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EDIT - Let me be clear that most of this is copy + pasted from the articles. I've changed my comments to colored text.

This is going to be a thread talking about the big nickel scheme that Nolan is known for in previous stops as well as here. How it works, why it's needed, how this type of specialization is becoming the new trend in the NFL, and how some of our personnel fit this scheme and other hybrid specialized looks.

I'm pulling a lot of the quotes and information for this post from several sources, so if you have time then try to read all the following articles:

#1 - Nickel & diming: How subpackages have become the new base defense in the NFL

#2 - Got a (Big) Nickel? You'll need one to combat hybrid offenses this fall from 2012

#3 - Shaping the Slot: Defense from 2012

#4 - Understanding a Mike Nolan Staple: The Big Nickel from 2012

#5 - The 'Big Nickel': Atlanta's 2014 Base Defense? ...and other Dezmen Southward musings

#6 - Cosell’s Take: The safety switch, Part 1 from 2013

But if you don't want to take the time to read the entire things, I'm about to get copy+paste happy and plagiarize the heck out of them =P I would recommend reading at least the first article I posted for yourself - the Nickel & Diming article. It's got some good photo stills and Gif's that do a good job of explaining some of the concepts from real game footage. Otherwise.

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Forget about 3-4 and 4-3 defenses or every-down players, specialization is the new paradigm among NFL defenses. While it's true that many elements of the old school style of smashmouth football are still alive and well, the NFL as a whole has become increasingly pass-happy on offense. Naturally, there has been a response by defenses to combat this. There were 34,661 total snaps during the 2013 season. On 45 percent of those snaps (15,697 times), teams utilized a nickel defensive personnel package, i.e. five defensive backs on the field. It's a departure from the long-standing paradigm that featured two cornerbacks and two safeties. A further 12 percent of snaps (4,034) featured a dime package, or personnel groupings with six defensive backs.

In other words, the term "base defense" has become a misnomer, as coordinators league-wide have taken to running some version of their nickel/dime looks over 57% of the time. The term 'starter' is becoming archaic at some positions. The slot cornerback is its own position. The "3-down" front-seven player is becoming more rare. It's a subpackage world.

Unless you have amazingly talented linebackers capable matching up with receivers or even some of these 4.4-running tight ends, you should probably attempt to cover them with a safety or corner or be ready to get burned. The idea that a team’s third receiver (few teams had, or have four wide receivers the quality of the 1999 Rams) was better than the defense’s third, or slot corner, became a prevailing concept as the NFL advanced in the first decade of the 21st century. It was spread offense, NFL style. It clearly opened up more options with better matchups in the pass game, but “11” personnel – one back, one tight end, three wide receivers – offered much more than that. It provided the full playbook with all its dimensions. You still had a strong side running game with a line of scrimmage tight end, and you had 7 man pass protection concepts (five offensive linemen, the back, and the tight end) if you felt you needed it against a pressure, blitzing defense. High volume and favorable matchups: offensive coordinators liked the tactical opportunities “11” personnel presented, and more importantly, it afforded answers to any defensive problems.

Defenses responded. Slot corner, by necessity, continued to gain in importance and value. That player was not just your 3rd corner; in fact, often one of the starting corners moved inside because his skill set better fit the demands of the position. Think Charles Woodson in Green Bay, Antoine Winfield in Minnesota. The overriding point was that defensive coordinators predominantly matched up to “11” personnel with their nickel sub-package (at times dime, if it was third-and-long). They could then focus on dealing with it schematically. That strategic chess match, with all its permutations and variations, has been compelling to watch over the last 10 years or so.

NFC West teams love to run the ball and the Seahawks love to defend the run, so for Seattle their base defense actually was their base defense. Not by a whole lot, though, as they ran their nickel/dime looks on 42 percent of their 1,180 total defensive snaps. Even though the Niners, Rams and Cardinals are their main adversaries, Seattle had to get through New Orleans and Denver to win Super Bowl XLVIII. This required some flexibility and adaptability, personnel-wise.

The contrast between the speed and technical finesse needed to beat the Saints' high-octane passing game in the Divisional round game and then the great amount of grit and physicality needed to beat the Niners in the NFC Championship Game was visually striking. Adding another layer to the canvas was that Seattle combined both speed and power in the Super Bowl to stifle the greatest offense ever assembled. They did so with multiplicity in base, nickel, and dime schemes, and varied personnel groupings.

