Guide to Defenses 7
By Jene Bramel
September 3rd, 2010

Part 7: Nickel Subpackages

This is the era of specialization in the NFL. Slot wide receivers, third down running backs, goal line runners and pass catching tight ends are regular contributors in today's offenses. The defensive side of the ball is no different. Situational edge rushers and pass rushing defensive tackles, linebackers on the field only in passing situations, and of course, nickel defensive backs. Because offenses are operating out of multiple wide receiver sets more than ever, defenses are specializing on passing downs more often in response. Teams once simply substituted a third corner (or fourth in the "dime") for a linebacker or defensive lineman on passing downs and morphed into a 4-2-5 (or 4-1-6) look. Today, there are as many exotic passing down packages as there are defensive fronts.

In what has becoming a running theme in this series, any number of defensive minds are credited with creating and developing variations of a nickel defense. Clark Shaughnessy was devising and naming defenses with any number of defensive backs in the 1950s. He likely coined the term "nickel" defense. A secondary coach in Philadelphia drew up a package with a fifth defensive back called the "Chicago Special" as a way to better cover Bear TE Mike Ditka. George Allen is also often given credit for developing schemes that used five defensive backs. Allen was a defensive assistant under Shaughnessy in Chicago and undoubtedly observed how Philadelphia tried to defend Ditka while there.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, another defensive guru, Fritz Shurmur devised the "Big Nickel" (aka "Wolverine") 4-2-5 defense. Shurmur used the scheme to great success against the juggernaut 49ers, but often used it as a base defense in later years when his linebackers were beset by injury. The Big Nickel allowed Shurmur to get an extra safety-linebacker hybrid into the lineup. Depending on his personnel he could cover and pass rush with the secondary personnel, but still support the run, all while disguising which coverage his defense would play. The Big Nickel has made a comeback in recent seasons, particularly against stud receiving tight ends like Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez and Todd Heap.

The 4-2-5 is being phased out as the predominant subpackage in passing situations, however. Defensive coordinators, in a chess match with offensive coordinators to defend multiple wide receiver packages and spread sets, are using many types of nickel fronts. In recent seasons, we've seen nickel fronts with anywhere from one to five down linemen and many combinations of linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties as coaches look to maximize speed, versatility and coverage ability. Two variations in particular, the 3-3-5 and a variety of one and two down linemen packages, have become very popular across the league.

Defending the Spread

The spread offense isn't new to the NFL. The Run and Shoot Offenses of the Houston Oilers, Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons may have had a little more motion and been more likely to use four wide receivers than a tight end in their sets, but the philosophy was the same. Stretch the defense from sideline to sideline, move defenders out of the box, get skill players on mismatches with players of lesser coverage ability and put pressure on the gap integrity of the defenders left in the box. The stretched defense was not only prone to mismatches, but was often forced to show their hand earlier which allowed for earlier pre-snap pass reads or checks to run plays.

Though the spread usually operates out of the shotgun with four receiving options, it's not just a passing offense. Stretching the defense horizontally and moving defenders out of the box allows for more running lanes and possible big gains on the ground if one defender can't get to his gap responsibility in time. The defense must be able to defend both the run and the pass.

Use a 4-2-5 nickel formation against the spread and offenses may exploit a safety or linebacker in coverage against a slot wide receiver. A team with enough corners to play dime coverage may be exposed to the run if their safeties aren't capable run defenders alongside the single linebacker. Successfully defending the spread requires speed and versatility. In recent seasons, the solution has been the 3-3-5 nickel package.

The 3-3-5 doesn't necessarily include three defensive linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs. The package can also be played with 4-2-5 or 4-1-6 personnel. To run the package well, a team needs three down linemen with the ability to penetrate and disrupt running lanes or pressure the pocket, a combination of three rush ends, linebackers and safeties that are athletic enough to stop the run, rotate into any zone coverage or blitz effectively, and a combination of five defensive backs that can handle different types of coverage calls without giving up a big play.

