In the 2011-12 NFL season, the New York Giants won the Super Bowl thanks to their defense. In particular, defensive coordinator Perry Fewell relied on the team's nickel package to defend opposing receivers while still getting pressure in the backfield. In order to be successful this season, the Giants will have to lean on their nickel defense yet again.
Put simply, the nickel defense uses a fifth defensive back, known as a nickel back, instead of the usual four that are seen in base defenses. In the case of New York's standard 4-3 defense, this means substituting out a linebacker, creating a 4-2-5 formation.
Why is this formation so important? As Bleacher Report's James Dudko points out, the nickel package has become the go-to formation for NFL defenses. It's versatile enough to defend against the pass-heavy offenses that have become the league norm while also being able to combat wacky formations and plays, such as the Wildcat or read-option.
Speaking of versatility, the Giants' ability to mix up coverages and confuse quarterbacks out of the nickel is a driving force behind the formation's success.
At the 10:39 mark of this video you can see the Giants lined up in the nickel against the Green Bay Packers. Corey Webster (No. 23) is lined up on the outside receiver while Antrel Rolle (26) is on the slot receiver, Randall Cobb (18). Aaron Rodgers thinks he has Cobb open on a short curl route, but Cobb turns toward the outside, where Webster is coming in to help. Webster is able to jump the pass and pick it off.
As it often does with this Giants defense, the success will be driven by the line's ability to get into the backfield. When they can pressure the quarterback, it gives the secondary chances to make plays.
At the 2:17 mark, you can see the Giants' nickel defense lined up against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The defensive tackles, Marvin Austin (96) and Linval Joseph (97), are able to pressure Josh Freeman up the middle, forcing him backward. Under duress, Freeman fires the ball into a crowd of two receivers and four defenders and Corey Webster is able to pick off the overthrown pass.
Even though there are only two linebackers on the field in this formation, they make their fair share of plays as well.
At the 8:50 mark, you can see how linebacker Keith Rivers (55) quickly recognizes the draw play by the Dallas Cowboys. He engages with center Ryan Cook, driving him back into the ball carrier, Felix Jones (21). Jones has nowhere to go and is stripped by Mathias Kiwanuka (94), allowing Stevie Brown (27) to grab the loose ball.
However, when the the line is unable to pressure the quarterback quickly, the secondary must remain disciplined and cover the wide receivers. If they don't, it results in a quarterback who has loads of time to find wide-open targets, which is never a good situation for the defense.
Here you can see a good example of that. The Giants have Rolle (26) lined up against slot receiver Harry Douglas, but Rolle rushes in to blitz Matt Ryan. The Falcons pick up the blitz, though, and after Ryan gets both Stevie Brown (27) and Jayron Hosley (28) to bite on a pump fake to the flat, he hits a wide-open Douglas on a wheel route down the sideline for a 37-yard gain.
Douglas burned the Giants a few times that day, catching three passes for 83 yards. In fact, stopping opponent's secondary passing options was a problem for the Giants in 2012. According to Football Outsiders, they ranked 26th in defense against "other wide receivers," which is simply any wideout other than a team's top two. This is important because offensive formations that bring in other wide receivers often necessitate packages like the nickel.
Having the right personnel in the nickel will be key for the Giants. Linebacker is arguably their biggest weakness on defense, which would only further encourage Fewell to use the nickel defense. However, as Dudko mentioned in his article on the nickel defense, the Giants like to use a "big nickel" in which they substitute out a linebacker for a third safety rather than a third cornerback.
Although Rolle wasn't guarding Douglas in the play shown above, according to Pro Football Focus' Neil Hornsby, he had a tough time staying with him that game. That's a problem for a guy the Giants liked to bring in for their big nickel package. Hornsby pointed out that Rolle had played half of his snaps as a slot corner despite lacking the skills to cover opposing receivers.
Finding a better option in the slot is a must for the Giants this season. Terrell Thomas, who is finally getting healthy after multiple ACL tears, and Ryan Mundy, who is coming over from Pittsburgh, are both possibilities. If someone emerges as a more well-rounded option in the slot, and the defensive line pressures quarterbacks with some regularity, the Giants' nickel package will be lethal in 2013.