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The Evolution of Fangio’s Defensive Fronts

I asked myself is what we saw from the Bears defensive front in 2017 was different than in previous years. It was, and how does that affect the defense moving forward?

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Chicago Bears
The Big Dogs
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

I have to admit that when I started researching for this article, I had a different premise in mind. In doing a little end-of-season housekeeping on the Bears defensive line—notably Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris (RRH for short)—I noticed a lot of odd alignments. Was Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio getting more creative or was he simply trying to make lemonade?

This question brought me back to the most recent stretch of Fangio’s career prior to joining the Bears in 2015. I reviewed San Francisco 49ers tape from 2011 through 2014. I basically picked an early, mid, and late season game from all 4 seasons. I took notes and screenshots from all of them, and found a few interesting observations.

First off, those 49ers teams were very basic. Sure, there were blitzes and some different looks in coverage, but those were mainly post-snap. When it came to pre-snap alignments, Fangio essentially called 3 fronts; base 3-4, nickel 3-4, and shockingly enough, a 4-3.

For reference, here is a look at the how the 49ers lined up in their base 3-4 front:

This is a typical 3-4 front, with the nose directly over the center and the defensive ends directly over the tackles. The outside linebackers are in a 9 or wide-9 alignment outside, with the inside linebackers generally covering the uncovered guards. The 49ers played this roughly 13 of the time, especially on 2nd or 3rd and short situations as this is the best run stopping front. The Bears use exactly the same front as seen here:

The next on the list is the nickel 3-4 front, shown below:

Since the 49ers had 2 inside linebackers that were capable in coverage, Fangio chose to take an outside linebacker off the field instead of an inside linebacker. Because they ditched an outside linebacker in this front, the defensive lineman shifted to the strong side (tight end side) of the formation with the outside linebacker on the weak side. Again, this front was used roughly 13 of the time in Fangio’s 4 seasons, mainly on 1st down or 2nd and 3rd and medium.

The last front that the 49ers used during Fangio’s tenure is a nickel 4-3 alignment, which can be seen here:

All Bears fans should be very familiar with this look that Fangio used the other 13 of the time. With the exception of the safeties both playing within 10 yards of the line-of-scrimmage, this is exactly how Lovie Smith aligned his defensive fronts. Having not watched a ton of 49ers football, I was actually surprised to see Aldon Smith in a 3-point stance with Ray McDonald kicking out to left defensive end.

Another thing that stuck out to me was the fact that Fangio rarely ever had his outside linebackers in coverage. The only time was in a 3-4 look and then, he really only used Ahmad Brooks. On very rare occasions Smith would cover in the flat, but I don’t recall seeing him downfield. This is something that I would really like to see Fangio get back to. I don’t mind using Leonard Floyd in that capacity, but I never want to see Sam Acho playing nickel ever again.

What irks me about the above screenshot is that clearly this is the same alignment as the 3-4 nickel alignment above. The major difference being that instead of taking an outside linebacker off the field and replacing them with a nickel corner, Fangio decided to use Acho in that capacity. I vividly remember this happening several times a game down the stretch last year, and every time I yelled at my TV in disgust.

Another interesting observation is that Fangio almost exclusively used a 4-3 front when playing the Packers. When he was hired, we heard a lot about the success he has had versus the Packers while in San Francisco. While Aldon Smith didn’t always have his hand in the dirt, as show below, he did most of the time. I wonder if we see some of that this year?

This looks very similar to what Fangio has done against the Packers during his time with the Bears as well.

The above image is from Fangio’s first season with the Bears in 2015. What I find curious is that why you wouldn’t use Jared Allen and Willie Young in a 3-point stance, when clearly they were more comfortable there. Obviously Fangio has used 4 down-lineman before, why not show that as a different look?

As I noted at the beginning, 2017 is where things got a little wonky as far as the alignments were concerned. Fangio showed things that he either hasn’t before or utilized them at a far greater rate than he did previously.

This is a dime look against the Lions that showed up quite a bit in the last 5 games of 2017. Sherrick McManis became the de facto blitzing dime back. All things considered, he is actually really good in this role. But without the ability in coverage, it is pretty obvious what McManis is in the game to do. Anyone who has listened to me even a little bit knows how much I hate being predictable.

While early in the season, when the defense was playing their best, Fangio shied away from these odd fronts. One exception was this goofiness versus the Falcons. Akiem Hicks is at outside linebacker, Floyd is a 5-technique, Mitch Unrein is playing in the A-gap, and Young is in a wide-9 on the side that has literally nobody. What madness is this exactly?

This is a look that the Bears showed a lot in both match-ups with the Vikings. For all intents and purposes, this is a 4-3 but both outside linebackers are on the line-of-scrimmage. Minnesota is a power running team, which will use an extra lineman on occasion. When they do this, the Bears countered with their “goal line package.” This isn’t surprising other than we rarely saw this from Fangio prior to 2017, outside of actual goal line situations.

So what does this mean for 2018? My hope is that Fangio and defensive line coach Jay Rodgers is watching the same things that I am. Hicks was overused last year, I don’t think that’s a secret. Eddie Goldman is a fine player but he would benefit greatly from a reduced workload as well. I would prefer to see him mainly in base fronts, where an actual nose tackle is used. Bullard did his best work on the interior last year and isn’t a true 5-technique. RRH was much better playing outside, as he did in college. I think he could excel in a 4-3 defensive end role or even playing outside linebacker on occasion. His length, twitch, and speed are negated inside, those should be highlighted, not hid.

If the Bears wanted to start employing more 4-3 looks into their defense, which I think would be a wise decision, I could see them lining up from left-to-right as follows: Floyd, Hicks, Bullard, RRH. Of course, Goldman can play either defensive tackle spot and rookie 5th round pick Bilal Nichols seems like an excellent 3-technique candidate. Floyd and RRH can be subbed out with the likes of Aaron Lynch, Sam Acho, and Kylie Fitts. There are some interesting options for the front as currently constructed, and has the potential to be very good.

The 2018 Bears are the closest Vic Fangio has been to having the type of players that he had in San Francisco. If there was ever a time to simplify his alignments and get back to basics, this is it. Perhaps we could see more of a hybrid approach this upcoming season, and I am here for it!