Nickel is the new base

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.

A nickel defense generally replaces a linebacker with a defensive back, leaving five DBs on the field. That’s the simplest option and the one most commonly used.

You can also pull a lineman, replacing him with a pass rush-literate linebacker who also has the skill to drop into coverage - it’s something Denver can do with Von Miller (6-3, 237 lb), Wesley Woodyard (6-0, 229 lb), and/or Danny Trevathan (6-1, 232 lb), should they choose to. Each can also stuff the draw or screen.

If Miller’s on the line in his DE position with three other linemen, the two nickel linebackers are behind him and the five DBs are back in their own lanes; Miller (and Derek Wolfe, at times) can also drop into coverage, and Denver can rush a DB to increase confusion for the offense.

You can see how the term ‘nickel’ (as well as the six-DB approach, called ‘dime’) opens a wide swath of options. With four- and five-receiver spreads becoming common, defenses in the league have had to respond with better coverage personnel. I’ve talked about the need for every safety to have coverage skills since Renaldo Hill came to Denver - he started out as a cornerback and extended his career with his skills as a safety.

Lighter linebackers who can cover, but who can drop into coverage and also stop the run, are becoming more common. With proper attitude and technique, there are few players they can’t tackle. You can make this formation very versatile with the right personnel.

This is how much of it was played by Denver last year:

  • The primary option was with Trevathan along with Woodyard as the nickel LBs. Keith Brooking was also a nickel LB at times; the three appeared in any combination.
  • Miller stepped up to the line in either a two-point stance with a three-player interior DT/NG group, or as a DE in a three-point stance with the rest of the 4-3 line next to him.
  • A DB was often brought up (‘cheated up’) for added pressure. Chris Harris, Mike Adams, and Rahim Moore each had a sack or more last season - Harris had 2.5 sacks. The Denver DBs are also charging the quarterback as Jack Del Rio finds additional ways to bring pressure. Champ Bailey and Tony Carter were depended on in coverage. Last year’s fourth-round pick Omar Bolden (5-10, 195 lb) and the 6-2, 182 lb Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will now join them to compete for a slot.

Moving forward and starting with the D-line, it’s a choice of Terrance Knighton, Kevin Vickerson, Sylvester Williams, Malik Jackson and/or Mitch Unrein at the DT/NT roles, in a clear movement towards size and power on the line. Wolfe can roll to the inside when they want a stronger pass rushing presence, as can Robert Ayers. Ayers’s DE role in Denver is going to be decided by his production this year; he’s a free agent after the season.

Quanterus Smith is a tall, lighter (6-5, 250 lb) DE who will be an option to increase pressure while he develops an NFL body. Shaun Phillips (6-3, 250 lb) can also play Miller’s old three-point DE role, freeing up Miller to play a deadly ‘joker’ role from any angle.

Wesley Woodyard fits a mold that’s becoming more common - players who are or have been heavier safeties or lighter linebackers. Some were linebackers who were too light at the next level, or safeties who were too heavy. If they have the speed, tackling, and cover skills together, such players won’t be tweeners any more than the DE/OLBs of the past, who are now odd-front OLBs.

The nickel linebacker/defensive back - or nickelback - can now become a starter, as Trevathan is doing. You only have to look at the team's interest in Kansas State LB Arthur Brown in the draft to see the allure such players will have. He was 229 pounds a month or two before the combine and is likely to play at that weight, but he’s got coverage skills to go with his intellect, hitting, and speed once his sports hernia is healed.

This movement toward changing how they deal with the modern offense has been a shared trait of the philosophies of Jack Del Rio and John Fox for some years. Both have long showed a preference for smaller, faster, more disruptive linebackers who can cover, and who can minimize the advantages built into the game for the offense, as well as using big, up-front DTs who can collapse the pocket and oversized DEs (including Julius Peppers) who can work in multiple ways. I believe that these kinds of players are going to be at a premium as more teams move to a nickel base formation.

The options for early down middle linebacker start with Nate Irving, at 6-1, 240 pounds; Denver’s other linebacking examples include MLB Steven Johnson at 6-1, 237. Stewart Bradley and UDFA Lerentee McCray are the only linebackers over 250 lbs; the MLB will often come off after one or two downs.

One goal the league will see over time will be to find players who can cover the bigger pass-catching tight ends. You need players with leverage, speed, and functional strength. I believe that you also need every player who isn’t rushing the QB to have coverage skills, and that every player needs to tackle well, without exception. JDR seems to agree.

The overall movement to versatile players and defenses can be seen in Denver’s recent upgrades. Third-rounder Kayvon Webster reputedly plays like a corner/safety. Rahim Moore fits that mold with both coverage and tackling skill, as does Quinton Carter. Quanterus Smith can rush the passer, but has the length and speed to also function in coverage if he can learn the techniques. The modern defense will have to work against run or pass options, and it has to deal with no-huddle and hurry-up offenses that don’t permit the defense to substitute. Running variations of a high-quality nickel defense is the logical answer to that conundrum and that nickel has to stop both the run and the pass.

I think that we’re currently seeing Stage II of this transformation. To me, the move to faster linebackers was Stage 1. Denver has most of the linebackers they now need, and has added an excellent front DT group - solving the front-seven is Stage 1. They are now seeking bigger and/or more aggressive secondary players like Webster to match with their faster linebackers. Tracy Porter had as many problems tackling as with his health, and thereby lost his bid to return. The DBs have to be versatile in JDR’s defense.

The modern corner or safety has to cover wide receivers, tight ends and running backs. Chris Harris played safety as well as corner in college; he also took a few snaps at safety during his rookie season.

Champ Bailey has been talked about as moving to safety, although he’s shown no real interest in it himself. Moving him there theoretically would take advantage of his mental skills and his tackling ability.

Rahim Moore can cover well, the end of regulation against Baltimore aside.

Webster has the size that led Matt Russell to describe him as “a safety playing corner that can also cover.”

Omar Bolden has a reputation for hitting.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was told that his playing time would be dependent on the developing of his tackling and aggression. That’s the trend in a nutshell.

The nickel defense is a rational response to the high-test passing offenses in the league. It’s not new that the more versatile a player is, the more the defensive coordinator can do with them, but this is a newer application for many of them. Against the faster pace of the no-huddle and hurry-up offenses, ‘tweeners are now becoming starters.

The endless chess match of changing formations and approaches is making yet another move.

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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