The Nickel Front: Breaking Down the Modern NFL's Go-To Defense

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistJune 21, 2013

Oct 14, 2012; San Francisco, CA, USA; New York Giants safety Antrel Rolle (26) heads up field on an interception return in the third quarter against the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park.  Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The nickel has become the go-to defense in the modern, pass-happy NFL. The ability to put multiple defensive backs on the field to counter spread-style offenses has become essential for defensive coordinators.

The nickel is offering coordinators greater flexibility to create baffling coverage combinations and varied pressure schemes. New Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine described the growing importance of the nickel front in an interview with The Buffalo News:

The way the league is trending with the spread offenses, you're in nickel defense, you're in sub defense more than you are in base anyway. I think it's getting to the point where your third-down defense is almost your base. We'll be as multiple in third down as we are in early downs. Offenses are too good to sit in one front and be categorized as a 3-4 or 4-3.

This trend in defensive thinking has led to the expansion of traditional nickel concepts. The common nickel most think of is the 4-2-5 front.

Yet different versions of five-defensive back packages are becoming favored around the NFL. Looking at four of the most common nickel fronts, let's begin with a tweak on the old format.

The 4-2-5, three-safety look has become very common. The New York Giants won a Super Bowl with it in 2011 and still used it last season.

Having a trio of safeties on the field gives Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell a variety of blitz and coverage possibilities. A play in Big Blue's 26-3 thumping of the San Francisco 49ers from Week 6 of the 2012 season shows how effective the three-safety look can be.

The Giants are in their 4-2-5 base nickel look. Their two linebackers are positioned on the line of scrimmage, shown in yellow.

The three safeties are highlighted in blue. They will each play a key role in the coverage scheme, while the linebackers will help create additional pressure.

Once the ball is snapped, the Giants will adopt a Cover 1 shell. They will play strict man coverage underneath, with a deep safety hovering over the top, shown in yellow.

The roaming, deep safety, in this case Antrel Rolle, is the key player. He is positioned to read the quarterback and jump on any routes.

What allows the coverage to work is the extra pressure created by a fifth rusher. The Giants blitz one of their two nickel linebackers off the edge and use the other in coverage.

The 49ers send running back Frank Gore (21) out into the flat. The linebacker showing blitz on Gore's side peels off and picks up the back in man coverage.

With five rushers crushing the pocket, quarterback Alex Smith does not see Role closing in on the slant route. He throws straight to the safety, who makes a clutch interception.

This defense is often referred to as the "Big Nickel." It was perfected by the late, great Fritz Shurmur. Thanks to his mercurial brain, the Big Nickel became a front that could stifle a running game and outwit quarterbacks.

As Jene Bramel, writing for The New York Times' N.F.L. Blog, The Fifth Down, pointed out:

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, another defensive guru, Fritz Shurmur, devised the “Big Nickel” (a k a “Wolverine”) 4-2-5 defense. Shurmur used the scheme to great success against the juggernaut 49ers, but often used it as a base defense in later years when his linebackers were beset by injury. The Big Nickel allowed Shurmur to get an extra safety-linebacker hybrid into the lineup. Depending on his personnel, he could cover and pass-rush with the secondary personnel, but still support the run, all while disguising which coverage his defense would play.

Shurmur used the scheme to help the Packers win a Super Bowl in 1996. The Big Nickel challenges an offense to identify the potential roles of all three safeties.

Swapping a nickelback for a safety keeps this five-defensive back front strong against the run. Any one of the safeties could be used to outnumber a receiver in coverage or supplement the blitz.

One version of the nickel that is overtaking the 4-2-5 is the 2-4-5 alignment. More than a mere semantic distinction, this version of the nickel has its own characteristics. The rise of the 3-4 defense and the proliferation of athletic, hybrid edge-rushers has made this defense popular. The best practitioners of it are the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Essentially, legendary defensive guru Dick LeBeau swaps out one of his hulking, 2-gap linemen for a nickelback. The Steelers run most of their zone-blitz pressures from this look. LeBeau is very creative with how he aligns his 2-4-5 personnel. He takes advantage of having extra linebackers on the field. The video below is an excellent example:

Notice how LeBeau uses inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons (94) as one of his outside rushers. He also positions James Harrison (92), at the time his best edge-rusher, on the inside. Harrison drops into coverage over the tight end at the snap. LeBeau uses the 2-4-5 to challenge the expectations of an offense by having his players execute different assignments from unfamiliar positions.

A play from Week 9 of the 2012 season against the Giants shows how LeBeau varies his 2-4-5 looks. Pre-snap, he has one of his defensive linemen, Brett Keisel (99), standing up.

Keisel will execute a stunt with fellow lineman Ziggy Hood once the ball is snapped. Notice also how Le Beau positions both inside linebackers, Timmons and Larry Foote (50), on the edge on the same side. They will a run a twist off the edge. It is designed to attack tight end Martellus Bennett and running back Ahmad Bradshaw in pass-protection:

On the play shown in the video, the Steelers sent only five rushers. This time they blitz six and take two potential receivers out of the play. Their five-man coverage shell then perfectly brackets New York's three wide receivers:

Quarterback Eli Manning has nowhere to aim. His three receivers are clamped in single coverage and two safeties are hovering over the top.