Against the Broncos in the Super Bowl, Seattle ran in mostly nickel/dime looks, but did mix in some base schemes. At the end of the day, one of the Hawks' main goals on defense is to stop the run, and because the Broncos almost never run out of anything but 11 personnel (three wide receivers, one tight end, one back), it's not like they can just react to Denver's grouping when determining their defensive personnel.

(This is where the photo stills and Gif's on the first article I posted come into play. If you haven't clicked on that article yet, I highly advise you do so now and at least scroll down to the portion where you see the game photos and explanations of what is going on)

Nickel/dime looks can vary wildly. You can simply swap out a linebacker for a safety or corner. Depending on down/distance and game situation, you may be highly expecting a pass, in which case you can substitute in your best pass rushing defensive linemen.

The Seahawks never got overly exotic with their looks, but they rotated their front seven throughout the year. The player to log the most amount of snaps on the year was DT/DE Michael Bennett, who topped out at 57 percent of Seattle's total defensive snaps. He was followed by DE Chris Clemons (54 percent), Cliff Avril (52 percent), Clint McDonald, Tony McDaniel, and Brandon Mebane (50 percent), Bruce Irvin (47 percent), Malcolm Smith (46 percent) and Red Bryant (46 percent). They rotated their defensive line and outside linebackers depending on down, distance, opposing personnel, and opposing team.

Advantages of playing nickel/dime. Romeo Crennell said it well:

"A competitive defense in this era must employ above-average coverage skills at most, if not all, of the seven of the linebacker/defensive back positions. You have to be able to cover. You've got to have guys that can cover. So you're looking at corners that can cover, linebackers that can cover and even safeties that can cover. And not only zone safeties but safeties that can go man-to-man. Because you have to be able to mix man in there.

"So I think that's the biggest thing, particularly the linebackers, because in the formations the linebackers are going to have to walk out and cover a tight end or a back that's out of the backfield, and if they can't move and they can't cover, offensively they find that matchup they like right now and they go right at it..."

The problem that defensive coordinators find is that even those linebackers that aren't total liabilities in pass coverage can get embarrassed by the likes of Vernon Davis, Darren Sproles, or Julius Thomas. You need 4.4 speed to match up with that, and this is where a nickel cornerback or big nickel safety comes in handy. Nickel packages get a team's best athletes on the field, from the defensive line and back. Often these players have such great athleticism that they can cover, rush, and blitz. If you have multiple players like that, the options at a coordinator's disposal are fairly limitless. A nickel or dimeback can blitz off the edge after protections have been set, or can drop back into coverage, and the attack angles can be changed constantly. You can stunt with your nickel defensive linemen, you can drop them into coverage, or both. Your defense is faster. It's dangerous. Maybe just as important in nickel situations, you can put your best pass rushers on the field in anticipation for a pass play. Seattle's nickel defensive line consisted of Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, Clinton McDonald, and Chris Clemons. Their ability to disrupt Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl -- when Seattle went nickel nearly throughout --was indispensable.

Disadvantages of playing nickel/dime: Simply, nickel and dime packages tend to be less effective against the run because you're removing players that specialize in stopping the run at the point of attack for players that can run in coverage. This can be a size thing, a power thing, a mentality thing, and/or a spacing thing.

The hybrids

In terms of the nickel/big nickel defensive back, there is a new class of hybrid that is emerging in the NFL who can both cover the pass and blow up the run. These are the most valuable to coordinators. Kam Chancellor is the prototype, but Eric Reid and Tyrann Matheiu both emerged as excellent and versatile defensive backs in 2013. Similarly, there seems to be a new era of undersized but insanely athletic defensive tackles that are seeing more snaps and more success. This trend should benefit guys like Aaron Donald, Dominique Easley, Caraun Reid, Will Sutton, and gap penetrating but undersized defensive tackles in this year's draft. Like safety/corner hybrids, defensive end/defensive tackle hybrids have seen their worth skyrocket over the past few years. You don't have to look further than Michael Bennett, Lamarr Houston, and Arthur Jones in free agency this year.

Specialists in the new NFL

"The later you go in the draft, the more holes, limitations, flaws a player has," Cosell said. "Success becomes a function of how he's utilized. In the era of sub-packages a lot of players contribute, even if they play 12-15 snaps per game. Often the key is finding/defining a role."

With the increased usage of subpackages, players with limited overall skill sets but one or two high-level talents can find themselves key roles. Perhaps a player is average elsewhere but is an excellent blitzer, or perhaps he struggles in coverage but defends the run extremely well; these guys can find themselves with key roles in certain packages.

