Over the past decade or so there has been a shift in the NFL from a run-heavy offensive game plan to teams transitioning to the spread offense. This evolution has made the passing game more prolific throughout every level of the sport.
In today’s league offenses are using three, four and even five wide receivers sets on the field more often. In turn, defenses are tasked with the assignment of slowing down these types smaller and faster of personnel groupings. Both sides of the ball have to figure out how to create advantages over the other, and this has led to NFL defenses playing more with their nickel package on the field.
It is critical to understand what a nickel defender is and how the personnel grouping is defined. Defenses refer to nickel packages as a personnel group that substitutes one linebacker in for an extra corner or safety. This can be done in both 4-3 or 3-4 base defenses, with alignments and assignments varying depending on the scheme. The overarching goal is to get more athletic players on the field who excel in coverage and can tackle in space to counter 3+ receiver sets.
Nickel players typically line up in the slot or box depending on the formation of the offense. This role can essentially be defined as a hybrid position that calls for a player to be highly effective as both a run and pass defender. Nickel defenders need to be good open field tacklers who can be impactful in run support. The body type and athleticism of a nickel back usually correlates with whether they matchup on tight ends or slot receivers. Long and physical nickel backs can be more effective in disarming receiving tight ends. Smaller and twitchier corners with explosive short area burst are usually pitted against the prototypical slot receivers.
Teams have gone to the draft with a goal to specifically select defensive backs that fit their ideal nickel vision. Most recently Elijah Molden was selected by the Tennessee Titans in the 3rd round of the 2021 NFL draft. Molden was regarded as a skilled coverage defender who was one of the best run supporting defensive backs in the draft. This season he has played a total of 533 snaps in either the slot or box as their nickel back. The importance of the position has increased and teams are spending valuable resources to secure their extra defensive back.
The Buffalo Bills were one of the first teams to fully commit to playing a nickel base defense. This season they are playing 90.3% of their defensive snaps with five defensive backs on the field. Taron Johnson is their designated nickel corner and has been a large part of the reason for this transition. He was selected out of Weber State in the 4th round in 2018. Since being drafted the Bills have continued to play more snaps as a nickel defense and continued to be one of the best in the NFL. The Bills even promoted Coach Jim Salgado to their nickel position coach. This was a groundbreaking promotion due to this specific role typically not having a designated position coach.
The effectiveness of base nickel defenses has continuously escalated throughout the years. The ability to mitigate mismatches against a pass-first league is a large part of the reason why NFL defenses have migrated towards this style.
Unless teams have a linebacker who has high-end coverage ability it makes it difficult to match up against 11 personnel when in a traditional base defense. The top 3 teams who use nickel the most are the Bills (90.3%), Cowboys (78.9%) and Colts (79.0%). Each of these teams have top defenses that rank 3rd, 9th and 10th in scoring this season, respectively.
Nickel defenders have grown in their use and importance on defenses over the past couple of years. Teams have started to put more defensive backs on the field in replace linebackers in an effort to quash personnel mismatches created by modern offenses. The necessity to get faster and more athletic on defense to counteract this pass-heavy league has been an integral part of this defensive evolution. Nickel defenders play a significant role in the NFL today and will continue to establish their importance as long as the passing game dominates today’s offenses.