With Bradshaw distracted by rush end LaMarr Woodley (56), Timmons blitzes free through the gap. The Steelers fooled and outnumbered the Giants' protection, and Timmons sacked Manning for a big loss:

All 3-4 teams use some version of the 2-4-5. The presence of more athletic rushers opens up a plethora of blitz and coverage possibilities, particularly for the creative coordinator.

LeBeau is not the only one who knows how to baffle offenses by using his personnel in unusual ways. The Denver Broncos have become expert at using another version of the nickel, the 3-3-5. It is a five-defensive back scheme built for bringing pressure. Broncos defensive boss Jack Del Rio has used the front to move around playmakers like Von Miller and create havoc for offenses.

A play from Denver's demolition of the Carolina Panthers in Week 10 of the 2012 season is a perfect example of the Broncos' 3-3-5 in action.

Pre-snap, the Broncos spread their three linebackers out. The presence of Von Miller (58) is key. He is Denver's premier pass-rush threat. Yet he is aligned in the middle, covered by a nose tackle.

The Broncos use two pass-rushing defensive ends on the line. They align them in the guard-tackle gaps, giving them a simple path of attack to the quarterback.

The Broncos will blitz both outside linebackers. This will target Carolina's running backs in pass protection. That is a matchup win for any defense:

Miller will take a shallow drop and stay in middle coverage. He will spy dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton. Del Rio is using his best athlete to confuse Carolina's blocking scheme and cover Newton's threat as a runner.

Once the ball is snapped, the outside linebackers collapse both edges. The center has nobody to block, but remains wary of Miller:

Up against a slower guard, speedy defensive end Robert Ayers (91) wins on the inside. He breaks through to sack Newton for a 12-yard loss.

With both running backs initially staying in to block, the Broncos have a five-on-three advantage in coverage. They play Cover 1 with man coverage underneath and a deep safety over the top:

Another safety drops down just to the side of Miller, shown in blue. He is reacting to a release from one of the running backs.

Denver have used their 3-3-5 to baffle the Panthers. They have beaten seven blockers with only five rushers and have an advantage in coverage, thanks largely to the unexpected role taken by Miller.

That is what good nickel coordinators can do. By moving players into new roles, they can stymie the intentions of an offense.

Nobody knows the value of football's ultimate mix-and-match defense as well as the Green Bay Packers and defensive coordinator Dom Capers. He has had a lot of success with a version of nickel known as "psycho." It is a 1-5-5 package, but those middle five might not always be all linebackers.

This play from Green Bay's emphatic Week 6 win over the Houston Texans shows how Capers eccentrically mixes his personnel to make the psycho front work.

Pre-snap, the Packers only have one defensive lineman. He is shaded into the A-gap, to the side of the center:

The five linebackers are shown in blue. It is the two away from the single lineman who are most interesting.

The nearest is Clay Matthews, a stellar outside pass-rusher, who is now positioned to blitz the interior. Away from Matthews is Charles Woodson. The veteran hybrid corner/safety is now lining up as an outside linebacker:

The Packers will rush only three of their linebackers, including Woodson. They will also blitz a defensive back off the edge on Woodson's side of the formation. Once the ball is snapped, Matthews quickly breaks through the line, while the single defensive lineman draws a double team:

The blitzing corner comes free off the edge, and Houston quarterback Matt Schaub is sent scrambling.

What really makes this play unique is the design of the Packers' coverage. Their two inside linebackers will cover star wide receiver Andre Johnson (80):

Linebackers against a dominant wideout should be a nightmare scenario for any defense. But the Packers risk it because they are using them for double coverage. They are also gambling on their pressure getting to Schaub first.

Once the play develops, the Packers risky coverage concept works. Johnson is bracketed along with the rest of Schaub's receivers and he is forced to throw it away:

The psycho look surprises offenses by putting square pegs in round holes and still making it work. Any player could rush from any angle, and any player could be used to cover even an opponent's most dangerous weapons.

That is the essence of the nickel defense. Its rise has challenged defenders to be more versatile.

Linemen must be skilled enough to play multiple techniques. A quick interior rusher must also be strong enough to play over the center in a 3-3-5 or psycho look. Cornerbacks must be good blitzers and possess strong tackling skills. Linebackers have to be adept enough to help in coverage against some of the NFL's premier pass-catchers.

Mark Kiszla of The Denver Post highlighted what the nickel has done to the status of traditional defensive positions:

In the NFL, the middle linebacker is no longer worth a nickel.

For 50 years, middle linebackers were the most feared creatures in pro football. Of course, dinosaurs once ruled the earth. And how did that turn out for the Tyrannosaurus rex?

Now you know why Broncos cornerback Chris Harris, who doesn't stand 6 feet tall and proudly reports he finally tips the scale at 200 pounds, is a bigger man in this league than Manti Te'o, the 6-foot-2, 255-pound linebacker for the San Diego Chargers.

The nickel is a devilish box of tricks, and no credible defensive coordinator can survive without mastering the dark arts of modern football's go-to defense.

All screenshots courtesy of Fox Sports, CBS Sports, NBC Sports and NFL.com Gamepass