As the inimitable Jeme Bramel puts it, "This is the era of specialization in the NFL. Slot wide receivers, third down running backs, goal line runners and pass catching tight ends are becoming more and more important of the success of today's offenses. The defensive side of the ball is no different. Situational edge rushers and pass rushing defensive tackles, linebackers leaving the field on passing downs and, of course, nickel corners. Because NFL offenses are operating out of multiple wide receiver sets more than ever, NFL defenses are specializing on passing downs more often in response."

A lot of the next information comes from a 2012 article. So keep that in mind.

Trends in the game are always an interesting part of what I like to explore in the spring. Today it is the concept of the "Big Nickel" defense. It's not new and was made popular by Bill Belichick a number of years ago, but oddly, it's Belichick's offense that is causing teams to study it closely. Just about every defense in the NFL has studied the Patriots' Hybrid 12 personnel package (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers) to determine how many problems those two tight ends can create. Aaron Hernandez can line up as a wide receiver, a slot receiver, an inline tight end, a wing, a fullback or even a running back. Rob Gronkowski can line up as an inline tight end, a slot or a wing. No matter what defensive personnel is on the field, the Patriots can make you feel like you are in the wrong one. Play base personnel with a front seven and four defensive backs and they spread you out in a four-wide look. Play nickel defense with an extra cornerback subbing for a linebacker in the front seven, and they condense the set and run right at you. It's a problem, and defenses are studying the Big Nickel concept for an answer.

I asked a number of defensive coaches about Big Nickel, when an extra safety is brought in to the game for a front seven player. The first thing I always hear is, "You gotta have the right kind of hybrid safety to do it right." The Big Nickel safety has to be able to play as a linebacker when the offense condenses the set, and of course, he has to match up on a flexed tight end when they spread out the formation. As one coach said. "The Big Nickel is a hybrid defensive package that changes as the offense changes. The problem with not having a Big Nickel package is it can reduce the base defense to zone coverage calls, and the quarterback knows right away that there are a limited number of ways a team can play an offense like New England or San Francisco." Walking a linebacker out on a flexed tight end like Hernandez is a clue that there is a zone call on, and both the QB and tight ends have a leg up on beating coverage.

The following from Greg Cosell:

Remember the 2010 and 2011 Giants, and the “Big Nickel”? They primarily played with 3 safeties as their base and sub-package defense, with Antrel Rolle aligned over the slot versus three-wide receiver personnel. It was not something I had remembered seeing on film as a foundation defense. It was fascinating to see it develop over that two-year period. I have always thought watching the progression of NFL offense over the last decade, both with multiple wide receiver spread concepts and two tight end personnel, that safety was an increasingly important position.

There was a time when there was a clear delineation between strong safety and free safety, and the requisite skill sets that each position demanded. Strong safeties, in many ways, were glorified linebackers; bigger, more physical, able to play the run and match up man-to-man on the slower, less athletic tight ends that were then prevalent. Free safeties were better athletes, faster with more range, capable of roaming deep from sideline to sideline. All this derived from an earlier offensive era in which two backs, one tight end and two wide receivers was the league-wide personnel template.

It brings us back to the same argument that infuses all discussion at this time of year: draft value. It often points to the different world view of personnel executives and scouts on the one hand, and coaches on the other. Value at the end of April has absolutely no meaning to coaches game-planning on a weekly basis in the fall and winter, especially when they don’t have the players to match up effectively, and therefore must limit their schemes to camouflage and compensate for weaknesses and limitations.

My sense from extensive tape study and many conversations is that defensive coaches would like to have interchangeable safeties, players with strong and free safety attributes, and therefore multi-dimensional in their scheme utilization. Again, what does it come back to, and what is the objective of defensive coordinators? Having the resources to solve problems presented by the multiplicity of offenses, both from a tactical and personnel perspective. If you cannot match up to an athletic receiving tight end in man coverage, you don’t feel real comfortable playing man. Your choices are reduced. The offense knows that, and can more easily exploit your defense. That’s the way it works on NFL Sundays. That’s how games are won and lost. /end Greg Cosell.

Let’s take a look at the different style of slot cornerbacks that defensive coordinators are employing to stop the ever increasing spread formations around the league.

Tough, Quick Guy - The tough, quick guy is the answer to the Wes Welker-type slot receiver. He must be quick enough to handle the “two-way go”, but the best way to slow the Welkers of the NFL is to press them at the line–so there’s also a certain amount of aggressiveness associated with the position. It’s no surprise that the best slot corners generally also excel in run support as the skill sets overlap.

