Fat Camp: Using nickel against a team that can’t throw the ball

Happy Monday, friends.  I wanted to talk a little bit about something that both Doug and TJ made mention of in passing, and that was the strange decision by the Broncos to use a lot of nickel personnel in yesterday’s game against the Chiefs. 

I haven’t seen any snap counts published yet, but when we do, we’re going to see that both Chris Harris and Tony Carter played a lot of snaps, and that the Chiefs didn’t play very much in three-WR personnel.  Usually, a defense will match the offensive personnel grouping, with a third CB coming on the field to match a third WR.  The fact that the Broncos chose to use Champ Bailey, Harris, and Carter as much as they did, and irrespective of the offensive personnel grouping, seems to tell us something interesting.

The best reason to use offensive sub packages is that it usually forces a defense to remove a LB from the game who is a better football player than the DB who replaces him.  Since it’s easier to find effective WRs than it is to find CBs, the general assumption that third WRs are better than third CBs is typically a sound one.

The Broncos seem to think that Bailey, Harris, and Carter are three of their best eleven defensive players.  That’s what the heavy use of nickel against a run-first team tells me.  As we think through the Broncos defensive personnel, there’s a good case to be made that they are, in fact, on the field for overall merit more than for play-to-play tactical considerations.

Seven players for the Broncos have played more than 80% of the defensive snaps this season, through the San Diego game:


POS Player Snaps PT %
S Rahim Moore 713 96.74%
S Mike Adams 708 96.07%
CB Champ Bailey 693 94.03%
OLB Von Miller 663 89.96%
OLB Wesley Woodyard 627 85.07%
DE Derek Wolfe 621 84.26%
DE Elvis Dumervil 617 83.72%


Let’s consider them to be the every-down guys for the defense, and note that we’re talking about two ends, two linebackers, one corner, and two safeties.  First, we'll note the lack of any DTs, and we look at that population to see what’s going on:


POS Player Snaps PT %
DT Justin Bannan 371 50.34%
DT Kevin Vickerson 331 44.91%
DT Mitch Unrein 261 35.41%
DT Ty Warren 5 0.68%


Totaling the percentages up, you get 131%, which we can convert to mean that the Broncos average 1.31 DTs on the field per defensive snap.  From adding them up, we can say that one DT (made up roughly of a combination of Justin Bannan and Kevin Vickerson) is also part of the every-down grouping.

One CB is too few, so when we look at the remaining guys, we quickly see that between Harris, Carter, and Tracy Porter, there’s 161% of the snaps, so a second CB is also a member of the every-down grouping, as you’d expect:


POS Player Snaps PT %
CB Champ Bailey 693 94.03%
CB Chris Harris 568 77.07%
CB Tony Carter 317 43.01%
CB Tracy Porter 313 42.47%
CB Omar Bolden 25 3.39%
S Rahim Moore 713 96.74%
S Mike Adams 708 96.07%
S Jim Leonhard 149 20.22%
S David Bruton 18 2.44%
S Quinton Carter 14 1.90%


In fact, if you add up the snaps by all DBs, the Broncos average 2.17 safeties and  2.60 cornerbacks, which means they average 4.77 DBs.  The snap counts support what our eyes told us yesterday - that this Broncos team prefers to play nickel defense.

In addition to the 4.77 DBs, the Broncos play 3.42 defensive linemen, and 2.81 linebackers on the average snap.  It’s a 3-3-5 team, which again matches what our eyes tell us.

Before yesterday’s game, you could have made a case that the Broncos play so much nickel because they’re always protecting leads against teams that need to throw the ball.  Against the Chiefs, though, it should have been different.  The Chiefs can’t do much with their passing game, and everybody knew they needed to run the ball.

If I were coordinating the Broncos defense, I’d have not used Tony Carter much, and rotated between using a 4-4 with D.J. Williams (and only one CB) and a standard 4-3 with Chris Harris, based on down and distance and the offensive personnel grouping.  At least two of Bannan, Vickerson, and Unrein would have been on the field on every play.  Keith Brooking wouldn’t have left the field, and there would have virtually always been eight men in the box.

Run defense would have been prioritized to an extreme level, and I would have forced the Chiefs to beat me by throwing the ball downfield.  The Broncos chose to play defense the way they always play, and they won, so I’m not criticizing Jack Del Rio, per se, just offering a different idea. 

Some coaches think it’s best to play their way, and do what their team does best, and not to adjust too much to a specific opponent.  I can think of some successful names from that school of thought, like Bill Parcells, Dick LeBeau, and Tom Coughlin.  On the other end of the spectrum is the Bill Belichick or Mike Shanahan type, who game-plans specifically for every team they face.  Neither approach is wrong, when it works.  When it doesn’t, it can make you wish things were done the other way.

You know how they say perception is reality?  Well, it’s not true.  Perception is perception, and reality is reality.  On Sirius this morning, Ross Tucker made the statement that if the Broncos sold out to stop the run, and Jamaal Charles still had a pretty big day, then they must be vulnerable to the run game, and that it’s a big concern about the Broncos as a playoff team.

Tucker obviously didn’t watch the game, because the Broncos played nickel all day with two high safeties, and did the opposite of selling out to stop the run.  What they did was try to be reasonably sound against both run and pass from their preferred personnel grouping, which, being small nickel, made them somewhat vulnerable against the run game.

It was a strange tactical choice, but the Broncos did well enough against the run to make it work, even if the stat sheet says the Chiefs got 148 yards rushing and 4.8 yards per carry. 

Tucker is concerned that the Broncos can’t stop the run, but I’m really not.  Most of the time, the Broncos offense will work better than it did yesterday, and that will serve to help take the running game out of the equation.  I don’t think anything earth-shattering was learned yesterday, except that maybe Del Rio could be a bit more flexible in game-planning for a specific opponent, especially when that opponent could probably be shut out by focusing on the only thing they do well.

UPDATE - 3:12 PM EST - Per PFF, the Broncos averaged 3.6 defensive linemen, 2.7 LBs, and 4.7 DBs in Sunday's game.  The Chiefs averaged 1.9 WRs, 1.6 TEs, 1.3 RBs, and 0.3 of whatever Dexter McCluster is.  That confirms that the Broncos were not at all concerned with matching the offensive personnel groupings of the Chiefs.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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