Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Art Of Football, Part 6: Big Nickel Defense In Full Effect

The 2016 draft class supplied the New England Patriots with two cornerbacks named Jones.

The Patriots' top pick of the draft, Alabama corner Cyrus Jones had what can only be described as a mostly disappointing rookie season as he treated the football like a microphone after a hot take, while Jonathan Jones made a name for himself on special teams after edging out several other candidates to make the team as an undrafted free agent.

Neither saw many snaps on defense, as Jonathan - blessed with 4.28 speed - became a core-four special teams demon and Cyrus got benched and ultimately deactivated for his inability to hold onto the football when returning punts.
Patriots McClellin, Flowers, Branch, Hightower and Harmon celebrate

Now that the 2017 organized team activities and mandatory mini-camp are underway, Cyrus has done nothing but continue to pull gaffes on fielding punts and looks to be in danger of being perhaps the biggest draft bust of the Bill Belichick era, but Jonathan Jones is serving notice that he's ready to compete for the nickle corner slot left vacant by the defection of Logan Ryan in free agency.

If he can pull it off, the Patriots, who already have one of the top corner tandems in the league with Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore, would become the lone team in the NFL to employ two undrafted free agents as starters in their secondary, given that Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia run out of the nickel about eighty percent of the time.

Granted, the Big Nickel - a five defensive back alignment that utilizes three safeties rather than three corners - is in play a lot of the time to give the Patriots a more flexible unit to match up against teams with bigger personnel, but in a standard nickel, it is Jonathan - not the more widely heralded Cyrus - that looks to be in position to gain significant playing time this season.

But let's pump the brakes a little bit here.  We're talking about dime depth here, with names like Gilmore, Butler and Rowe ahead of the Joneses on the cornerback depth chart, and names like McCourty, Chung and Harmon filling out the Big Nickel before either of the youngsters get an opportunity in the defensive backfield, making the lineup a tough egg to crack.

Because the Big Nickel alignment dictates the Patriots' defensive philosophy.

For the uninitiated, the Big Nickel is an alignment that features flexibility on all levels of the defense. Originally, the alignment was nothing more than a desperation sideline adjustment made by the Philadelphia Eagles way back in the early 1960's, defensive assistant Jerry Williams,bringing in rookie safety Irv Cross to cover Chicago Bears rookie tight end Mike Ditka, who was too big for a standard nickle corner to cover and too fast for a linebacker.

Ditka was the prototype for what was to be known as the "move" tight end, and he was running roughshod all over the league until Williams put the clamps on him, in what he called the "Chicago Special" defense - and then some years later Los Angeles Rams' defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmer resurrected the alignment to defend against the juggernaut San Francisco 49ers offense...

...particularly against tight end Brent Jones and running back Roger Craig as both were too much for his group of linebackers, and used it as the defensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals in the early 90's when his linebacking corps was beset by a myriad of debilitating injuries

The philosophy had been dormant for several years since then, and only resurfaced in 2010 when Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick drafted a pair of elite tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.  Knowing that the success the two would bring to his offense would spur copy cats around the NFL - and also to find a way to cover the two in practice - he started collecting safeties through the draft.

That would account for the seemingly weird reaches in the draft, taking what many scouts considered to be undraftable, including safeties Tavon Wilson in the second round of the 2012 draft and then Duron Harmon in the third round of the following season.  Wilson never really panned out, but Harmon became the centerpiece of the Big Nickle...

...the sideline-to-sideline centerfielder whose speed and other-worldly range enabled Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to run with one high safety, and to drop cornerback-turned-free Safety Devin McCourty and strong safety Patrick Chung closer to the line of scrimmage, where they could pick up man coverages on tight ends and running backs while filling the box in run support.

One of the main advantages of this alignment is that the Patriots are a rare team that has good enough coverage play from their safeties to line them up in the slot, if need be, causing confusion for the opposing quarterback and his offensive line - confusion as to who is actually in coverage and who is coming on the blitz, because in the Big Nickel, they are able to disguise their intent like no other team in the league.

This has a curious effect on the rest of the defense.  Since a weakside linebacker and a strong safety require similar skill sets - ie,. lateral agility, field vision and tackling skills to key on the running back - in the Big Nickel, especially against an offense that features good passing game production out of the backfield, a safety will take the place of the weakside linebacker.

Against offenses that rely more heavily on spread formations, the strong safety will still reduce down into the box even though the situation would normally call for a standard nickel because the defensive line has the ability to morph between 3 and 4 man fronts, and on several occasions last season we saw this play out, fans bitching about the pass rush not being able to get to the quarterback.

This offseason, however, Belichick stocked the line with players who can rush from the outside, and can also reduce down to a five-technique on a three man front and even to a three-technique on four man fronts - so the defense can essentially transform into whatever they need to be at the drop of a hat - and he didn't just stock the line, he stocked it with proven, veteran talent.

Lawrence Guy is a great example of what Belichick was seeking on the market.  Guy is an early-down run-stuffer who graded out as Pro Football Focus's eighth-best in that category last season, and was a vital cog in the Baltimore Ravens fifth-best rush defense, and now joins forces with the likes of Malcom Brown, Alan Branch and Vincent Valentine on a Patriots' run-busting rotation that ranked fourth in 2016.

Guy is just one of several Patriots' defensive linemen with the versatility to produce in both three and four-man fronts - the breakdown for which is forthcoming in the next piece in this series - which gives even more flexibility to Belichick and Patricia in the Big Nickel, particularly given the quality of the linebacking corps.

Last season we saw a lot of the 4-2-5 alignment in the Big Nickel - four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs - but the preferred option this season may be the 3-3-5 look, given the fact that Belichick now seems to be collecting five-technique, 3-4 defensive ends and eschewing traditional 4-3 rush ends.

There is really only one of those on the roster, rookie Derek Rivers, but in this scheme he projects to be more of a stand-up rush linebacker, what with his 4.61 speed and penetration skills to force running backs to the sidelines laterally as an edge setter - and no one would be surprised to see Rivers execute much like departed Jamie Collins did on the strong side.

In fact both Rivers and fellow draftee Deatrich Wise were projected to be attractive to teams looking for 3-4 fits, with Wise having tons of experience in Arkansas three-man line as a five-tech. Everyone else on the line has the versatility to play on shifting fronts, and all of the linebackers have the flexibility to play any of the positions on the second level, led by clutch veteran Dont'a Hightower and flanked by names like McClellin, Van Noy, Roberts and Ninkovich.

The players that make the 2017 New England Patriots defensive unit are going to be the players that fit the Big Nickel scheme, which is not necessarily players who would be considered elite, all-around athletes - rather, the players that fit the scheme are those identified by Belichick as the ones whose skill sets can be incorporated into the game plans on a rotational basis...

...long a staple of Belichick defenses, the rotation allows for a wide open play book as well as keeping players fresh for the fourth quarter, both of which were on full display in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, as the Patriots' defense matched up fresh players with the Falcons' offense and eventually got to Matt Ryan to turn the game in New England's favor.

So all anyone has to do who is wondering why the Patriots are doing something that looks funky on the surface, is to remember that Belichick has been building his defense to accommodate the Big Nickel for years, and that if that confuses them, think about how confusing it is to their opponents as well.

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