Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Big Nickle Dictates Patriots' Defensive Additions

Patriots' fans should get used to this sight, as Cyrus Jones has shut-down potential
The Big Nickle defense seems relatively new to most casual football fans, but in reality it is an old-school approach to defending today's offensive evolution.

The recent trend in the NFL is for teams to go big, either with tall wideouts, uber-athletic tight ends, or both, which has prompted a few different defensive approaches, from employing taller corners to offset the size advantage of the receivers to assigning hybrid "nickle"linebackers to tight ends in order to make up ground in the size-speed ratio that today's tight end typically enjoys.

The Big Nickle, however, eschews modern thinking and embraces the fundamentalist thinking of the early game, where the idea was to fuse athleticism with violent intent.

Which rubs against the grain of the kinder, gentler brand of football that the NFL promotes with their ever-restrictive rules against defenses in the passing game, rewarding teams with high-flying passing attacks and punishes defensive backs when they try to "climb the ladder" to make a play on the football in the air, against receivers that are 4-to-6 inches taller than the average cornerback.

The reason for the clearly biased-against-the-defense set of rules is to make the game "exciting" and "more palatable" to the casual fan.  After all, in a purely general aesthetic sense, what could be more exciting than a quarterback launching a ball 50 yards down the field to a lithe and speedy receiver, who hauls it in and zips cleanly into the end zone?

To football purists, however, the idea of a defender being essentially handcuffed by the rules into being little more than a rubber-necking bystander doesn't sit well - but by the same token, if the same team doesn't take advantage of the rules on the offensive side of the ball, their success rate - as well as their win-loss record - suffers.

Of course, there are teams that take that advantage to a new, unethical level.  

The "Flacco-Harbaugh Gambit" is the most well-known of these tactics, wherein Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh will call for a deep pass play, tasking quarterback Joe Flacco to loft a ball just short of where a defensive back would expect it to be, goading him into making a play for the ball while at the same time engaging in unintentional contact with the receiver for the express purpose of gaining large chunks of yardage by way of a pass interference penalty called on the corner.

To combat this, many teams have taken the stance defensively that it is better to not allow a receiver free release into his pattern in the first place.

Built into the debilitating rules is a single five-yard buffer, a razor thin zone in which defensive backs can make heavy contact with the receiver coming off of the line of scrimmage to try and disrupt the timing in a timing-based passing attack, and to keep lid-popping speedsters from tearing the top off of a defense in a vertical offense.

It is known as a five-yard "mugging zone", which frequently features the equivalent of an old fashioned street brawl, complete with haymakers, grappling and outright fist fights - and this is what Bill Belichick bases his nickle defensive package after, which explains his seeming obsession with small, gritty corners...

...and with hybrid safeties, the two combined forming the base for Belichick's version of the Big Nickle, his New England Patriots one of the few teams - if not the only team - in the NFL to be able to do it right.

The Big Nickle is actually the brain-child of former Philadelphia Eagles' defensive coach Jerry Williams who, in 1961, was desperate to stop a talented Chicago Bears rookie tight end named Mike Ditka, who was ripping opposing defenses a new one every time he stepped on the field due to his size-speed ratio and glass-chewing toughness.

Williams figured that to stop Ditka  - who at 6' 3", 230 pounds had the size advantage over most defensive backs and the speed and agility advantage over most linebackers - he had to have a player who was a cross between the two and found that in rookie safety Irv Cross.

At 6' 2" and 200 pounds, Cross had requisite size for the task and with speed believed to have been in the 4.4 range, the requisite speed - even so, the rookie would have to wait until late in the first quarter between the teams in their week eight matchup.  Ditka had just taken a short Billy Wade pass seventy-six yards for a touchdown to give the Bears a 7-3 lead over the defending World Champion Eagles...

...and after inserting Cross to shadow Ditka, the beastly tight end was shut down for the rest of the afternoon as the Eagles posted a big 16-14 win.  Teams around the league stood up and took notice, many future opponents aligning their games plans as the Eagles had, resulting in a 1-4 slide to drop the Bears out of playoff contention.

So impressed by the scheme was an assistant on the Bears' sideline, future Washington Redskins' legend George Allen, that the Big Nickle became a base defense for his Championship teams, but a more modern example of the alignment came via defensive wizard Fritz Shurmur who, while with the Cardinals in 1992, was forced to play a third safety when he ran out of linebackers, thanks to a rash of injuries.

The alignment followed him to Green Bay, where a few seasons later he used it to defeat the Bill Parcells-led Patriots team in Super Bowl 31.

Today, the Big Nickle tradition is carried on by another defensive genius in Belichick, though his vision for the alignment is inspired by the aforementioned debilitating rule changes rather than just focusing on stopping one extraordinary athlete or simply out of desperation - his plan has been meticulously groomed over the past four seasons, and last year it came to full fruition.

