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What influences box defender count and how NFL passing games can take advantage

Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) looks to the sidelines during the AFC Divisional Round playoff game against the Cleveland Browns at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

“The NFL is a passing league now” has become a common sentiment in recent years. But despite that, defenses have failed to catch up as the Kansas City Chiefs, Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints, among others, have ravaged the NFL with efficient and explosive passing attacks.

Defenses still like to stack the box with linemen and linebackers to run fit first and worry about the pass second.

Red dots indicate Vic Fangio coaching tree

Since 2014, defenses haven’t changed their average box count on early downs outside of the red zone whatsoever. The NFL average would be even higher if it wasn’t for then-defensive coordinator Vic Fangio joining the Bears in 2015. Since then, he has had the lowest average box count in the NFL each season until 2020.

Brandon Staley served as an understudy to Fangio and applied similar principles to his No. 1-ranked Rams defense in 2020. In an interview with The Athletic's Robert Mays, Staley said he said this because “I know that the quickest way to lose is to give up explosions in the passing game. It takes a lot of 4- and 5-yard runs to add up to a 50-yard pass.” Staley and Fangio play these light boxes to stop the pass.

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