Ed Donatell's Defense & the Illusion Of Complexity

Phot Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

In his introductory press conference, Kevin O’Connell spoke of the illusion of complexity. The Sean McVay offense that O’Connell will install here is rooted in the idea of false complexity. It looks like an extremely multiple offense with all sorts of variations and changing details, but is in fact simple to install.

“We’re doing a lot of things that are simple for us, but maybe a little bit more difficult for a defense to defend. That illusion of complexity where teams think that there’s a lot of offense that they’re defending. But really we’re only doing small details here and there just to change the picture, change angles, give ourselves an advantage wherever we see fit, both in the run game and in the pass game.”

Fittingly, the defense the Minnesota Vikings have embraced is founded in the same notion. Ed Donatell, the right-hand man of Vic Fangio, will install his mentor’s notoriously complicated defense. But that complexity is designed to affect the opposing offense, and still be simple enough to install.

In short, think of the Fangio coverages as templates. There are seven coverage responsibilities (assuming no blitz), but it’s easiest to learn those responsibilities without trying to also track who performs them. The key to Fangio’s complexity is mixing up which defender does what. That complicates the quarterback’s and pass catchers’ reads, but the rules of the coverage stay the same. The offense has to work way harder than the defense to know what is going on.

To learn how this works, let’s look at a few of the staple coverages that Fangio defenses use and how they vary. Fangio defenses have different names for positions than you may be familiar with, so let’s learn those really quick:

  • E: Edge Rusher – A classic 3-4 end, pure pass rusher except in special blitz cases. Think Von Miller.
  • T: Tackle, a bigger player that tends to line up over the guard.
  • N: Biggest guy on defense, the nose tackle. Think Michael Pierce.
  • W: “Will” linebacker. Lines up on the weak side, away from the tight end. Some defenses call this the “Buck” for back side.
  • M: “Mike” linebacker. Lines up between Will and Sam.
  • S: “Sam” linebacker. Lines up on the strong side, often contends with the tight end.
  • J: “Jack” linebacker. The DE/OLB hybrid most 3-4 defenses are known for. A semi-specialized pass rusher that drops into coverage a portion of the time. Think Bradley Chubb.

The secondary has cornerbacks and safeties like you know, but instead of “strong” safety and “free” safety, they divide things by play side and back side. The play side is the side with the most passing threats, and the back side has fewer. Most modern coverages delineate this way.

Are you ready? I think you’re ready. You got this.

The run game

This article will mostly talk about the coverages, but the best way to learn them is to think about run defense first. Fangio-style run defenses like to play very aggressively. Defenders will play a primary gap, and then aggressively shift to a secondary gap if they have to. This “gap-and-a-half” system allows for overlap in run defense. Every gap should have at least a couple of defenders watching it.

Part of this is the strong side safety inserting into the box. The gap between the tackle and tight end is almost always that safety’s job, often bringing him closer to the ball by the time of the snap.

Zone Matching

Fangio zones rely on pattern matching, much like Zimmer’s old defenses did. In the old Zimmer/Saban/Belichick defense, they would play man match. They would cover man to man, using concepts and rule sets to determine the matchups. Fangio-style defenses utilize more zone matching. It’s the same idea — a set of rules that determines who covers whom — but instead of player-to-player rulesets, they divide up the field by zones, and you cover whoever runs through yours.

The biggest difference is what happens later in plays. In a man match defense, once you’ve picked up a player, he’s yours in man coverage no matter what. Some coaches teach “once you buy him, you can’t sell him.” In zone match defenses, you can still deliver that player to someone else if they eventually exit your zone. Those coaches teach “Match, Carry, Deliver.”

This is different from traditional spot-drop zone coverage because players keep their eyes on their assigned receiver, and not the quarterback unless otherwise directed. The defender plays man coverage technique, and simply knows when he is to drop that player off to his teammate. Old-fashioned spot-drop zone defenses play the ball. More in-fashion match defenses play the player. The first and most common Fangio coverage, however, isn’t a match defense at all — it’s pure man coverage.

Cover 1

Cover 1 can easily comprise over half of a Fangio defense’s snap counts. For the unfamiliar, cover 1 is a defensive coach’s word for what you probably know as man-to-man coverage. Five defenders cover each of the five passing threats man to man. A safety covers deep, and someone else takes a hook zone in the middle. Here’s that, drawn out for the visual learners:

From there, Fangio defenses vary who performs which job. In cover 1 “Lurk,” the strong side safety (the one usually inserting himself into the box for run defense) plays the underneath zone. He “lurks” and tries to intercept any crossing routes. In cover 1 “Robber,” that same player plays the same zone, but he doesn’t drop into the box before the snap.

In cover 1 “Rat,” a linebacker plays an underneath zone, freeing up that safety to cover the tight end man to man. Cover 1 “cross” means that underneath zone is more about picking up crossers and less about trying to intercept them. That’s a potent coverage against drive, or other concepts that try to utilize a shallow cross to stress man defense. Different variants have a safety or linebacker play that “cross” zone as well.

Imagine you’re a quarterback trying to identify cover 1 by looking at the middle of the defense. Cover 1 could have a safety triggering downhill or backing off. It could have a linebacker playing a “rat” zone or matching with the running back. The safety’s behavior doesn’t tell you much about the coverage, which makes it harder to identify.

Cover 6

Last year, Ed Donatell’s Denver Broncos led the league in cover 6. They actually differentiate between two versions of cover 6, called cover 6 and cover 8, but we’ll work our way up to that. In short, cover 6 is a hybrid between cover 2 and cover 4 (get it?). They’ll play quarters on one side, with two deep defenders taking deep quarter zones, and halves on the other, where a deep defender takes a full half of the field.

