The best defensive coordinators in the NFL are willing to step outside of the box to develop effective strategies for defending the hottest offensive trends. From crafting exotic zone-blitz schemes to using a variety of unique personnel packages to neutralize the opponent's No. 1 weapon, astute defensive play-callers aren't afraid to deploy unorthodox tactics to put their teams in the best position to win.
During my time as a defensive back with the Green Bay Packers, I had the opportunity to watch defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur work his magic on the blackboard each week, designing clever schemes to slow down the opponent. One of the ideas that he used to help the Packers field the NFL's top-ranked defense in 1996 was a unique nickel defense that featured three safeties (Eugene Robinson, Mike Prior and LeRoy Butler) on the field simultaneously. Although it wasn't unusual to use five defensive backs on obvious passing downs, Shurmur's willingness to play Butler -- Green Bay's starting strong safety -- as a nickel back allowed him to deploy his best defensive back in coverage on tight ends and slot receivers, while also using him on blitzes off the edge. The strategy helped the '96 Packers hold opponents to just 13.1 points per game and total 26 interceptions against only 12 touchdown passes allowed.
Fast forward to 2014. Defensive coordinators searching for effective solutions against the spread-formation run game and the hybrid tight ends dominating the NFL are resorting to big nickel tactics that mimic Shurmur's ingenious scheme from the mid-'90s. From Perry Fewell using the package to help the New York Giants match up against their NFC East rivals, to Rob Ryan unveiling a three-safety defense to take advantage of burgeoning superstar Kenny Vaccaro, the big nickel package is en vogue and will be a major part of defensive game plans this fall.
Given some time to reflect on what I know about the scheme and what I've gleaned from studying the All-22 Coaches Film from the 2013 season, here are a few thoughts on one of the hottest defensive trends heading into the new season:
What is the big nickel package?
Every team in the NFL utilizes a traditional nickel package (five defensive backs instead of the four featured in base defenses) as a way to better defend against the pass. Typically, an extra corner will come on to replace a linebacker and will align in the slot to match up with a receiver or tight end.
In a big nickel package, the defensive coordinator will instead bring on an extra safety who acts as a hybrid linebacker/cornerback. While the nickel safety is also assigned to cover tight ends and receivers in the slot, he is a more effective run defender and possesses the size, strength and length to match up with the league's increasing number of big-bodied, pass-catching tight ends. Thus, the coordinator has a better option for defending opponents who prefer to play "12" personnel (one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers) as their primary offense. See examples below:
From a schematic perspective, the use of big nickel allows defensive coordinators to add a variety of wrinkles to their exotic sub-package schemes. Teams will use the traditional 4-2-5 (four defensive linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs) or 3-3-5 alignments and personnel packages, while also mixing in some 2-4-5 and 1-5-5 tactics to befuddle quarterbacks at the line of scrimmage.
With three safeties on the field, it becomes tougher for the quarterback to identify potential rushers from the second level. The constant movement and deking creates confusion at the line of scrimmage, leading to blown protection calls and misreads in the passing game. The big nickel package is also effective against the run, due to the presence of better athletes near the line of scrimmage. The overall speed and quickness of the defense improves with more defensive backs on the field, and safeties -- more so than most cornerbacks -- are comfortable playing in the box and taking on blockers due to their role in eight-man fronts on early (running) downs. As a result, this defensive package is more effective overall against certain formations, making it a worthwhile gamble for defensive coordinators.
Why are more teams expected to play big nickel this season?
The pass-centric nature of the NFL is leading more defensive coordinators to put their best 11 athletes on the field. Thus, teams are removing a lumbering linebacker (middle linebacker) and replacing him with a dynamic safety who is effective against the run, but a better defender in coverage.
Looking at some of the most-explosive offenses in football, the presence of a dominant hybrid tight end is critical to their success. Teams like the Denver Broncos (Julius Thomas), New England Patriots (Rob Gronkowski), Eagles (Brent Celek and Zach Ertz) and Saints (Jimmy Graham) feature versatile, big-bodied athletes at Y (tight end) or H (H-back/"move" tight end) in spread and empty formations, creating a list of problems for the defense.
Allow me to provide a few examples of how crafty offensive coordinators are positioning these dynamic pass-catchers ...
In the following screengrab, the Saints are in a traditional spread formation with the Y (Graham) in the No. 3 position. This is the easiest alignment for defensive coordinators to handle with nickel personnel:
In this next play, the Saints are aligned in a 2x2 spread formation with Graham (Y) positioned on the outside. Placing him on the outside allows quarterback Drew Brees to quickly determine whether the defense is playing man-to-man or zone coverage by identifying which defender matches up with Graham:
Lastly, in the next screengrab, the Patriots are aligned in an empty formation with Gronkowski positioned in the slot. The outside receiver motions into a stack alignment, which forces the defense to loosen coverage on Gronkowski to better defend against pick or rub routes. Similar to the Graham play above, the stack alignment forces the defense to declare whether they are in man or zone-based coverage:
Given the challenges of defending hybrid tight ends, defensive coordinators are better served pitting an athletic safety with corner-like cover skills against a big-bodied pass catcher. Safeties are quick enough to run with these types of tight ends down the seam, while also possessing the athleticism to battle on post-ups and 50-50 balls in the red zone.
Most importantly, the presence of a hybrid safety on the field gives a defensive coordinator the freedom to use man or zone coverage without tipping his hand prior to the snap, which is a huge win for the defense.
What are the core characteristics of a hybrid safety?
The ideal hybrid safety for this package is a hard-hitting defender with corner-like cover skills. He needs to possess the agility and quickness to shadow slot receivers, while also displaying the strength to battle big-bodied tight ends between the hashes. It's not a coincidence that many of the top hybrid safeties played cornerback in college or early in their pro careers before transitioning to safety.
Who are some of the ideal big nickel safeties in the league?
I recently ranked the most dynamic safeties in the NFL, and, as one might expect, many of those defenders possess the unique skill set to play the big nickel position.
After revisiting that list, I believe Aaron Williams, Tyrann Mathieu, Kenny Vaccaro, Antrel Rolle and Eric Berry are ideal candidates to perform as designated playmakers in big nickel schemes. They all have terrific coverage skills, as well as the instincts, toughness and awareness to be factors against the run. In addition, they are effective pass rushers capable of blitzing from the second level.
The recent run on hybrid safeties early in the draft points toward the increased importance of the position. Teams recognize the value in having a versatile nickel defender on the roster to play a variety of roles in sub-packages. Rookie safeties like Lamarcus Joyner, Jimmie Ward and Terrence Brooks were drafted specifically to play as nickel defenders; don't be surprised if their respective teams deploy more big nickel packages this season.
Although teams routinely have attempted to use the traditional nickel package to slow down the basketball-like athletes thriving between the hashes, the size disparity between tight ends and slot cornerbacks has given the offense a significant advantage in the passing game. Thus, defensive coordinators increasingly will rely on three-safety defenses in order to pit long, rangy defenders over the slot.
Additionally, placing safeties near the box has helped defenses slow down the shotgun running game that teams like the Philadelphia Eagles and Buffalo Bills featured with outstanding success last season. With spread and empty-back sets becoming a mainstay of numerous offenses, expect to see defenses turn to their big nickel packages more often this fall.