Next Big Thing: The Rise of Nickelbacks, the NFL's Most Versatile Perfomers

Mike TanierNFL National Lead WriterSeptember 28, 2016

ST. LOUIS, MO - DECEMBER 6: Tyrann Mathieu #32 of the Arizona Cardinals defends against the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome on December 6, 2015 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Michael Thomas/Getty Images)
Michael Thomas/Getty Images

The Steelers are renowned for their 3-4 defense. They have used the alignment since the early 1980s, the final days of the Steel Curtain era. The 3-4 is part of their identity, a tradition that dates back to Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd and continues through James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons today. 

So if you ask defensive coordinator Kevin Butler if the Steelers still run a 3-4 defense, he will assure you that they do. "That's what we are," he said during training camp, "26 percent of the time.

"And then, 74 percent of the time we're not. We're a 4-2-5, 4-1-6, depending on how technical you want to be."

If we are getting technical, then isn't what you are 74 percent of the time really what you are?

"The nickel's gonna be our base," Butler continued. "When they go to three wide receivers on first and second down, that's our base."

The Steelers aren't alone. Nickel is the base defense around the NFL. Talking about 3-4 and 4-3 defenses is like talking about television antennas and floppy disks.

With the rise of the nickel, the nickelback (or slot corner, nickel corner or whatever each team calls him) has become a starter, no matter what is says on the official depth chart, which was handed down from the days of Tom Landry and far more important to the press pool than the coaching staff anyway.

In fact, the nickelback is more than just a starter. He's a Swiss army knife who may tangle with the left tackle on a first-down run, cover the craftiest receiver on the field on second down and blitz on third down. "He has the hardest job," according to Bills defensive backs coach Tim McDonald.

Given the importance of the position, you would think by now that some nickelbacks would be on the path to stardom. Yet there is exactly one famous nickel defender in the entire NFL: Arizona's Tyrann Mathieu. And even the Honey Badger is officially classified as a safety, despite the fact that he has a much more obvious impact in the nickel position.

As Mathieu's fame, recognition and (after a massive offseason contract extension) wealth grow, he is becoming the standard bearer for a new breed of defender: the nickelback as playmaker, difference-maker, cornerstone of the defense and bona fide superstar.

Now all the NFL needs is 31 other defenders just like him.

   

Inside, Outside and Everywhere in Between

There was a buzz at Giants training camp the day the team signed Leon Hall in early August. Hall wasn't just a third or fourth cornerback for a team that has spent years just trying to find two good, healthy ones. He was a "slot cornerback" by reputation. A traditional starting cornerback for many years, the 31-year-old slid inside late in his Bengals career. He was signed specifically to play in the slot for the Giants.

By all accounts, he excelled in the nickelback role for the Bengals. But what, exactly, was that role?

Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, like most NFL coaches during press conferences, was not in the mood to offer strategic specifics. "He can play inside, he can play outside, he can play off, he can play back, he can play defensive tackle, he can play linebacker," Spagnuolo said.

Leon Hall excelled as the Bengals' nickelback.
Leon Hall excelled as the Bengals' nickelback.Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

Spagnuolo then chuckled; defensive tackle may have been taking things a little too far. "Nah. He's played inside, which is nice."

But Coach, what does it take for a cornerback to excel on the inside?

Spagnuolo gestured to his head. "Chin to the hairline first. You do have to be smart on the inside. It's about reading routes."

So it takes brains. But other coaches had other requirements.

"You gotta enjoy the briar patch a little bit," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "You gotta have the courage to throw your body in there against 240-pound running backs. You might have to take on a pulling guard from time to time, or a tight end."

OK, brains and brawn. What else?

"It's got to be a guy who can work side-to-side, good lateral movement," McDonald said after echoing the need to be able to think and play the run.

"Most of the time, the slot receivers are the best route-runners," Butler said. "They're a little bit quicker than they are outside; they put their pure speed guys outside. And sometimes, they'll move their No. 1 receiver inside to get one-on-one matchups." In other words, the slot corner not only faces a different kind of receiver than the traditional corner, but often a better one.

Wait, Spagnuolo wasn't finished. "We bring that guy in pressure," he said. "We send him back deep. We do a lot of things with those guys."

In summary, the nickelback must be able to tackle, take on offensive linemen, read routes, move laterally, cover quick receivers, cover elite receivers, cover in short areas, cover deep and rush the passer. Anything else? Kick field goals? Cook omelets?

