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Forget Zim and ‘Flus and Start Thinking Vic Fangio When it Comes to Jonathan Gannon’s Defense

Defense Jonathan Gannon

Photo Credit by John McMullen/JAKIB Sports

PHILADELPHIA – When the best offensive coaches in the NFL — think Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan — are asked to describe the toughest defense to deal with, the default is Vic Fangio, the ex-Broncos head coach who finally got an opportunity at the big chair after perfecting his work as a defensive coordinator with successful stints in San Francisco and Chicago.

Fangio, 63, is planning on taking the 2022 NFL season off after being fired by the Broncos and if he does return, the Dunmore, PA. native is expected to set off an unprecedented bidding war for a defensive coordinator, that is if another organization doesn’t want to give him the keys for a second opportunity as a head coach.

In Fangio’s absence, over 30% of the league is expected to be running his trademarked scheme designed to make everything look the same in coverage pre-snap for quarterbacks before bailing out to the actual plan, something that forces even the best at processing like Tom Brady to use an extra second or two to figure out what’s going on.

That kind of time might seem innocuous to those who don’t know what they don’t know but it’s the very reason a copy-cat league has decided that Fangio is the cat to copy right now.

While everyone is trying to get a beat of what Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon is going to do and Nick Sirianni has joked he’ll never tell what Philadelphia is going to run, the evidence is mounting that the Eagles are also defaulting to the Fangio philosophy of defense.

“There are a lot of other teams that are probably going to want that answer, too,” Sirianni said last month at the team’s rookie camp when discussing the defense. “I will put this out now, I’ll never answer that. You’ll figure it out when we play the first game.”

No need to wait because we have the intel for you.

First a quick history.

McVay was rolling along in 2018, setting the league on fire with an offense built on what he calls “the illusion of complexity.” The entire league was chasing its tale when it came to McVay’s turbo-charged 11-personnel packages until he ran into Fangio’s multiple fronts coupled with zone coverage on the back end. Against the Rams, it was a 6-1 tilt front backed up by zone coverage to deal with outside-zone runs, and Jared Goff boots off play-action that generated explosive plays at an alarming rate.

By Super Bowl LIII, Bill Belichick and New England Xeroxed the plan and held the Rams to three points, easily McVay’s worst game as a head coach.

When McVay was looking for a DC after Wade Phillips, he drew a direct line to Fangio and hired his little-known, at the time, outside linebackers coach, Brandon Staley, with the instructions to bring Fangio’s system to Los Angeles.

It was so successful that by 2021 Staley got to switch locker rooms at SoFi Stadium as the head coach of the LA Chargers and McVay went to Raheem Morris, again with the instructions to keep the status quo and the Rams finally got their Lombardi Trophy under McVay.

For those who don’t know Staley and Gannon are so close that were in each other’s weddings after first meeting as 10-year-olds playing AAU basketball in the Cleveland area.

So while some want to look at Mike Zimmer tape or Matt Eberflus designs to figure out Gannon, they should be diving deep into Fangio’s system that Staley tweaked a bit with a slightly different default front in an attempt to better stop the run on early downs with lesser numbers.

The first hint was the Eagles’ interest in Jordan Davis and the subsequent attempt to find a diamond in the rough with the 346-pound Noah Elliss as a potential backup to the No. 13 overall pick. A legitimate zero/one technique player is a necessity for pulling off the scheme.

“Absolutely,” a former Eagles scout told JAKIB Sports when asked if Gannon is trying to go the Fangio route. “Although it’s closer to Staley than Fangio with the way they play up front. They played that a lot last year, but just didn’t have the personnel to make it work. Those three linemen aligned between the offensive tackles are what makes it go, and they couldn’t do it [last season].”

What Staley plays in his base defense with those interior players is either “4i – Shade strong [one-technique] – 4i or 4i – 0 [technique] – 4i.” according to the personnel man.

“He runs a gap system that’s pretty unique and they put those three interiors in a position where they can affect all the gaps,” the scout said. “He calls it ‘gap and a half’ but it’s essentially just playing one gap towards where the ball carrier goes and being able to work back to another gap if he cuts back.”

Presumably, the 4i players bookending Davis will be Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave with some Brandon Graham mixing in and then having the ability to go to four and five with the so-called overhang players. Perhaps even six as Fangio and Belichick did to McVay.

Another hint came at last Wednesday’s Eagles’ OTA practices when Gannon unveiled overhang players like Derek Barnett and Tarron Jackson as well as Patrick Johnson and Kyron Johnson dropping off in coverage at times. When the starters get involved those names will be Haason Reddick, Josh Sweat, and the versatile Graham with Barnett also having a role.

The back end is about having two-high safeties pre-nap before declaring the actual coverage post-snap, meaning even veteran QBs have to process once the ball is live and decipher what the defensive backs are doing from the top down.

Fangio’s base coverage is generally cover-6, which splits the field essentially in a matchup zone. Think cover-2 on one side to perhaps bracket the Cowboys’ CeeDee Lamb on the strong side and quarters on the other side to deal with everyone else on the weak side.

Expect the Eagles to use a variety of zone looks and that the safety position, in which Anthony Harris and Marcus Epps are penciled in to start, might be the final piece to the puzzle as far as needing an upgrade to personnel to pull this whole thing off.

-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for JAKIB Sports.

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