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Summer of Spags: linebacker and defensive line trends and tendencies in the nickel

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As the Summer of Spags continues, let’s examine how the front is deployed in the nickel defense.

New York Giants v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

As the Summer of Spags rolls on, we take another look at Steve Spagnuolo’s defensive scheme from his most recent stop in New York.

As the NFL has continued to evolve, space and speed have become more important. So there is now an emphasis on lighter personnel on both sides of the ball. The most obvious change this has brought has been a heavier emphasis on defensive alignments utilizing five defensive backs — also known as the nickel defense.

Last week, we examined the tendencies, alignments and roles of the defensive front in the base 4-3 defense. This time, we move on to the defensive front in the nickel, which was the most prominent defensive variant Spagnuolo fielded during his time with the Giants.

Craig Stout will continue to focus on the secondary while I examine the alignments, roles and trends of the defensive front in the nickel personnel.

Let’s get started!

The nickel defense

Use: The nickel defense is the most commonly used personnel package for a Spagnuolo defense. It is used in all kinds of situations. The most common offensive personnel grouping in the NFL is 11 personnel (a single running back and single tight end with three wide receivers) and on most downs, the nickel is Spagnuolo’s go-to defense against it.

Some exceptions exist, but most 11 (or lighter) offensive personnel groupings will see the nickel defense lined up against it. Heavier offensive personnel groupings (like 12 or 21) will also see the nickel in second-and-long or third-and-medium situations.

Because it is the most commonly-used subpackage in Spagnuolo’s defense, essentially the nickel is the base defense. Adjustments to the personnel grouping are made based on down, distance, and offensive trends.

When not facing passing downs — that is, on first-and-10 or more, second-and-7 or more or third-and-4 or more — the offense has the most play-calling flexibility against the nickel. Using 11 personnel only adds to that versatility, providing potential mismatches in the run and pass — making the personnel requirements for the nickel the most stringent in the NFL.

Personnel: On early downs, the defensive line rotation in the nickel is similar to the rotation in the base 4-3 defense. There are two defensive ends that play the majority of the snaps and two defensive tackles that have to play as both three-technique (lined up on an offensive guard’s outside shoulder) and one-technique (lined up on the center’s shoulder). The defensive tackles will undergo rotation to help keep their legs fresh, but otherwise, the same players are used.

Even more so than in the base defense, the need for versatile, complete defensive linemen in the nickel is high, as they’re used against both the run and pass against balanced offenses. On passing downs, the rotations get more creative. Spagnuolo will use three or four defensive ends across the line — or even the SAM linebacker with his hand in the dirt — in a sort of NASCAR package.

But the linebacker group is where most personnel change occurs in the nickel. When going to the nickel, Spagnuolo will keep his WILL from the base defense on the field, but they will become the MIKE in the nickel. The base MIKE and SAM leave the field to be replaced by a fifth defensive back and a more athletic coverage linebacker to play WILL in the nickel.

While both linebackers will be asked to play similar roles against the run, the MIKE is asked to play more interior run gaps, while the WILL will be in better position to scrape and pursue runners.

Alignment: The defense’s alignment in the nickel is less structured than it is in the base defense because of the balance the offense can bring and the amount of space they can utilize.

The defensive line’s over/under shift will still occur. While this will often be based on the strength of the offensive formation, the shift can be influenced by the running back’s alignment, the field position or the opponent’s general run tendencies. There is much more consistency to be found in the alignment of the linebackers than the defensive linemen.

Linebacker alignment

On the near side — in the green box — is the nickel defensive back (nickelback) who will always align with the third wide receiver. The MIKE will be the nearest linebacker to the nickelback, and the WILL the furthest linebacker from the nickel.

This is because the coverage ability of the WILL surpasses that of the MIKE, so positioning him opposite the nickelback provides better coverage players at both apex/overhang positions. Often the strong safety will align to the same side as the tight end — whether that is away from or with the nickel defensive back.

In the box, there is also a relatively balanced alignment along the defensive line, but the linebackers are both shifted to the weak side of the offense. Given the running back is lined up on the strong side of the formation but the wide side of the field is on the weak side of the formation, the linebackers are shifted to the weak side to help contain wide runs across the formation. Additionally, the strong safety is acting as a box defender to the strength of the formation to allow a more aggressive linebacker shift.

Pass rush alignment

Here is a pure passing down — third-and-long — where the Giants kept their nickel defense on the field. On the left image, the basic coverage principles are drawn up. Note the bottom red line — which is the WILL — and the top red line is the nickel back.

The two have very similar coverage roles in most defenses. On the right image, the defensive line is balanced with two three-technique and two seven-technique defensive ends, putting players in better pass rush lanes. One of the three-techniques is Devon Kennard — the SAM in the base 4-3 defense — subbing in as a situational pass rusher.

Nickel defense in action

Defending the run with six box defenders against six blockers — and two potential ball carriers — isn’t always the easiest task for a defensive front. One of the ways Spagnuolo makes it easier is by using full line slants with the direction of the run.

Having the front-side defensive tackle try to spill the run outside while the defensive end is forcing the run back inside creates a log jam for the offense. On the back side, the defensive tackle is crashing through his blocker into the next gap while the defensive end is shooting down the entire line of scrimmage in pursuit. The back-side linebacker — in this case, the WILL — takes the outside gap vacated by the defensive end in case of a cut back. Even though the MIKE identify the play, the run is stopped quickly.

On this inside zone run, the linebackers are both asked to play pivotal roles in defending the run to either side. The WILL on the left reads the defensive end crashing down and now has to replace him as the force player on the edge — making sure to keep his outside shoulder free. The MIKE has an interior gap responsibility — and while assisted by the center tripping — does a good job filling his gap correctly.

To properly spill the run, a linebacker must fill the inside of their gap, forcing the run further outside and not allowing an upfield cut. The MIKE does a good job squeezing down to the nose tackle before pursuing the ball carrier.

Without getting in too deeply into the coverage, this play shows a prime example of the coverage requirements asked of the WILL.

Lined up in the middle of the formation, the WILL has the second vertical route to the strong side of the formation, meaning he has to quickly drop to depth and line up his man to prevent an easy gain.

Natural fluidity in coverage and athleticism to cover ground — like on this out route — is a must from the WILL in the nickel defense.

This play is showing some of Spagnuolo’s creativity on passing downs.

He starts it off by using his 4-3 SAM as a defensive tackle. The defensive line is overloaded to one side of the offense, which puts a ton of pressure on the right side of the offensive line. One defensive tackle drops off into a spy role, but the damage was done as the guard is a step late to help the tackle with an inside rush move.

On the opposite side of the formation, the WILL lines up on the line of scrimmage with the tight end — but once the tight end sets to block, he comes on a blitz that occupies the running back.

The creativity continues with to Spagnuolo’s blitz packages, which will get their own article in the coming weeks.

Here, Spagnuolo has eight players showing potential pressure before two of them drop out into coverage — attempting to force a quick throw. If not for a slow break by the cornerback, this play would have been executed very well. The strong safety blitz on the twist with the defensive end results in quick pressure because the WILL on the blitz took on the would-be blocker.

Moving forward

The nickel defense has plenty of similarities to the base 4-3 defense. It just places a higher emphasis on coverage rather than defending the run. Many of the same principles and rules affect both personnel groupings, but they also have their own specific trends. The nickel allows more creativity in both the coverage and pass rush packages.

My next installment in the Summer of Spags series will focus on the dime defense on long passing downs. Then the series will turn to specific traits and skills for players.