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Is the Nickel Corner a Starter in Today’s NFL?
If you ask any NFL fan what are the two most popular defenses in football, they will probably say either the 4-3D or 3-4D, but this is only partially correct. With the proliferation of the passing attack, multiple receiver sets and wide open spread offenses, the defenses in the NFL are now lining up in the Nickel and Dime formations just as much as they are lining up in their Base packages.
The impact of pass heavy offenses has had an impact on base defensive formations, but none more so than the 4-3 Defense. Between 2008 and 2011 we have seen the 4-3 defensive snaps fall from 40% to 29% league wide, while the 3-4D has remained relatively stable going from 14% to 16% from 2008 to 2011. This is due to two main factors;
a) Teams switching their base defense to the 3-4D
b) Teams adjusting to multiple receiver sets with Nickel and Sub Packages.
The 4-3 Defense will often shift to the 4-2-5 Nickel package with 4 DLs, 2 LBs and 5 DBs.
The 3-4 Defense willoftenshifttothe 2-4-5 Nickel package with 2 DLs, 4 LBs and 5 DBs.
Both the 4-2-5 Nickel and 2-4-5 Nickel look similar on the drawing board, but their personnel composition is what defines these two formations. The 3-4D in particular has an advantage in their coverage schemes since the OLBs in 2-4-5 are often better at covering the pass than a traditional hand in the ground 4-3 defensive end, but what the 2-4-5 gains in coverage they give up on pass rush to the 4-2-5.
Beyond the standard Nickel formations, it is not uncommon to see other variations such Nickel 3-3-5 or Sub Packages such as 2-3-6. But the most common shifts are into the 4-2-5 or 2-4-5 Nickel formations. The Miami Dolphins tend to favor the Nickel 3-3-5 and Sub 2-3-6 packages which are holdovers from the 2011 Defensive Playbook.
The 4-3D still remains a popular defensive package in the NFL today, but it has definitely declined in overall snap counts over recent years. Unlike a decade ago where teams will run on first and second down to set up the pass, teams are now coming out of the gate and throwing the ball to set up the run game. Hence we have seen the Nickel package become even more important to the overall defensive scheme, and as a result the Nickel Corner can now be considered a peripheral starter.
Teams have definitely been moving away from Base packages, and the statistics have shown a decline in snap counts for Base defenses from 54% to 45% between 2008 to 2011. And thus the Nickel Defense and its variations has moved from 31% to 40% of the total defensive snaps over that same time period.
For instance, Miami in 2011 before switching to the 4-3 ran 30% of its snaps in Base, 29% in the 2-4-5 and 27% in the 3-3-5 formations. And 4-3 teams such as Chicago and Minnesota who have to contend with the Green Bay Packers run the 4-2-5 Nickel more so than they run their Base 4-3D. The same applies to the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants. In fact the Giants stay in their Base 4-3 the least amongst all teams, showing their Base D only 22% of the time in 2011.
The trend is sure to continue into the coming years, as NFL offenses all seek to become more dynamic passing attacks, we have seen Atlanta do so with great success in 2012, as they have moved away from their traditional power run game. But what does this mean for defensive personnel going forward?
Should the Nickel Corner now be considered a starter? I believe so. No longer can a team be content with just having two starting caliber Corners on the roster. When we look at the percentage of snaps a Nickel Corner is playing in today’s’ NFL, growing belief is that the defensive depth chart now has 12 full time starters.
Looking at the 2012 Miami Dolphins, we see that of their approximate 1125 defensive snaps, the defense had 5 or more Defensive-Backs (SS, FS, CB, CB, CB) on the field for approximately 571 of those snaps, that’s just over 50% of the total defensive snaps with an extra pass defender on the field.
With Sean Smith and Chris Clemons both becoming UFA, the Miami Dolphins now have 4 question mark positions on the defensive secondary (FS#1, CB#1, CB#2, and CB#3). At the Free Safety position, we can expect Chris Clemons to be brought back or an upgrade be brought in via Free Agency or the Draft. I don’t see Coyle going with the versatile Jimmy Wilson as his starter at FS. However, at the Cornerback position with several average but not great players currently on the roster, the outlook is not as clear.
The Dolphins best path to overhauling the defensive secondary looks to be acquiring a #1 Corner via Free Agency, drafting a #2 Corner in April, and having the grouping of Marshall, Patterson, Carroll, Posey, Stanford and Presley battle it out for #3 and #4 roles.
Kevin Coyle has worked magic in the past with his secondary, turning the careers around for cast-offs such as Deltha O’Neal and Tory James, sending both those players to the Pro Bowl. Coyle has often mentioned that the ball skills of both Deltha O’Neal and Tory James were a big contributing factor in their success. As it so happens, elite ball skills is a trait current free agent Corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and free agent Safety Charles Woodson are known for!
This coming week we should be able to plug some of those holes shown below
Another point of note, is that the resigning of DT Randy Starks was critical for the Miami Dolphins to run their Nickel and Sub packages effectively, as Soliai is not a perfect fit when defending against the pass. In the Nickel 3-3-5 or the standard 4-2-5 or in the Sub 2-3-6, Soliai is often removed from the field. Which explains why he only played 55% of the defensive snaps in 2012.
*Defensive Snaps Counts Statistics provided by PFF
*Apologies – for some statistics only 2011 figures were available, but the core message of the article holds true.
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