The 4-2-5 Big Nickle is made possible by a stable of specially skilled safeties that Belichick has been collecting via high draft capital for years, combined with aggressive corner play and the overall skill of his top two linebackers - which explains his offseason moves in free agency and his off-the-beaten-path draft board.

Up front, the alignment relies on defensive tackles who are capable of resetting the line of scrimmage two yards deep in the opponents backfield while occupying more than one offensive lineman, while the defensive ends are alert and instinctive, with the ability to both pressure the quarterback and set the edge in the running game.

In theory - as well as practical application - the tackle occupying blockers and the ends setting the edge accomplish two things: first, a double team on the nose or on a disruptive three tech means that a gap exists somewhere for a linebacker or safety to shoot through and secondly, setting the edge forces a wide play back to the inside, where the aforementioned shooting linebacker or safety is waiting.

In this system, pressuring the quarterback is nearly as good as a sack, because with the aggressiveness of the corners already detouring the receivers' routes, the quarterback may not have enough time to find his second or third reads before having to abandon the pocket, and pressure up the middle limits the space and opposing quarterback has to step into a throw.

That was the idea behind drafting Nebraska tackle Vincent Valentine, a player with a rap concerning not playing to his potential - and perhaps some of that chatter is true, though a high ankle sprain that he labored with throughout 2015 could have been a contributing factor. In any case, the highlight films on him are compelling enough to consider him a good fit in the Patriots' interior defense, especially given that the opposing offensive line has bigger fish to fry in regards to the Patriots' defensive line.

At the nose is All Rookie team member Malcom Brown, who will be part of an interior rotation with Terrence Knighton, Alan Branch, free agent pick up Markus Kuhn, so Valentine won't have to contribute immediately, nor carry the load - which is fortunate because when he's fresh, he's a difference maker with his explosiveness off the ball. An ideal scenario for the third-round selection would be as a designated pocket penetrator late in games.

But while no one is expecting Valentine to jump right in and take anyone's job away from them, the hope is that second round pick Cyrus Jones ascends the depth chart at cornerback in rapid-fire fashion.

Nicknamed "Clamp Clampington", the Patriots hope he lives up to that restrictive name and clamps down on opposing receivers off the snap - you know, like a real clamp, or as the widely accepted definition suggests, "Holds objects tightly together to prevent movement of separation through the application of inward pressure."

Jones is an aggressive hand fighter who is perfect for the mugging-style press coverage the Patriots employ in the big nickle, and who takes everything as a slight on him, so he has a perpetual chip always balanced on his shoulder - and while some take him for a third corner in the slot, Jones' best destiny is on the outside, where he has become something of an expert at pinning receivers against the sideline and using his ridiculous ball skills to deny receiver after receiver.

"They (the quarterbacks) look at him like, 'Ok, I'm gonna throw on him,'" fellow Crimson Tide corner Maurice Smith said of Jones recently, "and then he turns around and gets a pick - then that side of the field is shut down the rest of the game."

Some would say that Jones has an uphill battle for playing time, what with Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan forming a pair of solid - if unspectacular - corners, but the smart money has Jones winning the number two in camp, relegating Ryan to the slot, where he has shown a knack for huge plays.

In Belichick's defense, one will see the slot manned by either a corner or by a safety, but with the selection of Kamu Grugier-Hill in the sixth round out of Eastern Illinois, there is every possibility that the slot could be manned by a weakside linebacker in certain packages.

Said to be on the "weak" side because he typically lines up on the opposite side of the field as the opposing tight end, a weakside linebacker is responsible for keeping track of the running back, picking him up in coverage if curling into the pattern...

...while keying on setting the edge and on lateral pursuit should the back take a handoff, pitch or screen pass - which is exactly what Grugier-Hill excels at.

Film of the 6' 2', 215 pounder reveals a stunning similarity to 2015 draft selection Brandon King. Identical in size, both are lighting quick on the accelerator, demonstrating elite closing speed and arriving at their destination with ill intent. Both played the "Star" linebacker position in college - which is the Big Nickle in the pros.

The only difference between the two as far as playing style is that Grugier-Hill comes in a far more polished product and has a chance to provide immediate depth to a unit in desperate need of it and should join King as a special teams' terror.

The problem is - and the reason why Grugier-Hill wasn't a higher round draft consideration - is his weight, or lack thereof - but he' is every bit his draft profile, which uses phases such as "Ridiculous range", "Superior chase speed and burst to the ball carrier" and "has burst to become a dangerous blitzer."

Even though he was drafted as an outside linebacker, many believe a switch to strong safety and the big nickle is where he's headed - but, really, what is the difference between a strong safety and a weakside cover linebacker?

In today's NFL, the gap between the two is virtually non-existent.

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