look like?
In the nickel, things shouldn’t change up much.
In the defensive backfield, Chris Harris, Jr. will slide into the slot role and allow Isaac Yiadom or Brendan Langley a starting outside spot in these alignments, although there may be looks the Broncos offer where Harris stays outside and safety/linebacker Su’a Cravens plays the slot role (he did so on 15.8 percent of his snaps this year).
Up front, Fangio has preferred an offset 3-3 look (three linemen, three linebackers) with the San Francisco 49ers and the Chicago Bears. With Chicago, though, he kept just his base nose tackle and one base end on the field, and – this year especially – dropped an outside linebacker down to play the wider nickel defensive end role. I expect it will be Adam Gotsis that gets the hook more often in passing situations, with Bradley Chubb sticking his hand in the dirt to rush from a wide-9 position (outside the tight end’s shoulder).
Nose tackle Domata Peko could also see some rotation in these spots, whether that gets Gotsis back on the field or a sub-package rusher like Shelby Harris or Demarcus Walker.
In addition, though slightly less common than his 3-3 front, Fangio does employ a 4-2 nickel look that would probably see almost identical personnel to the above nickel formation, but with Von Miller closer to the line of scrimmage.
Usage and Production
The biggest thing to note about Fangio’s defenses across the years is that he is not wedded to any one tendency; he adapts his schemes and his personnel usage to the players he has available to him. The most talented options and the ones that fit the situation best will see the field.
That said, we can look at his play-calling tendencies to see how the Denver defense might be utilized differently than it was before. Are there any diamonds in the rough waiting to emerge under Vic Fangio?
Using 2018 snap assignment data from Pro Football Focus, I looked at the Chicago Bears’ situational snap breakdown by position group to get an idea of how the defense was used (i.e. what percentage of snaps they rushed the passer, were in run defense, or in coverage).
There is some bias in this data based on the team’s success – for instance, a team often had a much higher run defense rate if they lost frequently, due to their opponents grinding down the clock through the run game – but when comparing each team’s position groups to the league average at each position, we see some interesting trends emerge.
Under Fangio, the Bears overall were well below-average in run defense rate – though that likely has to do with being ahead so frequently that teams simply weren’t testing them on the ground. The most notable trends come in the usage of the interior defensive linemen (defensive tackles and defensive ends in a 3-4) and safety groups.
Up front, the Bears used their linemen to pass rush very frequently, coming in more than 8 percentage points over the league average. In fact, not a single IDL for Chicago had a pass-rush rate lower than 60 percent or a coverage rate higher than 0.6 percent in 2018. That’s a good sign for the usage in Denver, because the more chances a lineman has to rush the passer or attack the backfield, the more big plays they will rack up. This won’t be a huge boon for Derek Wolfe, who already had a pass-rush rate over 60 percent, but it could boost Adam Gotsis (54.8 percent) or Domata Peko (49.9 percent) immensely.
In addition, Fangio’s safeties tied for the lowest pass-rush rate among safety groups last year, which indicates that he was keeping both Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos back in a deep zone shell. In fact, he was, and the Bears ran looks ranging from Cover-2 (two safeties split the field) to Cover-6 (one safety gets half the field, the other safety and a cornerback split the other half). In all likelihood, this means that Justin Simmons and Darian Stewart will both be asked to stay deep a fair amount of the time, while coverage duties and run defense in the box will be left to the inside linebackers.
Fangio’s defense doesn’t look too different from Vance Joseph’s on the surface, but it’s the subtle details that will alter some key players’ IDP values in 2019 and going forward. Some will go up, some will go down, but all of them – and us – have to go forward with what the new regime of the Denver Broncos looks like.
He also likes coffee. You can talk to him about IDP, other dynasty things, and various caffeinated beverages on Twitter at @JayArrNFL.
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