"Those guys are hard to find," McDonald said. Can't imagine why.

"Some guys can play both [outside cornerback and nickelback], some guys can't," Schwartz said.

Hall is one of the guys who can play both. He moved back and forth from cornerback to nickelback in college, which is unusual; most top recruits and prospects at cornerback either match up with the opponent's top receiver or lock down one side of the field. "It started early on for me," Hall said. "Being able to do both, then transitioning into the NFL and doing the same thing was a natural transition."

Despite his college experience, Hall still faced a major adjustment when running backs began to charge in his direction: "Early in my career, I didn't really think about the run game. I just reacted to it. As opposed to now, I see guards and centers, tackles and quarterbacks doing certain things and I pick up on it."

Hall has been the Giants' fourth cornerback early in the season; the team has enjoyed an unusual period of good health. But even fourth cornerbacks see lots of action. Hall played 41 snaps in Week 2 against the Saints according to Pro Football Focus, almost exclusively in the slot. He held his receivers to just 15 yards, recorded a sack and was a factor in run support. He started and played 46 snaps against Washington in Week 3, with two tackles and a pass defensed. These are typical slot-corner stat lines: not eye-popping, but critical to the success of the defense.

When we think about nickelbacks, we don't think much about run support. After all, nickelbacks are often cornerbacks like Hall, and cornerbacks are expected to cover receivers first and worry about the run as an afterthought, right?

Wrong. Not all nickelbacks are cornerbacks. And the position's origins are much rougher and tougher than you might think.

   

Children of Sam

Football was a simpler game back in the late 20th century. Offenses lined up on first and second down with a halfback, a fullback, two wide receivers and a tight end. "Everyone was trying to pound, pound, pound, then throw the ball down the field," McDonald recalled.

The defense countered with its set of base personnel and simple tactics. There were two cornerbacks to cover the two receivers, of course. At safety, "we always had the banger type and the Earl Thomas type," McDonald said. "This guy's the box safety, that guy's the free safety."

 

24 Nov 1996: Safety Tim McDonald #46 of the San Francisco 49ers tries to pull down Washington Redskins tight end #84 Jamie Asher during the second quarter at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

McDonald was a strong safety, a "box" banger, and a great one: a six-time Pro Bowler for the Cardinals and 49ers in the late 1980s and 1990s. There were nickelbacks in McDonald's heyday, but they were usually backup cornerbacks who entered the game on 3rd-and-long or for two-minute drills, perhaps getting a start against opponents experimenting with the run 'n' shoot offense.

When the nickelback entered the game, he usually replaced the strong-side linebacker, or "Sam" linebacker. The Sam was an important person in 20th-century football. He took on fullbacks and tight ends in the running game. He covered them when they ran short pass routes. He blitzed frequently. In the era of pound, pound, pound, the Sam was a defensive tone-setter.

But defenses have changed a lot since McDonald's playing days. "I don't know what caused it," he said. "All I know is now I see receivers all over the damn field. And we have to match those guys up with DBs."

As offenses became more pass-oriented, fullbacks became an endangered species. Tight ends shed some of their run-blocking responsibilities, detached from the offensive line and drifted toward the slot. The Sam went from leaving the field on 3rd-and-long to leaving the field on 1st-and-10 to only even getting on the field when the offense did something exotic, like line up in the I formation. The nickelback became the starter in all but name.

Most Common Defensive Personnel Groups, 2015
Defensive GroupPercentage of Snaps
4-2-526.4%
3-4-417.5%
4-3-415.2%
3-3-513.9%
2-4-510.4%
3-2-64.6%
2-3-64.4%
Five DBs51.4%
Four DBs33.3%
Six DBs13.7%
Football Outsiders Game Charting Project

The table shows just how pronounced the shift toward full-time nickel defense has become. Teams use five or six defensive backs on two-thirds of all snaps, according to Football Outsiders. The closest thing to a real "base defense" in the NFL is the 4-2-5 that Butler's Steelers now use more often than their traditional 3-4.

So the nickelback has replaced the Sam linebacker. Though judging from the terminology coaches use, the nickelback really became the Sam linebacker.

"He's like a small linebacker," Butler said.

"He's really a Sam linebacker that can cover," described McDonald.

"You have to have some miniature linebacker in you," Schwartz added.