To pull it off, teams look to get as many of their best athletes on the field at the same time. It's a strategy that usually works best for teams with a hybrid playbook and hybrid personnel. The alignment and group of versatile athletes can disguise coverages and blitzes until after the snap, while still having six players with size in the box to defend the run. The athletic ability and discipline to successfully run the 3-3-5 are limiting factors for most teams, but many of the league's most successful big play defenses have used it as part of their subpackages, including the Buddy Ryan Bears' defenses of the mid-1980s, who sometimes used it as a change-of-pace after bringing in a corner to replace Refrigerator Perry.

Organized Chaos

Another subpackage wrinkle gaining popularity among the league's defensive coordinators puts just one or two defensive players into a three point stance. Depending on the playbook, it's been referred to as the Creep, the Prowl or the Psycho, but it could rightfully be called Organized Chaos. Using similar personnel to the 3-3-5, this alignment puts one or two down lineman near the center, and leaves four or five defenders to jump and move around before the snap. At the snap, this formation becomes a zone blitz without defensive linemen. The intentions of the roaming defenders are well-disguised. Any of them can blitz or rotate into coverage, confusing quarterbacks trying to make pre-snap reads, set pass protection or make run checks and offensive linemen trying to call out assignments or plan blocking schemes.

Like the 3-3-5, this subpackage needs versatile, speedy and smart athletes. Despite its ability to confound blocking assignments, it's easy for a defender that's jumping around before the snap to get caught out of position on a running play. It will never be used more than a handful of snaps a game, but it's been used with success by many teams in recent seasons, including Pittsburgh, New England, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Green Bay and the New York Jets among others.


That's the last of seven installments in this series. Despite the extended discussion, I've only scratched the surface of what NFL defenses do on Sundays. I hope it was as interesting to read as it was to research and write. Enjoy the season, everybody.

IDP COMMENTARY

The term subpackage has become something a misnomer. Though this short discussion of a couple of interesting nickel fronts came at the end of this series, subpackages should be at the forefront of your mind when evaluating the prospects of a defensive player.

NFL offenses, on average, pass more than they run by a 55-45 margin. Using Doug Drinen's Data Dominator tool, teams have passed more than they run on 2nd-and-6 or longer, 3rd-and-2 or longer and 4th-and-2 or longer. Taken together, teams pass more than they run on 40% percent of all offensive downs. In recent seasons, Football Outsiders has published game charting data showing that over half of the league's offenses use three or more wide receivers at least 47% of the time. Many coaches have been quoted as saying that they use their subpackages as often as their base defense.

Why is that distinction so important? Nickel and dime subpackages aren't just third down defenses. The term "two-down linebacker," which suggests that a linebacker who doesn't play in subpackages may miss just a small handful of third down snaps each week, is very misleading. I've made this argument in years past with players like Napoleon Harris and Andra Davis, but never has it been hammered home as clearly as in the case of Curtis Lofton.

Lofton did not play in the Atlanta subpackages in 2008. Snap count data from Pro Football Focus showed how limiting that can be. Of the Falcons' 1119 defensive snaps, Lofton was on the field for just 628 of them. That's 56.1%. On average, Lofton missed 30 snaps a game. He took more than 70% of his team's snaps only three times that season. Despite the evidence to the contrary, I still see observers minimize the number of snaps a defense might play in any given week. But not only do the snap percentages argue differently, so do the hard numbers. Lofton, an every-down linebacker in 2009 who took 1010 of his team's 1059 snaps last year, increased his solo tackle count from 67 to 105. Simply put, you must know which linebackers are on the field in nickel and dime situations and temper your expectations for those who aren't significantly regardless of talent. If you need an assist, we update a thread with each team's every-down linebackers year-round in our IDP Forum.

With the advent of the interesting subpackage looks discussed above, the same concept applies to defensive linemen who rotate out in favor of situational pass rushers and nickel corners. If you can identify a matchup in which a team may use its subpackages more than usual, a situational rusher or slot corner or Big Nickel safety may become a strong matchup play off the waiver wire.

Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to bramel@footballguys.com.

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