Examining the Patriots' Base Nickel Defense
This offseason we counted the continuity on the New England Patriots' defense as a strength that would help them improve, especially for their pass defense which has ranked 28th and 23rd in Football Outsiders' DVOA rankings the last two seasons.
Sunday's game against the Bills was proof of how much the Patriots valued that continuity, as their defense was nearly the same one they finished the 2012 season with, with the exception of Tommy Kelly, and they stuck with that personnel throughout the entire game.
The Pats have played with at least one extra defensive back for the majority of snaps for the last three seasons, leading us to believe that the nickel defense is the new base. The game against the Bills was an extreme example, with the team playing almost entirely in their nickel defense.
#Patriots also played their Nickel D for all but two snaps. Talib, Arrington played all 63, Dennard played 61— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) September 9, 2013
Let's take a closer look at what New England did on defense and where they can look to improve in the coming weeks.
Here we have the nickel defense the Patriots played the majority of the game in. Other than Joe Vellano subbing in at defensive tackle and a rotation between Dont'a Hightower and Brandon Spikes at linebacker, there were no significant changes over the course of the game.
This is a far cry from just a few seasons ago, when the Pats defense was highly-specialized and required wholesale substitutions depending on the situation. This is undoubtedly reflective of the Pats' preparation to face the no-huddle offenses that are growing in popularity around the league.
In a defense that requires constant communication and pre-snap checks, having a core unit with a lot of experience together is a huge plus.
The Pats won't play this much nickel defense in every game, but it certainly seems like they'll be comfortable when they have to.
This second nickel package was the only other significant one the Patriots ran against the Bills, and the changes were subtle, only to add a little more pass rush by shifting Chandler Jones inside for Tommy Kelly and bringing rookie Michael Buchanan on as a designated outside pass-rusher.
We had wondered if Jamie Collins (two defensive snaps) would be utilized in pass coverage, or who the dime linebacker would be, but neither were significant elements of this game plan.
The Patriots will mix and match their defensive packages each week, but it will be interesting to see if Jones continues in this interior rusher role and if Buchanan is able to progress into a solid NFL pass-rusher. Expect second-year player Jake Bequette to get a shot as an edge rusher as well, while Armond Armstead could contribute inside once he returns to the active list.
The Patriots defense is generally a conservative one, content to read and react and wait for the opposition to make mistakes instead of sending complex and risky blitzes. This was one time they did send a blitz, albeit only five rushers, at a critical point in the game.
Trailing by one point in the fourth quarter on a 3rd-and-2, the Pats sent Dont'a Hightower along with their usual four rushers. Hightower caused just enough disruption to make the catch a little more difficult for Stevie Johnson (who had pushed off Kyle Arrington, though there was no call).
Hightower and Jamie Collins are both versatile players who showed promise as blitzers in preseason and could be worked more creatively into the pass-rush packages. Still, the core of the Patriots defense that returned intact from 2012 are the ones who will need to supply the pressure.
In a perfect world, the Pats could get pressure with just four rushers, allowing them to consistently drop seven defenders into coverage. That's what all NFL defenses aspire to, but those who can actually pull it off are rare.
As always, the Pats defense will get more complex as the season progresses, but their success running a majority of man-to-man coverage and lack of any 20-plus passing plays allowed against the Bills already show progress from last season.
As Jamie Collins, Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan get more experience they'll allow defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to expand on his personnel packages.
Things look simple now, but this is just the beginning.
Mike Dussault is a Patriots Featured Columnist and also writes and edits PatsPropaganda.com.
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