ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — If there’s at least a kernel of truth buried inside every joke, Sean Payton may have cooked in an entire bag of popcorn back in late February after being asked about Vic Fangio at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Payton was just weeks into his job as the new head coach of the Denver Broncos and had just hired Vance Joseph to be his defensive coordinator. But only after an unsuccessful attempt to convince Fangio, fired by the Broncos following the 2021 season after three years as the team’s head coach, to return to Denver as a coordinator.
“Vic was supposed to be part of the plan,” Payton told the assembled media in Indianapolis during his press conference at the combine, much it from the Denver market, “and then you guys scared him away.”
The truth is, Payton put the full-court press on Fangio, now the defensive coordinator for the AFC East-leading Miami Dolphins, in 2022, when both veteran coaches were spending a year on the sidelines — Payton doing analyst work with Fox; Fangio watching a lot of baseball and, later in the season, consulting with the Philadelphia Eagles. In December, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Payton, eyeing a return to coaching in 2023, was seeking to put together an “all-star staff” that featured Fangio as his defensive lieutenant.
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Payton confirmed as much at the combine. The two are longtime friends, though they have never worked on the same staff. Payton’s father attended the same high school as Fangio in Scranton, Pa. Payton said his older cousin was Fangio’s middle-school math teacher. But more than familial connection, Payton’s respect for Fangio stemmed from his envelope-pushing work during more than 35 years as a defensive coach in the NFL.
The wounds, in Payton’s telling, simply proved too fresh for Fangio, who was fired following a 7-10 finish in 2021 and a 19-30 record across his three seasons overall.
“I used to give him a hard time. I’m like, ‘God, Vic, half the teams in this league are running your defense and you haven’t met half of those people,’” Payton said in February. “Do I think he would have been a great asset for us? Yes. So we were planning, in this year away, that if the right scenario came up, we’d work together. I think this one was just a little unique because it wasn’t too long ago that he was here (in Denver). Certainly, I tried to talk to him and tried to twist his arm.”
The secret sauce of the Vic Fangio Defense — and meatballs — is the man himself
Fangio instead chose to join head coach Mike McDaniel — Aurora, Colo., native, former Broncos ball boy and Mike Shanahan disciple — with the Dolphins, who reportedly made Fangio the league’s highest-paid assistant this offseason. That decision means that instead of working with Fangio on a game plan for Denver’s Week 3 game in Miami on Sunday, Payton is tasked with scheming against Fangio and his new-look Dolphins defense, which already bears hallmarks of the 65-year-old’s past defenses, including ones he constructed with the Broncos.
The Dolphins are tied for eighth in the NFL in sacks (seven) and are 11th in pressure rate (36.4 percent), and they are doing it while blitzing sparingly (23 percent of the time, 21st in the league) and playing with five or more defensive backs on the field more than all but five teams in the league. Eight different players have combined to produce Miami’s seven snaps — one is Bradley Chubb, the former Broncos pass rusher who was traded to the Dolphins last November for a first-round pick — and Fangio has added some new pre-snap disguises to his coverages, something he has said he drew up during his season away from coaching.
“You know he’s going to do a lot of different things with different players,” said Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson, who has a 6-3 career record, including the playoffs, against Fangio-coached defenses. “He’s going to have Chubb dropping out (in coverage) sometimes. He’s going to have them rushing from all over the place, have different guys moving around.”
Payton said the preparation for Fangio’s defense has included film study that digs as far back as his time as the defensive coordinator for the Houston Texans in 2002 when Payton was a young offensive coordinator with the New York Giants. Payton has credited Fangio’s ability “to evolve” as a defensive architect, but some of the trademarks are the same. Like Fangio’s ability, as Payton put it, to put “a roof over the coverage” and make opponents grind out their gains.
“You’ve got to sustain drives,” Payton said. “It’s hard to find big plays based on the structure of his defense. It’s easy to say they’re very sound — most defenses are — but, man, the technique they play with, they’re well-coached. We’re working on third down (Wednesday night) and red zone (Thursday) night and there will be certain things that we’ll go back and look at something he ran in Chicago or San Francisco. If it appears that’s still in place, what we’re seeing, then there is merit to it and there’s change. He’s in Miami now and they tinker with things in the offseason, but, yeah, there’s a familiarity to what he does. Look, he’s got his spin-off of other coaches now running very similar systems.”
Payton said he has made use this week of ample resources in the building when it comes to decoding Fangio’s defense. Seven of the 11 players who started for Denver’s defense last week against the Commanders played at least one season with Fangio during his time as Denver’s head coach and defensive play-caller. That includes All-Pro cornerback Pat Surtain II, a South Florida native who will play for the first time Sunday in the stadium where his father played seven seasons for the Dolphins. Surtain was a rookie in 2021 and spent his first offseason and training camp shifting around Fangio’s defense — outside corner, nickel, dime linebacker — and gaining an appreciation for the full scope of the veteran coach’s scheme.
“It helped me slow the game down and slow the defense down,” Surtain said Wednesday, ahead of what he said will be a “surreal” return to Miami this weekend. “Being put in those different positions, at first, it was a lot. There were a lot of things moving around. But once I settled down and got used to it, I got familiar with it.”
That’s not to say the Dolphins’ defense hasn’t been vulnerable in stretches. Miami is giving up 4.9 yards per rush attempt, which ranks 27th in the NFL. Though much of that damage was done when the Dolphins gave up 233 yards and three touchdowns rushing in their 36-34 Week 1 win against the Chargers, tight-roping a path to success against Fangio teams has typically meant thriving in the run game against the lighter fronts he deploys.
From over-pursuit that is leaving them vulnerable on screen plays to a lack of pressure in the red zone, a look at some of the issues plaguing the Broncos’ defense and where fixes could come:
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Payton, too, evolved during his year away. Two games don’t present a large enough sample size for sweeping declarations, but as he called 17 plays to begin Sunday’s loss against the Commanders that led to three consecutive touchdowns, Payton displayed a variance that has changed the complexion of Denver’s in one offseason. A sampling: Wide receiver sweeps off quick jet motion. An edge run with Wilson off a play fake. A sweep run out of ’22’ personnel for a five-yard touchdown. A disguised run play that turned into a 60-yard touchdown for Marvin Mims Jr. on a deep post route.
It has not been all roses for the Broncos’ offense, of course, despite leading the NFL in points per drive (2.89) and second in offensive EPA (expected points added) per play. Payton lamented a clunky play-calling in Week 2 that forced the Broncos to burn timeouts and painfully slog through a fourth-quarter drive as the clock melted away. He said Wednesday the Broncos, who didn’t have the same issues in the preseason or in Week 1, were “a little bit heavy relative to the length of some of the plays.”
“That’s something we can get corrected on our end,” Payton said.
By Sunday, the Broncos have to be sure the pace and tempo of their play-calling operation is not a factor. As much of the roster knows well, they’ll have enough on their hands when it comes to battling Fangio.
“It’s just understanding where guys are and what they’re trying to do on defense and having a clean game,” Wilson said. “The biggest thing is staying on course, staying on schedule.”
(Photo: Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)
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