Monday, January 18, 2016

Prelude To A Championship, Part VI - Big Nickle Rules From Here On Out

The New England Patriots are the only team in the National Football League capable of running a true Big Nickle Defense - and the Patriots' fan base should thank goodness for that...

For years, New England head ball coach Bill Belichick has been stockpiling safeties in anticipation of using the Big Nickle as his base alignment because, unlike the traditional nickle alignment which sees a third cornerback come on the field in the stead of a lumbering linebacker, the Big Nickle brings in a third safety instead...

...the idea being that, with the trend in the NFL being towards bigger and more athletic tight ends and receivers, a safety could fulfill the requirements for a fifth defensive back more readily and effectively than a corner.
Chung is a scrapper whose physical style is perfect for the Big Nickle

But not just a standard brand free safety, nor your typical in-the-box strong safety. The Big Nickle calls for hybrids, free safeties that can handle sideline-to-sideline duties as the single high man, and strong safeties with coverage skills much like a cover 'backer who has the hitting ability to play the run like the linebacker they are replacing.

What makes the Patriots unique in this alignment, however, is that they employ a free safety that came into the league as a top-rated cornerback, Belichick slowly converting him to safety over a three year span, leading to his taking over at free safety full time in 2012 - which is the same season that he began his stockpiling of safeties, adding Tavon Wilson to the fold in that season's draft.

Duron Harmon was on the menu for the following season and Jordan Richards completed the deal in this past season's draft. In between, the Patriots unsuccessfully attempted to revive the career of former Arizona Cardinals' big hitter Adrian Wilson, which lead to the team re-signing wayward son Patrick Chung after a one-year hiatus from the team in Philadelphia.

The first clue that Belichick really gave to anyone regarding his actual intentions for his secondary came when he kept six safeties coming out of the preseason and kept just four corners. The Patriots have traditionally employed sure-tackling corners in what has been either a 4-2-5 alignment (four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs) or a 3-3-5, depending on the opposing personnel.

But their track record against athletic tight ends and running backs in the pattern hasn't been stellar in the recent past, and much of that has to do with the growing pains that the team experienced as Belichick tinkered with the coverages while slowly building his safety corps - which included bringing Chung back to complete the look.

Belichick even admitted earlier this season that when Chung was with the Patriots from 2009 - 2012, the defense wasn't set up to play to his strengths. When Philadelphia released him as part of wholesale changes in their secondary, Belichick immediately contacted Chung with the news that they were ready to put him in a position where he could be successful.

"After he was released, we followed back up on the conversation we had with him when he left and I said to him 'look, things are a little different here now'" Belichick explained, "and we were able to find a better place for him going forward than what we had before when he was here."

Chung plays best either close to the line in the box or on the line itself, punking tight ends and bigger slot receivers in the passing game, and adding a violent element in run support. But the Patriots were never able to do that when he was in Foxborough before, with only Brandon Merriweather to team with Chung until Belichick cross-trained McCourty.

Then along came Harmon, an obscure safety from Rutgers that didn't even warrant an invite to the combine, but that Belichick thought enough of to make him a third-round pick in 2013. Why? simply because he had the skill set to complete the safety corps as Belichick saw it.

And the way he saw it unfolding was to have Harmon and his sub-4.4 speed patrol the back end while McCourty and Chung wreaked havoc closer to the line of scrimmage.

"They are both very dependable." Belichick offered, "I'd say a lot of tackles those two guys have to make are hard tackles. I mean, there's tackles, and then there's tackles."

"There's a whole element to even getting in position to tackle that comes into play spatially that doesn't come into play on in-line tackles" Belichick continued, "but those two guys, they're very good. I'd say probably two of the better tacklers in the league at their position."

Pretty high raise coming from a man of the Dark Master's stature, but he's a man that appreciates his players, and always tries to put them in the best position to succeed - and once Harmon proved he could handle being the centerfielder, Belichick put his plan into motion, and the results have been spectacular.

No longer are the Patriots susceptible to being abused by athletic tight ends, as Chung and McCourty have been part of the solution that has held opposing tight ends to 57 catches for 596 yards, which averages out to right around three catches and 35 yards per game, hardly a major impact.

McCourty will also help in the pattern on the larger slot receivers, leaving the top two targets on the opposition's arsenal to corners Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, who will take turns on the opponents' number one threat with Harmon over the top, depending on how their skill sets match up, the other will take the number two threat straight up.

It is a recipe that has helped the Patriots' defense to a top 10 ranking in the league, as all of the defensive backs also bear down against the run - as evidenced by Ryan, Chung, Butler and McCourty making up four of the top six tacklers on the team, while Harmon makes his bones as a large (6' 1", 210 pounds), fast, physical presence on the blue line.

The Big Nickle alignment will be front and center against the Broncos in the AFC Championship game this coming Sunday, as everything their offense can do begins not with quarterback Peyton Manning, but with Denver's running game, an underrated unit that averages 4.2 yards per pop - a stable that includes CJ Anderson and Ronnie Hillman, who combined this season for nearly 1600 yards and scored 12 touchdowns...

...but are also an integral part of the passing game, with 49 catches between them and with both ably picking up the blitz. This also means that the Patriots' linebackers will need to be on full alert, but with the injury status of both Jerod Mayo and Jamie Collins unknown at this time, that story will have to wait for Part VII...

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