It’s become a local mantra - the move from older base formations to using a nickel package as a team’s base package is a natural response towards slowing the pass-centric tendencies of the modern NFL.
I’ve been on that bus for a few years now. Last season, the Broncos used their nickel defense 65% of the time. Nickel is the new base.
But along with that recognition, there’s been an increasing suggestion that you don’t need three-down linebackers as much. The starting Mike, in particular, often leaves the field for nickel downs. That’s particularly the case if the Mike has better skills downhill than in outracing running backs, wideouts, or tight ends in a coverage role.
Does a team have to change their linebackers out when they move to nickel?
Most of us has been impressed with the level of innovation under John Elway, but the installation of Luke Richesson along with his equipment and staff may turn out to be one of the best of them all.
From Eric Decker on Wednesday:
We worked out at Duke in March or April and I definitely felt like he had more zip on the ball. I think he's come back stronger, he's come back with the program that we've got — it's unbelievable the amount of muscle mass and endurance that guys have and the cut-down of injuries that we had last year. I think that's a compliment to the strength and conditioning staff here and I think Peyton is one of those that took advantage of it and really got himself in good shape and is stronger and healthier this year.
The nickel formation is usually dated back to the early 1960s, when Jerry Williams of the Eagles used it to try and defend Chicago Bears tight end Mike Ditka. The Dolphins made it popular in the 1970s with creative coordinator Bill Arnsparger running the defense for Don Shula (Arnsparger also employed an early form of the zone blitz).
Every team has some version of the nickel now and it’s constantly getting more common to deal with the pass-happy and increasingly tight end-centric offenses.
According to John Elway, the Broncos played nickel in 65% of their defensive snaps. Since the nickel has become the new base defensive formation, I thought we should take a quick look at Denver’s ‘new’ approach to defense.
Two years earlier, the Sport Science team put Von Miller through their testing gauntlet. I enjoy their work - they bring some solid technology to measure the things that make a certain player effective, and it highlights aspects of that player’s skill set. Even if it's a bit late, I thought I'd discuss Von's Sport Science segment here.
Watching Miller’s work is like seeing the Mikhail Baryshnikov of the NFL. Baryshnikov himself used to seem to leap up into the air and just pause there for a long moment; it was astonishing to watch. Miller reminds me of that quality - he often looks as if he’s playing at a different speed than the rest of the people on the field. He dashes through what are pauses between moments to the rest of us.
Last week's column about controversial Chargers team doctor David Chao and the NFL's continuing campaign to discredit CTE pioneer Bennet Omalu prompted a comment that I’ve heard often in the discussions of making professional sports safer.
It’s a point worth considering - do the players really want a safer working environment?
Indeed, injuries are part of the cost of making a living for many players, and that brings up another point: there are times when people in a certain situation aren’t qualified to judge things like the costs of long term care, or the realities of dealing with CTE. A 22-year old rookie in the NFL - and even many of the ‘older’ players, relatively few of whom are over 35 or are well educated in the realities of health-related issues.
I'd like to take a moment to address some comments from my piece two weeks ago on Denver first-rounder Sylvester Williams.
Broncos777 talked about what had struck him while considering Sylvester Williams (emphasis mine):
Sylvester has a great story. Elway's emphasis on chemistry in the locker room is going to pay off for a long time. Sylvester's experience reminds me of a story a friend from San Diego whose parents had immigrated from Mexico once told me. He said that his parents took him once to the village where they were from and he came back with straight A's!
I was somewhere between thrilled and ecstatic with the announcement that premier offensive line coach Alex Gibbs will be added to Denver’s already extensive coaching firepower. Denver has been using both outside and inside zone running plays over the last two years. Why not also add the modern version of the original stretch zone play?
The offensive line players Johns Elway and Fox have put together have good feet as well as greater size. There's no reason they can't run this.
The old idea that you need smaller players for this scheme, or that defensive coordinators have learned to defend it doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Like a lot of Peyon Manning's plays, it's one thing to know what they might do and something entirely different to stop them from doing it. What the zone scheme needs is offensive linemen with excellent footwork - and the Broncos have them. What’s unusual is that Denver's gotten both size and power to go with their skill in footwork. That's not the common approach to the ZB scheme, but it's one that I've been interested in seeing for a long time.
The continuing story of Dr. David Chao, team physician for the San Diego Chargers, plays out like a bad comedy. This time, he was exposed as part of the effort to undermine the work of the man whose research discovered the disease of the brain that is caused by repeated trauma - Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. That man is Dr. Bennet Omalu.
I appreciate that the postmortem exam of Junior Seau's brain, as performed by the National Institute of Health, did show signs of TBI and CTE. I’m glad that has been settled.
What I don't care for is that the NFL, via Dr. Chao, informed Seau's family that a member of the San Diego Medical Examiner's office, Dr. Omalu - the man who discovered, described, and named Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy [CTE] as a disease entity in football players and wrestlers - was described to Tyler Seau, Junior’s son, as an unethical person, a bad researcher, and a bad doctor.
With the 173rd pick in the 2013 Draft, the Broncos took Virginia Tech tackle Vinston Painter. Three picks later, the Texans took tackle David Quessenberry. Both players have positional flexibility and might play guard in the NFL. Each was converted from another position - Painter from defensive tackle, and Quessenberry from tight end.
I’ve read in a couple of articles the idea that Painter only has a single year of offensive line work to point to, but it’s not quite true. To clarify how much experience Painter has there, consider this:
Painter, who is the cousin of Virginia Tech receiver Randall Dunn, earned first-team All-Tidewater and first-team All-Eastern District honors on the offensive line as both a junior and senior at Maury High. He was also was second-team all-district as a defensive tackle. Painter actually began his Virginia Tech career at defensive tackle, as he worked there during the fall of his redshirt season (2009), before he moved to offensive tackle for spring practice.
Doc Ponderosa and I were talking about the two known instances in Denver’s draft where a medical issue came into play last week - those of Eddie Lacy and Quanterus Smith. I thought I’d share with you what came up.
Sunday brought word that the Steelers and several other teams, including potentially the Broncos, passed on the Alabama running back due to concerns regarding a fused toe.
Doc P has found the fusion of the great toe to be a variable problem, which matches my own experience. Some people are greatly hampered by it, while others seem to handle it fairly well. Over time, though, the changes in balance created by it can hinder a player and can create or contribute to other injuries. Even if it’s not bothersome in itself, the changes in posture, gait, and stride that result from it are cumulative; a lot of people eventually develop low back, knee, and/or ankle issues as a result.