The Denver Broncos’ hiring of defensive-minded head coach Vic Fangio suggests John Elway is poised to give quarterback Case Keenum one more shot at being the guy. A world-class defensive coordinator, Fangio should find ways to get the most out of Denver’s defense to help alleviate pressure on Keenum.
Fangio came over after leading the Chicago Bears defense to No. 1 rankings in takeaways (36), interceptions (27), interceptions returned for touchdowns (5), lowest passer rating allowed (72.9) and plays of 20 yards or more permitted (46). The 2018 Bears set a franchise record for the fewest rushing yards allowed in a 16-game season.
The 60-year-old Fangio was the head defensive play-caller for the aforementioned Bears, Carolina Panthers, Indianapolis Colts, San Francisco 49ers and Houston Texans. He was a prized defensive assistant for the Baltimore Ravens from 2006-09, coaching linebackers in the final year.
While Fangio brought Chicago’s secondary coach of the last four years, Ed Donatell, to Denver with the title of defensive coordinator, the former will indeed call the plays. Donatell, a 27-year veteran coach, will have a role in game planning and tutelage.
The offensive coordinator spot was filled by Rich Scangarello. A long-time collegiate assistant and the 49ers quarterbacks coach the past two years, Scangarello was able to get the most out of poor positional situations in those seasons. C.J. Beathard looked competent in his sophomore year after Jimmy Garoppolo went down, and Nick Mullens flashed several times as he rose from obscurity. Even Jimmy G. was coached up quickly when he came over late last year in a trade.
As a play-caller, however, this will be Scangarello’s first year holding the position in the NFL. He previously was an offensive quality control coach for Atlanta (2015) and Oakland (2009), as well as being an offensive coordinator at three stops in the collegiate ranks (Wagner, Northern Arizona, Millsaps, UC-Davis, Carleton) spread over 2001 to ’16.
The 46-year-old is believed to favor a zone-blocking scheme in the running game and a creative offensive style reminiscient of his most recent boss, Kyle Shanahan. Expect movement of the quarterback, short and intermediate passing that relies on receivers to make plays after the catch, the involvement of running backs and tight ends, and play-action misdirects. Shanahan has deployed interesting personnel groupings in the alignment stage of the pre-snap read that eventually disperse to create mismatches in coverage and allow the quarterback to make coverage assessments.
Play-action is important to protecting Keenum from doing too much. In 2017, with Minnesota, his passer rating increased from 88.2 to 117.9 in play-action passing. The Broncos called such passing plays 16 percent of the time through the first six weeks, which was 12 percent less than in 2017, but the year-end result was the 11th-highest rate at 25 percent (T10). A strong running game is the key to convincing play-action, and if Phillip Lindsay (wrist) returns as anything close to what we say in 2018, Denver should be in good shape. Furthermore, don’t give up on Royce Freeman finding success in his second year.
Speaking of personnel, the Broncos have the following notable players facing free agency in March: right tackle Jared Veldheer, center Matt Paradis, guard Billy Turner, center Max Garcia, tight end Jeff Heuerman, cornerback Bradley Roby, defensive tackle Domata Peko, linebacker Shane Ray and corner Tramaine Brock.
Let’s take a look at Fangio’s defensive results in comparison to the league. The rankings reflect (lower number is better) where his teams ranked in each category.
Table: Vic Fangio coaching statistics (1995-2005; 2011-17)