Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is widely considered one of the best in the business.
His four years in charge of the San Francisco 49ers produced unparalleled results, with Fangio's defenses at or near the top of each major defensive ranking. It was a run of dominance built on a 3-4 defense that bucked traditions.
Typical 3-4 systems rely on hulking interior defenders and thick linebackers who can fill gaps between the tackles. Fangio's units excelled with smaller, faster players who could chase down ball carriers sideline to sideline, as well as stellar play from the edge rushers.
Fangio also thinks outside the box in terms of in-game strategy and schematics, particularly on passing downs through the use of a "rover". The rover is a player without a defined position, one who can roam the line of scrimmage pre-snap before deciding which lane to rush.
Last year, the designated rover was Pernell McPhee, whose unique blend of size and speed made him ideal for the role. Let's break down a few examples from last season.
McPhee (red) is lined up in a two-point stance across from the left B gap. This is basically a 3-tech rush from a two-point stance. DE Jarvis Jenkins is lined up in the opposite B gap with a hand in the dirt, while Jared Allen is coming off the left edge with his hand in the dirt. Lamarr Houston is rushing the other edge from a two-point stance.
McPhee gets a single block and uses a strong swim move to fly past the left guard.
McPhee is right in the quarterback's face as the pass is released, while Allen and Houston have collapsed the pocket off the edges.
Here McPHee is lined up in the same gap, only this time Jenkins is lined up across from the center in the nose tackle position. At the snap, McPhee will cut inside and Jenkins will loop around the back on a cross stunt. Willie Young and Houston will crash the edges.
McPhee slams inside hard, dragging the guard with him. Jenkins begins to loop around the backside.
McPhee now has the attention of three blockers, which opens a lane for Jenkins, who bursts into the backfield unfettered.
On this snap, McPhee and Houston are stacked off the right side, each in a two-point stance. DL Ego Ferguson is over center, while Young will rush the opposite edge. Both linebackers are on the line of scrimmage, showing blitz. At the snap, Ferguson will slant right, with Houston looping inside.
Ferguson occupies two blockers, which allows Houston to swing behind him. The cross stunt inside gives both McPhee and Young one-on-one opportunities off the edges.
On this first-down snap, the Raiders use five wide receivers. Fangio refuses to adjust his defensive call and uses a base 3-4 defense, splitting outside linebackers McPhee (red) and Sam Acho (blue) into their respective flats. ILB Shea McClellin (yellow) is creeping toward the line of scrimmage.
McClellin blitzes up the middle. This is a zone blitz, with McPhee covering the right underneath zone.
McPhee closes on the quick pass to the flanker. The ball bounces off the receiver's chest and into McPhee's arms.
McPhee then literally carries the receiver on his back for 15 yards.
Floyd the Rover
McPhee is recovering from off-season knee surgery and hasn't participated with the team during off-season practices. As a result, Houston has taken over the role as the primary rover on 3rd downs.
Yet Fangio has also inserted first-round rookie OLB Leonard Floyd at rover as well. Remember, Floyd was an extremely versatile defender for Georgia. He played OLB, ILB and DE, and is just as adept in coverage as he is rushing off the edge.
Floyd is at his best when working in space, where he can fully utilize his elite quickness and burst. His experience in multiple roles and with multiple assignments makes him an ideal candidate for the rover role. With Floyd, Fangio can concoct countless different pass-rush scenarios to take advantage of the deepest position on the team.
At times we'll see any combination of three outside linebackers on the field at the same time, and we could even see formations in which McPhee, Houston, Young and Floyd are all on the field at once.
That's the type of flexibility Fangio has with Floyd in the fold. Surely Fangio had Floyd's positional versatility in mind, as well as how it could impact the team's pass rush, when he lobbied for Floyd in the first round.
So what does Floyd offer in these scenarios? I've documented his prowess as an edge rusher, but in the rover role he can have in impact in a number of additional ways.
For a clearer idea of Floyd's potential as a rover, let's break down a few plays from his collegiate career.
This snap is similar to the play in which McPhee picked up his interception. Like McPhee, Floyd is lined up in the right flat across from the slot receiver. The difference here is that the Bulldogs are in man coverage. McPhee just had to roam the underneath zone, while Floyd is going to have to mirror Vanderbilt's slot receiver throughout the play.
The Vanderbilt receiver runs a post corner to the far sideline. Floyd turns and runs with him immediately.
The pass is in the air. More than 20 yards down the field, Floyd is running stride for stride with the slot receiver up the sideline.
Floyd is able to get his hand up and disrupt the pass. Due to Floyd's positioning, the receiver can't come back and make a play on the ball. The pass falls incomplete.
On this snap, Floyd is lined up in the rover position across from the center. Notice three other defenders showing blitz from a two-point stance. Just switch the jerseys to navy and orange to get an idea of how Fangio might use Floyd and the other outside linebackers.
Floyd does not rush the passer, dropping into the middle zone instead. Remember the days of Brian Urlacher and how effective he was clogging up the deep middle zone? Floyd, who is experienced in coverage, can cover just as much ground as Urlacher and he's two inches taller. Imagine the plays he'll make if opposing quarterbacks try to challenge him over the middle.
Here again we see Floyd in the rover across from the A gap showing blitz.
This time, Floyd blitzes and he shoots the gap immediately.
Look at the penetration Floyd generates off the snap. He shoots past two blockers, forcing the center to try and tackle him to the ground. This penetration opens a lane up the middle for the trailing blitzer.
Floyd and his fellow blitzer converge on the quarterback for the sack.
This play shows the difference between McPhee or Houston as the rover, and Floyd in that role. Floyd is far faster than the rest of the OLBs on the roster - and faster than pretty much every other Bears front-seven player - and his quickness off the snap is unmatched on this team. His skinny frame gives him exceptional burst and allows him to slip through tiny gaps, as he does on this snap, which completely blows up the offensive play.
There are a lot of concerns about Floyd's ability to anchor at the point of attack and whether or not his light weight, and perceived lack of strength, will negatively impact him. While those appear to be weaknesses in his game, a creative coordinator like Fangio should be able to mask those issues, particularly in the rover role.
With Floyd, Fangio now has a triple-threat defender with an entirely different skill set than the rest of his position group. At rover, opposing offenses will have no idea of Floyd's assignment, which should give him plenty of opportunities for game-changing plays.