That "linebacker" element of the nickelback's job description is often overlooked. We're still stuck in the 20th century, thinking the nickelback only runs onto the field on 3rd-and-15 to lock down some 5'9" "Smurf" receiver. In fact, five or more defensive backs were on the field for 5,901 rushing plays last year, an average of 11.5 runs per team per game. (Stats courtesy Football Outsiders; quarterback scrambles not counted as running plays.) A nickelback who doesn't have a little Sam linebacker in him will get steamrolled a dozen times per game and then replaced on the roster by someone better suited for the job.

The nickelback position is so challenging and complex that only Mathieu, the $60 million safety, appears to be custom-tailored to fill it.

But Mathieu is not really alone. There are other great nickelbacks in the NFL, though they are still labeled as safeties or cornerbacks. And coaches are working to find and identify others, even if they have to beat the draft bushes and platoon two or three players until they find the ideal mini-Sam linebacker for their needs.

   

Making a Nickelback

Sean Davis played safety for three years at the University of Maryland. As a senior, the 6'1" defender moved outside to cornerback. He had to do extra homework to learn the new position on the fly. "I studied hard at safety," Davis said. "Then when I moved to corner, I put all of my studying into corner. I'm used to studying both."

When asked which position was most difficult to learn, the Steelers' second-round pick did not hesitate for an instant. "The nickel," he said.

At cornerback, Davis could concentrate on a single receiver or a specific patch of zone defense. At safety, the play developed in front of him, giving him a split second to react and adjust.

PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 12:  Sean Davis #28 of the Pittsburgh Steelers in action during the game against the Detroit Lions on August 12, 2016 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

But at nickelback, decision-making begins as soon as the offense begins to line up: "I'm worried about the line. I'm worried about the splits, down and distance, the formation, my alignment, where my help is. I'm thinking about a lot of stuff pre-snap.

"It's just so much space. You have a lot to do."

Davis said that teams often spoke to him about playing nickelback during the predraft process. "That question came up a lot," he said. "If I were anywhere else, I would probably be doing the same thing."

Yet predraft scouting reports rarely made the connection between Davis and his potential nickel role. NFL.com pointed to the mistakes he made at cornerback in his senior year and stated that "Davis is an eventual starter at safety and a big backup at cornerback." CBS proclaimed him "another cornerback/safety hybrid" with "some 'tweener traits as an athlete."

Even the first official Steelers depth chart of training camp listed Davis simply as the third-string strong safety. A few days after that depth chart was released, "third-string safety" Davis was covering Anquan Boldin in the slot on the first series of the Steelers' preseason opener.

Davis is still listed as a backup safety on the Steelers depth chart. According to Pro Football Focus, he played 170 of the Steelers' 207 defensive snaps in the first three games. He also struggled, missing seven tackles and giving up 12 receptions. Rookie starters at difficult positions will take their lumps.

With the exception of Mathieu, nickelbacks tend to hide in plain sight, whether they are novices like Davis or Pro Bowl veterans. That's because nickelbacks, like receivers, running backs or football players at any position, come in a variety of flavors. "There are a bunch of different types of slot corners," Giants coach Ben McAdoo explained. "It depends if they're a coverage player or a run player who can play on early downs."

 

CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 22:  Chris Harris #25 of the Denver Broncos tackles  Josh Bellamy #11 of the Chicago Bears in the second quarter at Soldier Field on November 22, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

When Bleacher Report Lead Scout Doug Farrar lists the NFL's best slot defenders, there are some surprising names at the top. Few fans think of Broncos Pro Bowl cornerback Chris Harris as a nickelback, for example, but he slides into the position constantly when the Broncos use five defensive backs. "He's truly special in Denver's sub-package defense," Farrar wrote, "where he can use his aggression, spatial awareness and route anticipation skills to shut down everyone he faces."

Malcolm Jenkins, the Eagles' Pro Bowl safety, also makes Farrar's short list of top nickel defenders, as does Patriots safety Patrick Chung. Jenkins and Chung are more like quick-footed run defenders who cover short routes than Harris. They might play the nickel on first down and then return to safety and give the position to a speedier cornerback on third down.

The fact that players like Harris and Jenkins slide to the slot, abandoning their safety or outside cornerback roles to less accomplished defenders, shows just how important the nickelback position really is. They may spend more than half of the offensive snaps in a game as nickelbacks, but convention dictates that they are listed at their old-fashioned positions.

Teams whose nickelbacks don't moonlight at a traditional position may platoon two or more defenders in the role. The Bills employ a coverage-style nickel cornerback with the almost-too-appropriate name of Nickell Robey-Coleman. But others may rotate into the position, depending on the situation. "We've been successful with Robey," McDonald explained. "He's done a great job, but we sometimes have packages where we bring in a different guy.