Big Nickel (Safety Covering Slot) Examples: Antrel Rolle, Tyvon Branch, Patrick Chung (2010), Eric Berry -- The “big nickel” package is the defensive coordinator’s answer to the more physical slot receivers, particularly the Anquan Bolin-types or tight ends. It takes a special safety to be able to slide down and cover top notch receivers, even though they usually struggle against the shiftier Welkers. The advantage is having a player who is generally more able to support the run, while being able to match the physicality of the bigger receivers. Despite the pass-first nature of the league, coaches still hate to give up yards on the ground and the big nickel allows some versatility when matched up against balanced offensive attacks. The New York Giants love the big nickel so much they’ve made it their base defense. As Mike Clay points out, the nickel is becoming more common on all downs and the Giants are at the forefront of the move. In fact, with the past two Super Bowl champions (this statement is from 2012) employing exclusively five-defensive back packages during their championship run, I’d expect even more teams to give it a shot in this copycat league.

How does Nolan fit into all this you ask? This is from a 2012 article:

Back in January, Mike Nolan said the current state of the NFL offense will require five defensive backs in the base defense. This is far from shocking. Maybe a Nolan-favorite formation will finally come into its own in Atlanta. Matt Barrows, beat writer for the formerly Nolan-coached San Francisco 49ers, mentioned that Nolan loves the big nickel formation. That is true, as the big nickel has become widely associated with Nolan, usually to varying degrees of success.

What is a big nickel formation? Also called the “Wolverine” formation, the big nickel was originally created and successfully utilized after a rash of linebacker injuries. In a normal nickel formation, an OLB is removed to put in a nickel back. For example, last year Atlanta would remove Stephen Nicholas for Chris Owens/Dominique Franks on 3rd downs. Instead, the big nickel would would have replaced Nicholas with another safety. There are some positives. For instance, the big nickel could be employed sooner on drives. The big nickel also gives a defense a definite step between a poor pass coverage linebacker and a poor run stopping nickel. Many would say you plug in another strong safety, who has better run stopping abilities than a free safety. As Greg Cossell mentions in his article, the Giants had multiple different personnel in the big nickel.

And finally, this all ties back to ATL and their selection of Dezmen Southward when an SBNation blogger named DnY speculates about his possibility in the Big Nickel. This is where the education of the Big Nickel ends, and where the speculation of Southward possibly fitting in that scheme begins:

(Let me be clear: I am fully aware of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's interchangeable usage of his safeties) Let me be clear (again): When I say "base defense," I mean the look which we deploy most often: in 2013, NFL defenses showed some variance of the Nickel (three down-linemen, three linebackers, five defensive backs, or a 3-3-5 look) defense 45-percent of the time.

So here's what I'm getting at: Dezmen Southward, among other things, was the missing piece to our perfection of the 'Big Nickel' defense. This look contains three down linemen and three linebackers with five defensive backs: two cornerbacks, two in-the-box safeties and one deep safety over the top. The two in-the-box safeties need to be able to play man on receivers inside and be enforcers against the run. Dwight Lowery is a natural zone-cover man with great instincts but is a less-than-stellar run-supporter, and thus would be ideally suited in a role like the one of the over-the-top safety in the Big Nickel. If Southward had one predefined fit in a defense, it was as this in-the-box Free Safety in the Big Nickel defense. And as for the third safety in the set: it goes without saying that this other in-the-box safety would be WillyMo and, as I've described it, he would simply excel in the role.

The goal of the Big 3-3-5 is to "stop the run and outwit the quarterback," as originator of the defense Fritz Shurmur described it. Three down linemen with the goal of stopping the run? Check --Paul Soliai manning the middle with Ra'Shede Hageman and Tyson Jackson on either side.

Edited by RandomFan
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In summary, Southward is the missing piece, "Dwight Lowery is a natural zone-cover man with great instincts but is a less-than-stellar run-supporter, and thus would be ideally suited in a role like the one of the over-the-top safety in the Big Nickel. If Southward had one predefined fit in a defense, it was as this in-the-box Free Safety in the Big Nickel defense. And as for the third safety in the set: it goes without saying that this other in-the-box safety would be WillyMo and, as I've described it, he would simply excel in the role." Excellent Job, Agree times 10.

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A few thoughts that jump out at me after re-reading what I posted.

"The "3-down" front-seven player is becoming more rare. It's a subpackage world." This is why I don't understand people that were against the signings of Jackson and Soliai. Sure, they are run down specialists; but this is a specialist league now. Those guys still have tremendous value, even if they do get pulled in the majority of the nickel and dime packages. They will be helping make those nickel situations a longer down and distance. And also when you pair them with this comment: "The Seahawks never got overly exotic with their looks, but they rotated their front seven throughout the year. The player to log the most amount of snaps on the year was DT/DE Michael Bennett, who topped out at 57 percent of Seattle's total defensive snaps."