So why do this instead of simply calling one of cover 2 or cover 4? It’s more difficult to design plays against two coverages at the same time and offers more flexibility. Much like in Zimmer-style defenses, you can call multiple coverages on either side of the field. On the quarters side, you can guarantee yourself a double team on whichever receiver you want to focus on.

With this coverage, you can easily double team the backside wide receiver. Against 3×1 formations, this is particularly useful. The Green Bay Packers love to utilize 3×1 formations to isolate Davante Adams. Putting three receivers (and sometimes a running back) on one side of the formation draws most of the defense to that side. Put Adams on the other side and it gives him a great chance at a one-on-one matchup. This coverage guarantees a safety over the top of the back side player.

Most of these 3×1 play designs include one crossing route, especially shallow crossers. In some versions of cover 6, the box safety carries that crosser. Some versions have a linebacker carry that. Depending on your opponent and their personnel, you can prepare one version or the other.

So what about that cover 8 variant from before? That’s the same idea but flipped around. The back side is the quarters side and the strong side is the halves side. Zimmer-style defenses have a similar tool called “poach” defenses. Poach defenses have a double team on the back side if they need it. But if they don’t need it, one of those safeties will help out the other side of the play. With any luck, that can lure the quarterback into throwing a pass that the back side safety picks off.

Instead of calling these “cover 6” or “cover 8,” many Fangio-style defenses call them “Quarter-Quarter-Half” and “Half-Quarter-Quarter” respectively. You can think of them as sister coverages. Similar to Cover 1, things vary from here in terms of who takes which responsibility.

If that strong side safety is joining the strong side, Half-Quarter-Quarter (which only requires one deep defender on that side) pairs really naturally. You can put an extra player in the box to defend against the run and still be guarded against most deep concepts. That safety will play a zone match responsibility.

Again, imagine being a quarterback. The back side safety tells you a lot about most coverages. His actions reveal the coverage. In a Fangio system, however, that information is obfuscated. If the safety triggers downhill, it could be a cover 1 lurk zone, or a cover 1 cross zone. It could be the half side of Quarter-Quarter-Half or an inverted coverage in the quarters side. Reading that defense is like reading in a totally different language. Good luck handling that on the fly while Khalil Mack closes in on you.

Cover 3 & Fire Zone

If the middle of the field is open, a Fangio defense is probably running some version of cover 6 or cover 8. If the middle of the field is closed, it’s probably cover 1. As a mix-up, Fangio defenses run some cover 3 with zone matching technique. How often they do this is a judgment call week-to-week and might be something Ed Donatell does differently than his mentor.

As you’ve noticed, none of these coverage diagrams demonstrate who does what job. That’s because Fangio defenses mix that up constantly. Sometimes, a safety will “rotate” down and play the weak hook zone. The outside corners will play deep third zones alongside the other safety. Sometimes, both safeties play deep 1/3 zones, and one corner plays a curl/flat zone. This helps to obfuscate coverages, even after the snap. Not until everyone hits their landmark can you be absolutely sure which coverage the defense has called.

In Fangio’s own defenses, this often combines with “fire zone” blitzes. Fire zone refers to a zone blitz that sends extra linebackers on the pass rush, then someone who usually rushes the passer, like the Jack or the Edge, falls into coverage. For Fangio, cover 3 is a shell to enable fire zone, and less a coverage on its own. So Fangio’s cover 3 is designed to play with less available coverage defenders and slower defensive linemen.

Think back to a Zimmer defense, which ran its own version of fire zone. Sometimes, this would get home. Other times, it would end up with a slow defensive end covering Robby Anderson to disastrous results.

Zone matching, in this situation, would have enabled Ifeadi Odenigbo to pass Anderson off to another defender. Fangio’s cover 3 is designed to prioritize inside routes, so that dropping defensive linemen don’t bite off more than they can chew. In spot drop zone, a “curl/flat” defender will try to place themselves between a possible curl route and flat route and read the quarterback. In a Fangio cover 3, that player prioritizes the curl route. That curl is easier to defend, and they’ll only widen out if they see a player release to the flat.

That means that if a defensive end like Danielle Hunter has to play a curl/flat zone as part of a fire zone blitz, he won’t necessarily have to footrace a speedy running back like Aaron Jones to the sideline unless that route is actually happening. It shortens the distance that defensive linemen have to cover in the event they end up in coverage. Hook zones are coached in a similar way. To simplify, Fangio coaches teach cover 3 that way regardless of if there is a blitz.

Fangio fire zones don’t always send more than four players. They often send variable combinations of four defenders. On one play, the Jack, End, Tackle, and Will will rush. Another time, the End drops into coverage while the Sam replaces him. If they do rush more than four, they’ll combine the two hook zone responsibilities to free up the blitzing player and work from there.

These three families of coverage make up the lion’s share of a Fangio defense. It can be extraordinarily difficult to diagnose which coverage is which because Fangio defenses vary their personnel so much. If anyone can do any assignment, you only have to teach a few coverages to each player. It can be difficult to teach players multiple assignments within the same coverage, but it can greatly simplify the mental side of the install.

Thus, we have the illusion of complexity. To an offense, it is constantly shifting, dynamic, and multiple. You never know who is blitzing, who is covering, or which player to key on. To the defense, it’s a simple handful of coverages, and your job within those coverages can vary. So long as you can memorize that, you can play in a Fangio-style defense like Donatell’s.

If you’re interested in learning more, here are some resources. Coach Vass has almost three hours of explanation. There is some explanation from Jeff Essary of the Mile High Report, Cody Alexander, and this episode of the Blitzology podcast.

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