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Colts Defense: More Playing Time For Bullitt?

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Colts Defense: More Playing Time For Bullitt?
(Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

Could Safety Melvin Bullitt be used in Nickel Situations?

In the Tony Dungy era the Indianapolis Colts' modus operandi was to always put the best players on the field, and over the years this has resulted in a number of rookies and undrafted free-agents winning starting positions, seemingly out of the blue, in training camp.  With Bob Sanders battling injuries for much of the 2008 season, another undrafted free-agent was given the chance to shine, and he took advantage.

Melvin Bullitt started nine games last season, becoming an integral part of a defensive backfield that gave up the fewest passing touchdowns ever in a 16 game NFL season.  He displayed a propensity for being around the ball, and led the team with four interceptions.  Bill Polian summed up Bullitt’s abilities last season after his week two performance against the Minnesota Vikings.

"Whenever Melvin Bullitt is in the game, he shows up.  That's all you need to know. He’s a good tackler. He's fast. He’s aggressive. He's a tuned-in guy. Very smart. A hard worker. He's everything you want in a safety."

Polian has stated that the Colts will make a concerted effort to get Bullitt more playing time, but the question remains, how can they adjust the lineup to facilitate this motive?

Most of the speculation regarding the rotation in the secondary assumes that Bullitt will see action in the Colts' dime package, and perhaps he will be used more often as a substitute to keep Bob Sanders fresher throughout the season and less at risk for injury. This strategy would definitely benefit the team, since Bob Sanders is extremely prone to missing time.  However, if the new coaching regime holds true to Dungy’s tested strategy of getting the best players in the game as much as possible, the Colts could decide to use Melvin Bullitt in the nickel package as well.

In the Tampa-2 defense that the Colts deploy, the nickel package is used almost as much as the base defense, and occasionally even more often than the base 4-3 depending on the particular game-plan.  When the roster is completely healthy, they generally slide starting corner back Marlin Jackson inside to cover the slot receiver, and use the nickel corner back to cover the outside.  Jackson played safety in college and extensively in his rookie year with the Colts, and this shift allows the bigger, more physical defensive back to play inside where he can employ his skills as a safety in run support and limited blitzing.

When Marlin Jackson was required to play safety in the past, Dungy had total confidence in him, stating "A lot of it (safety) is similar to what he does in the nickel situations, playing inside."  Since the coverage schemes between the two positions are comparable, Melvin Bullitt might be able to make the same switch, allowing the Colts to keep their best two coverage corners, Jackson and Kelvin Hayden, on the outside.

The nickel defensive back in recent seasons, Tim Jennings, was forced into the starting lineup last year and became a fan-favorite scapegoat.  His play was inconsistent, and it seemed at times that anyone could complete a 10-yard slant against the Colts’ defense any time they so desired (especially Andre Johnson).  Inserting Bullitt’s ball-hawking skills into the slot would not only allow the outside coverage remain at its best, but would also give new defensive coordinator Larry Coyer more physical nickel package with which to defend against the run.

Coyer is expected to add more blitzes into the mix next season, and perhaps using Bullitt in nickel situations would aid this tactic as well.  Since his natural position is safety, he is more comfortable playing inside than smaller corner backs. Tighter coverage on the outside would allow the Colts to take more risks with blitzes.  Although Marlin Jackson was injured for most of the 2008 season, he has been used to blitz from the nickel position in the past and registered half a sack in the 2007 season. 

In a recent interview on Colts.com, Bullitt stated that Larry Coyer was, in fact, installing some new packages. But even though it might be advantageous to use Bullitt in some nickel situations, there are many reasons not to move a player from his usual position.  Some coverage schemes are more suited for a natural cover corner to play the slot, and the importance of depth at safety and on special teams for the Colts cannot be understated. A recent article on Stampedeblue.com claimed that Bullitt was too slow to be effective at the nickel corner position.

"Bullitt is a fine player and a very under-rated safety, but he cannot run with premiere WRs, or even the Wes Welker types of this league."

However, Bullitt ran a 4.48 40-yard dash in draft workouts, just edging out Marlin Jackson's 4.49.  Since Jackson has excelled covering the slot, there’s no reason to think that Bullitt couldn't.

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