It just emphasizes how important it is to have rotational guys. By having these big strong guys stuffing the run and handling the heavy lifting on those downs, it allows us to keep our pass rushers fresher for when they are really needed. Also, having those big guys on downs that aren't such obvious passing downs allows us to still have a lot of run stopping beef on the DL and be able to switch to a nickel or big-nickel 3-3-5 for better coverage ability. That's why I get a chuckle out of people saying we are going to be a 3-4 D now because "look at who we signed, they are 3-4 players." Well, ya they fit in a 3-4 scheme sure. But they also add the beef to the line to allow you to play more sub packages on the back end and still maintain some run stopping ability.

Another thought - people don't seem to grasp how big of a deal it was that N.O. signed Byrd this year. They can talk about how much money they have tied up in the position, one traditionally undervalued in the NFL. But Payton is on to something after sitting out a year and getting to study NFL trends. Don't forget they also resigned Bush after we offered him a contract to stay in their Big-Nickel looks. Their defense is going to be much much more difficult to attack with Vacarro and Bryd now, along with Bush in Big-Nickel. I can see them playing that scheme over 60% of the time. Honestly, as much as I hate to admit it, this just might make them the favorites to win the division.

Another thought - Now we see why it was such a big deal for Nolan to get his type of CB's in the draft last year in Trufant and Alford. To be able to play good defense in todays NFL, you have to have secondary players that can play both man and zone coverages with efficiency. We didn't have that before. That's also why I think we might see Ricardo Allen fairly soon in the season.

Another thought - reading the part about how New England's 2 TE sets put so much pressure on defenses, I understand Smitty's desire to get back to a more traditional in-line TE in order to help get our running game back on track. Yet I can't help but be a little worried if not having at least a moderately capable F-type movement TE (as Tony G was) to sub in is going to limit our ability to exploit defenses this year. From all reports, it looks like we are moving to a 3WR set a lot this season, so we'll see I guess.

Another - "Value at the end of April has absolutely no meaning to coaches game-planning on a weekly basis in the fall and winter, especially when they don’t have the players to match up effectively, and therefore must limit their schemes to camouflage and compensate for weaknesses and limitations." Nolan has been having to do this his entire time here. Lets hope this year he finally has a few less match up problems he has to camouflage and compensate for. Yes, we all know we aren't all the way there yet, but just covering some of the holes could make a big difference.

Also, I wonder if Eric Berry is still being shopped. If so, I would gladly deal our 2015 1st rounder for him. This thread should make it clear that a player like him is extremely important to having a good defense in the NFL these days. I'm also wondering if Zeke Motta can function as one of these Big-Nickel type safeties due to his size and athletic ability. Unlike Berry, who is a very good cover guy that can also be adequate vs the run, Motta would be more of a hybrid between a safety and a LBer. Not quite as good for coverage, but better vs the run. I think that is how they tried to use him last year before he got injured.

Because of the specialization in the sub packages, I think we'll see Spruill with a very big role on this defense. Remember how embarrassing it was watching Nicholas trying to cover TE's the last 2 years? Yeah...

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Well done sir! Expecting Southward to come in and be an all around S early on would have never been reslistic, but allowing him to play to his strengths out of the gate as a hybrid in the box DB will reap nice returns if Lowery can stay fairly healthy.

Edited by bigjmw84
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Very cool post.

I'm guessing our big nickel would be something ala:

DE: TJax

DT: Soliai

DE: Hageman

OLB: Biermann/Mass

ILB: Worrilow

OLB: Spoon/Shembo

CB: Trufant

CB: Alford

CB: Allen

S: Moore

S: Southward

Nice.

Not really. You still have 3 CB's listed, that is just a normal nickel defense. A Big Nickel would be another safety like Motta or Lowery instead of a 3rd CB.

Also, thanks everyone for the compliments.

Edited by RandomFan
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If I'm not mistaken Kenny Vaccaro moved down and Raphael Bush took the role as the deep cover safety. Southward would assume Vaccaro's role

Yeah, I think you might be mistaken. Bush is more of an in the box safety type, better vs the run. Vaccaro is one of those very valuable safeties that can cover as well as play the run. I remember reading somewhere on the Saints forum a while back how Bush was a better defender when he was lining up close to the line of scrimmage.
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