What a John Fox defense looks like

I’m pretty excited about the hiring of John Fox.  He wasn’t my first choice, but when Gregg Williams declined to be interviewed, I started to warm to Fox over Perry Fewell.

I’ve said this a few times, but I’ll do it again.  While I ordinarily favor offensive coaches, this Broncos football team was screaming for a guy who leans to defense.  After all of the ridiculous turnover on that side of the ball, coupled with a non-systemic approach to player acquisition under the Shanahan regime running into a short-lived McDaniels regime, there are a lot of mismatched parts that don’t play with much cohesion.  I think that getting one system in place, and playing it for a long time, and acquiring players specifically to fit it will be hugely beneficial.

Here’s the thing, though.  John Fox isn’t a system guy, really.  He’s a football guy, who manages the whole team, and leaves the systems and the play-calling to his coordinators.  His overall framework, though, is one that emphasizes toughness, preparation, execution, and intelligence.  The Broncos got a decent start on becoming tougher and more physical under the McDaniels regime, but there’s still a ways to go, and Fox will always push for getting more physical, on both sides of the ball.

As I think about the defenses employed by Fox in Charlotte, he had three different coordinators, who all did similar things.  Jack Del Rio had the job for one year in 2002, and then Mike Trgovac held the job from 2003-2008.  He was offered a new contract, but declined to accept it, and Ron Meeks took over in 2009.  All three coaches ran one-gap 40-front schemes which aimed to rush with 4 men, and drop seven men back into (mostly zone) coverage.

Some people will yawn at that, and it’s not very exotic, but it’s the soundest way to play defensive football.  If your 4 men can beat 5 blockers, that means you have 7 coverage players guarding 5 eligible receivers.  The trick to doing that is to have the right 4 guys to beat the five linemen.  If you have those guys, you’re in business.

I mentioned that there was a lot of continuity across three coordinators.  Del Rio and Trgovac both ran a lot of Cover-2 and Cover-3.  Under Meeks, it was a lot more Cover-2 heavy.  Throughout Fox’s 9 years in Charlotte, though, there was consistently a 40-front orientation, that favored size and power in the front seven, and sound coverage in the back-end.  This is what we should expect from the Broncos in 2011 and beyond, and the good news is that a lot of the necessary personnel is in place right now.

First, let’s go over what Cover-2 and a Cover-3 look like, for those who aren’t familiar with the terms.

This is your basic Cover-2 look, and every team in the NFL runs it sometimes.  Very simply, the front 4 rushes, and the back seven drops into coverage, with 2 deep (the “2″ in Cover-2), and 5 across at the intermediate level.  The CBs are asked to jam the WRs at the line, and re-route them to the inside of the field.  Then, they stay shallow outside, and read the flat.  It’s their responsibility to rally to the ball and make sure tackles if a play goes there.  If nothing is coming that way, they drop back deeper, to narrow the window on the deep outside, which is the most vulnerable area of Cover-2.  Since it’s the hardest throw for a QB to consistently hit, you live with that vulnerability.  In the deep area, the Safeties each have half the field.  (In the Tampa-2 variant, the MLB drops deeper, and it becomes a situation of deep-thirds, instead of halves.)  The key here, is that all 7 coverage men are watching the QB, as well as the receivers in their zones.  That allows a multitude of players to run to the ball, and make tackles, once completions are made.

This is Cover-3, which, again, every team runs.  It tends to be sounder deep, and less sound short, than Cover-2.  The reason for that is that the 3 best cover men on the field are in deep-thirds, and the 4 lesser ones are in short quarters.  If you’ve got a back like Darren Sproles, it’s a good idea to hit a Cover-3 in the flats, because the LBs generally don’t have the range to get out there.  You run Cover-3 for 2 reasons; one is that you think that your opponent is going to try to hit you deep.  You may be more likely to run quarters there, though, which as it sounds, means the 2 CBs and 2 Safeties are each playing a deep quarter.  If it’s like 3rd and 19, you’re likely to see quarters.  The other reason to run Cover-3 is that it starts with the SS running up into the box, so it works nicely when you think the play might be a run.  Whereas Cover-2 is vulnerable against the run, Cover-3 does a better job against it.

