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Skol Schemes, Defense Edition: A Vic Fangio Coverage Primer for an Ed Donatell World

Looking at Vic Fangio’s coverage menu that will influence Ed Donatell’s defense.

San Francisco 49ers v Minnesota Vikings John Autey / MediaNews Group / St. Paul Pioneer Press via Getty Images

In our first Skol Schemes, we took a look at the building blocks of Kevin O’Connell’s passing game. Here we go deep on the coverage structures that Vic Fangio has run in his time with current Minnesota Vikings Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell. Fangio and Donatell worked together in San Francisco, Chicago, and Denver. Calls, coverages, and adjustments can change week to week by game plan, but this should serve as a strong introduction to what we can expect from Donatell’s Vikings and other defenses around the league that have picked fruit from the Fangio coaching tree.

Personnel, Strength, and Spacing

To begin to understand how Vic Fangio’s defensive structure works, it helps to have a basic understanding of three separate introductory concepts: personnel, passing strength, and field zones.

As the game continues to see more talented hybrid players, positional lines blur. In nickel or sub personnel, the defense could be called a 4-2-5 visually (4 linemen, 2 linebackers, 5 defensive backs) but also described as a 2-4-5 because the two rushing defensive ends play outside linebacker in base sets. These distinctions are not pivotal to get a basic grasp of coverages, but Vic Fangio uses different terms for similar coverages out of different personnel groups. Positional versatility also encourages a varied front structure.

Football is a game often played on the hashes. At the high school and college levels, defenses may make their calls based on the wide side or short side of the field. This allows the defense to be lined up quicker in tempo situations and is more applicable to the field’s spacing. At the NFL level, the narrow hashes allow the defense to function similarly regardless of where the ball is spotted because there is a much smaller discrepancy between the wide side and short side of the field when compared to the lower levels. Thus, the Fangio tree can call some of their coverages to the passing strength without the spacing concerns that a high school team would have to deal with:

Separating defenses into strictly zone or man fails to appreciate the nuances of pass coverage technique. Coverages can fall into categories including, but not limited to, man (man no matter what), man match (man unless a certain set of routes occur), zone (drop to a spot with vision on the QB and WRs), or zone match (work to a spot but also match routes or receivers through the zone based on certain calls). Coaches can reasonably disagree on these classifications, but the Fangio system makes clear that there is more to life than just man and zone. Before getting into coverages, it will help to visualize the pass zones on the field:

It is often difficult to tell what coverage a Fangio defense is playing because of the way their defensive backs line up and relate to routes. Depending on the offense’s pattern distributions, certain rules will not be triggered. Cornerbacks will start in press but then drop back, while safeties wait until the last second to rotate to their responsibility. We will start our journey with Cover 4.

Cover 4 (Quads) (Trix)

Vic Fangio uses “4” in base personnel and “Quads” in nickel personnel for what you will see Madden call Cover 4:

Quads also has a Trix call versus 3x1 sets. Trix allows the back side (away from the passing strength) safety to look to the front side in order to combat a vertical or deep crosser from the innermost receiver (3). The cornerback and linebacker to the back side would then have to take the receiver and running back in man coverage. Trix relieves stress from the passing strength linebacker by allowing the defense to play a vertical stem from 3 from depth with a coverage player instead of chasing Tyreek Hill with a linebacker.

Cover 6 (Stuff/Quarter, Quarter, Half)

Fangio likes to call halves to one side and quarters to the other. Quarter, quarter, half is different than half, quarter, quarter based on what is called to the passing strength. Quarter, quarter, half is called “6” in base personnel, and “Stuff” in nickel personnel. Stuff places the quarters side to the passing strength and the half side away from it.

In 3x1 formations, Stuff gives the defense multiple eyes on the back side if there is a dangerous iso receiver:

Cover 8 (Half, Quarter, Quarter) (Trix)

Half, quarter, quarter is called “8” in both nickel personnel and in the penny (3-3-5/5-1 bear look) package. In Cover 8, the half side is to the passing strength and the quarters side is away from it. The back side safety can have a Trix call versus 3x1 similar to in Quads. With an active Trix call, the defense now has 5 defenders over the 3 receivers to the passing strength, and two man-to-man matchups away from the passing strength. This is a common approach for Brandon Staley—lock up the back side and flood the front side.

Zeus is a combination call that is game planned versus specific wide receivers. If the specific receiver is lined up outside, the defense will play a half side to that receiver and quarters away from them (Stuff or 8 depending on the passing strength). If the targeted receiver is lined up in the slot, the defense will play Quads. This is another way to get extra eyes over a potentially game-wrecking wide receiver.

Cover 9 (Strap) (Key)

Cover 9 is the term used for weak rotation Cover 3. This means the safety away from the passing strength will be rotating down. Against 2x2 sets, Cover 9 will play out similar to Nick Saban’s Rip/Liz Match.

As with other coverages versus 3x1, Fangio’s Cover 9 has an interesting adjustment for the back side safety. “Strap” is a front side tag that has the cornerback match the outside receiver unless that receiver runs a shallow, the nickel matches the inside receiver up and out, and the linebacker to the passing strength takes the third receiver if they go to the flat. On the back side, there are three ways to distribute the weak side linebacker and down safety’s responsibilities. First, the weak linebacker can take the running back, and the weak safety would work to the vertical of 3 to the passing strength. Second, the weak linebacker can work to the vertical of 3 and the weak safety would take the running back or work the seam to the flat.

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Finally, the weak linebacker and weak safety could read the release of the running back to determine their responsibilities (called “Key” for Fangio and “Site” for Saban). If the running back stays in to block, the linebacker would take the back, and the safety would work to the front side. If the running back swings quickly, the safety would sprint to them and the linebacker would now be responsible for the vertical of 3. These responsibilities can also change based on the offense’s personnel or defensive game plan. This allows the defense to adapt to what the offense is presenting. If a running back releases quickly, the offense likely has 5 players protecting and is often running a quicker pass. If the running back stays in or blocks before releasing, the route combination is likely to be deeper down the field and the defense would benefit from covering from depth.

Man Coverage

There are three main types of Cover 1 in the Fangio tree. The core differentiation between the three comes down to the rotating safety and the linebackers.

In 1 Lurk, the down safety will be covering a receiver or tight end, and a linebacker will be in the low hole. The other linebacker will be covering the running back.

In 1 Robber, either the down safety or a linebacker will be in the low hole based upon the release and location of the running back. The other will be covering the running back in man coverage.

In 1 Hole (Saban’s 1 Cross), the down safety will be dropping to the high hole (usually at the first down marker on 3rd down) looking to help on crossing routes.

Vic Fangio’s coverage menu is continuing to be passed around the league because it is flexible, difficult to decipher based on pre-snap alignment, and has tools to deal with dominant receiving threats. If the past is prologue, then this trend will only continue and we will see more of these coverages every Sunday.