Monday, September 12, 2022

Vikings Take To Ed Donatell's Defense Well

 By John Turney

Things could have been a disaster for new Vikings defensive coordinator Ed Donatell. Right out of the gate Aaron Rodgers challenged the scheme with a long pass, sure to be a touchdown, to rookie receiver Christian Watson that was dropped. 
Classic Fangio/ Donatell presnap look—Cover-2/4 shell with corners showing soft cushion
Credit: NFL Replay

Watson runs by Patrick Peterson but drops ball
Credit: NFL Replay
But after that heartstopping moment for the Vikings Donatell's calls worked very well limiting the Packers to seven points and 338 yards and holding four-time MVP Aaron Rodgers to no touchdowns and a 67.6 passer rating. 

The defense did give up 111 yards rushing but that is sometimes expected with this kind of defense because it features a six-man box a good deal of the time.

Donatell is a disciple of Vic Fangio and ran Fangio's scheme with the 49ers (2011-14) the Bears (2015-18) and the Broncos (2019-21). Of course, like with any scheme, offensive or defensive, it changes and evolves over time—the 2014 49ers defense would not be exactly like the Broncos from last year—but the principles would still be similar. 

Fangio's defense, that shows a Cover-2/4 shell in the secondary and requires the players in coverage, both the secondary and linebackers that drop, to read and match the route concepts. The corners play from depth, eight yards, rather than pressing receivers at the line of scrimmage. Out of that shell look the defense can play Cover-2, rotate one of the safety into the middle and plays a Cover-3 look, play Quarters (Cover-4) or Cover-6—all out of the same presnap look.

Though it is technically a 3-4 base but that is only used against 21 or 12 personnel. Against three- or four-wides it involves a six-man in the box, rather than seven as traditional base defenses have for well over sixty-five years. It displays as a Penny/5-1, though usually, it's 33 nickel personnel, especially seen with the Chargers, Rams, and Packers but others as well. 

In the 5-1 the two outside linebackers are on the line of scrimmage as edge players and are de facto defensive ends. If a play is a run one of the safety crashes down and takes a gap to make the run fits work. Also in the 5-1, the interior defensive line plays a gap-and-a-half in their run responsibilities making it a hybrid between a one-gap and two-gap defenses.

Only likely passing downs usually what will be seen is a four-man line but with all the same coverages being used in those situations and in an ideal world not blitzing much. 

The philosophy is to not give up plays over the top, especially in the seams, and to make offenses be patient and slowly move down the field. It works because usually offensive play callers get impatient and want chunk plays—explosive plays that get the ball down the field quickly.

Fangio's scheme is all over the NFL these days. Brandon Staley took it to Los Angeles in 2020 and when he left to become the head coach of the Chargers Raheem Morris ran it while Staley took it to the Chargers. The Packers defensive coordinator, Joe Barry, runs it as well. It is propagating over the league with plenty of other teams employing at least some of the time as well. 

Ejiro Evero who is now the Broncos defensive coordinator came over from the Rams and a big-time Fangio/Staley/Morris influence will be displayed. 
Seahawks in preseason showing the Cover-2/4 shell
Credit: NFL Replay
New Seahawk defensive assistant Sean Desai (who ran the defense in 2021 with the Bears) likely will also have at least some influence on their defense that is now under first-year coordinator Clint Hurtt. We will know more tonight as Seattle takes on the Broncos. 
The Broncos with the shell behind a tilted front
Credit: NFL replay

In preseason, the Vikings show the 5-1 with the shell behind it
Credit: NFL Replay

Donatell's defense frustrated Aaron Rodgers the rest of the day—the coverages were played well enough to give the Viking rush time to apply a lot of pressure on him. Rodgers seemingly grew frustrated.

The Vikings used a 3-4 base (the first time Vikings used since early in 1986) and a lot of 40 Nickel (4-2-5) and all the match zones that come with the scheme, only using man coverage a few times—one of those was on a goal-line stand and Fox announcer Greg Olsen pointed out that it was unusual and that it likely confused Rodgers. 
What was seen a lot yesterday versus the Packers—The shell behind a 3-4 base
Credit: NFL Replay

The 4-2-5 the shell or "umbrella"
Credit: NFL replay
Week One in the NFL is nowhere near enough to see what a team will do with a new scheme and a new coach. In a month much more will be known but at least in this test of the soft zones of the Fangio scheme, Donatell's defense got it done.

We will keep an eye out over the course of the season to see if they can keep it up but it was a good start.

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