Nickell Robey-Coleman plays the nickel for the Bills, who often slot different players into the role.
Nickell Robey-Coleman plays the nickel for the Bills, who often slot different players into the role.Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

"Who do they have in the slot?" McDonald continued. "Who are they featuring? If they are featuring someone who is long, we're going to make some adjustments."

One opponent might feature a crafty veteran receiver (Boldin, Victor Cruz) in the slot, and a veteran like Hall might be the ideal counter-measure. The next opponent might place a speedy little youngster in the slot. In that case, Robey's the man. Some opponents use big tight ends as slot receivers or like to spread the field and run. A big guy with safety experience like Jenkins or Davis would then be the best fit.

And heaven forbid you play the Patriots, who could feature Rob Gronkowski or Julian Edelman in the slot as Tom Brady repositions them at the line based on who is covering whom. Or the Panthers, who could use a tiny slot receiver to get your "coverage" nickelback in the game and then send Cam Newton thundering straight at him on a read-option. No wonder so many teams want a Pro Bowler at nickelback instead of a role player.

Some teams are even trying to solve their tiny Sam linebacker problem by drafting…tiny Sam linebackers. The Panthers drafted 220-pound Shaq Thompson last year despite his "man without a position" label. This season, Thompson is playing a suspiciously nickelback-like role. The Redskins drafted USC all-purpose linebacker Su'a Cravens in the second round, slapped uniform number 36 on his back and began giving him nickel-like tasks almost immediately.

The Cardinals not only use Mathieu (officially a safety) as their nickel corner but 215-pound Deone Bucannon as a "money linebacker," a position much like the old "banger" safeties of McDonald's day. They also added Tyvon Branch in the offseason to essentially give them a second Mathieu; early in the 2016 season, Branch has played the slot more often than the player who popularized the position.

Young defenders are also starting to think of themselves as slot corners, emulating Mathieu and embracing both the uniqueness and difficulty of their position. When asked whether he would like to have a Mathieu-type career as a safety-corner-nickel jack-of-all-trades, Davis smiled widely. "Most definitely," he said.

Who wouldn't want that recognition? And that money?

   

Nickelback Superstar

Sixty years ago, a "defensive center" for the Chicago Bears named Bill George began lining up a few yards back from the line of scrimmage to better read the offense and defend short passes. George became the first middle linebacker, the granddaddy of Mike Singletary, Ray Lewis, Luke Kuechly and several generations of other celebrated defensive legends.

Bears defensive lineman Bill George, the Tyrann Mathieu of his day.
Bears defensive lineman Bill George, the Tyrann Mathieu of his day.Associated Press

Mathieu may be the next George. He may not have invented the nickel corner position, but he is defining and popularizing it. In a decade or so, we will see players named to the Pro Bowl as nickelbacks, franchise-tagged as nickelbacks or scouted as nickelback prospects for the draft. The Sam linebacker will go the way of the defensive center.

The big question isn't when that will happen. It's why it hasn't already happened. Why do draft analysts still talk about cornerback-safety 'tweeners with no NFL position? Why do fans assume that any backup cornerback can slide over to nickelback and play 55 snaps per week? Why did everyone react to Mathieu's contract by saying, "Gosh, that's a lot of money for a safety?" Why don't most depth charts even recognize nickelbacks?

The term itself may be part of the problem. We've been conditioned for 30 years to think of a backup (or a lame Canadian rock band) whenever we hear the term. It even sounds a little cheap. "Moneyback," "Rover," or some other term (maybe "Badger") could help the brand a bit. But NFL coaches aren't in the branding business.

What nickelbacks really needed was a Mathieu: a breakout superstar, someone who could make Pop Warner stars and 5-star recruits want to play in the slot. Soon, young players and fans alike will recognize nickelback as not just an important position, but also a glamorous one. The best get interceptions, sacks, tackles in the backfield and a cool nickname!

Until youngsters like Davis or Cravens turn the concept of a superstar nickelback from a one-man anomaly into a trend, those mini-Sam linebackers must continue to play the hardest, least understood and thankless role on the defense.

But recognition will come soon. George turned the 5-2 defense into the 4-3, and there was no looking back. An entire wave of young defenders is about to finally make us love the 4-2-5 defense and the unique players who make it work.

   

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @MikeTanier.