So, like I said, none of this is exotic or uncommon.  Everybody has played Cover-2 and Cover-3, going back to college, and maybe even high school.  It’s not so much a scheme as it is a staple of every scheme.  It won’t ever inspire a reporter to write their magnum opus, even though, ironically, they may actually understand what’s really happening on the field, for a change.  It’s boring, but effective.  There are benefits to this, of course.  Since everybody has done it, it’s easy to find players who can do it.  Competently dropping into a short zone is a basic job requirement for all LBs at all levels of football.  If you can’t do it, you’re not in the NFL.  Also, since you’re running the same stuff a lot of times, the focus becomes on perfecting your execution through repetition.  Rather than spending a lot of time on new plays every week, defenses can focus on getting it right consistently.

This is not to say that some creativity doesn’t occur with zone-heavy schemes.  It does, and it can be more devastating when you pull it out, since teams don’t expect it.  Usually, you’ll get a zone-blitz in those situations, and a QB suddenly throws a ball to a DE, because he’s surprised to see him in an underneath zone.

As for personnel, I’ve touched on this in the past, but I’ll reiterate it.  The Broncos current defensive players are probably best for a 40-front scheme.  I believe that both Elvis Dumervil and Robert Ayers are natural 4-3 ends, and that they complement each other well.  Ayers is the Left End, battling with either TEs or RTs, setting the edge on the strongside.  Dumervil is the Right End, rushing the passer on what is usually the open side.  Justin Bannan is scheme-indifferent, and can play anywhere from 5-technique to 5-technique.  In the diagrams above, I’m picturing him as the 1-technique.  For depth, you have quality players like Marcus Thomas (assuming he’s re-signed), Kevin Vickerson, and Jason Hunter.  With the second pick in the Draft, I’m hoping for Nick Fairley to be the primary 3-technique DT, but if he’s gone, there are other fine DL options.

At LB, there’s a passable bunch in place.  I like Joe Mays as the Mike for this kind of scheme, and I think D.J. Williams and Wesley Woodyard can both handle the Will.  If you asked me the one player in the NFL I’d compare Mario Haggan to, I’d tell you it’s Na’il Diggs, who was a good Sam LB for John Fox for 4 years in Carolina.  Obviously, I’d like to draft some competition at these spots, but there are competent options in place.

The secondary is where it gets interesting.  I don’t think that Brian Dawkins or Renaldo Hill are particularly great fits for this style of this defense, but Darcel McBath might be, if he can ever stay healthy.  Likewise, I think David Bruton can do this stuff as a backup and special teams ace.  At CB, Champ Bailey can play zone or man equally well, and he needs to be re-signed.  Andre’ Goodman, however, is much better in man-to-man, and may not be a fit here.  I’d say that I suspect the same is true for Perrish Cox, but I haven’t seen him play much zone, so the jury is out.  The good news is that I’ve always thought that Syd’Quan Thompson can be a quality starter in a zone-heavy defense.

I’m not a guy to do 73 mock drafts between now and April, but let’s just say the Broncos get Fairley second overall, which can be done with little-to-no effort or conjecture.  From there, you have a pretty set defensive line, and you’re free to start taking LBs, Safeties, and CBs, as well as maybe a RB or TE.  These defensive players will have all done what they’re now being asked to do repeatedly, and the defense can turn around very quickly.  This is how you can go from 1-15 to 7-9 in one year, and to the Super Bowl the next.  What John Fox wants to do is win with toughness and consistency, and not necessarily with cleverness.  Having been a fan of a very technocratic team the last 15 years, I welcome this new approach, and I expect it to be successful quickly.

Originally posted at One Man Football

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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