Packers Playbook, Part 3: The Nickel Defense

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Packers Playbook LogoIn our third part of this series, we are going to take a look at the Green Bay Packers’ basic nickel defense. According to the Football Outsiders Almanac from last year, the Packers used their nickel formation on 61% of their plays in 2011. This fact has led some fans to refer to it as their “base package” rather than the Okie, since they use it the most.

Explaining the Formation

Dom Caper’s basic nickel package is a 2-4-5 formation. In comparison to the base 3-4-4 defense, it removes one of the offensive linemen and adds a third cornerback. This setup is ideal for single back sets with two or three wide receivers. By putting another defensive back on the field, an extra element of speed is added.

Any formation with five defensive backs is considered a “nickel” package, but the primary one used by the Packers has two defensive linemen and two outside linebackers as the front four. At first glance, some might wonder why they don’t simply use a 4-2-5 package with four linemen, replacing the two linebackers. The answer is that this is part of the overall 3-4 philosophy.

By using more versatile outside linebackers, the 3-4 defense aims to create flexibility and confusion. The OLBs can drop into coverage, spy the quarterback, or (as is often the case) pass rush off the edge. Combined with creative zone blitzes, it leaves the opposing offense guessing. In your standard 4-3 defense, the defensive ends will drop into coverage significantly less than the 3-4 linebackers.

In contrast to the base defense, we are not going to get caught up in how the front four lines up with regard to their technique and gap assignments. For one, we’re mostly concerned with the passing game in the nickel, and secondly, there are a number of different fronts that can be called in this defense and I don’t want to complicate this analysis too much. That said, you will often see the defensive linemen across from the guards in a 1-, 3-, or occasionally 2-technique. The outside and inside linebackers will generally maintain their common positioning.

Aside from the front line, one of the key cogs in Dom Capers’ defense has been the nickel cornerback. In fact, the nickelback has become an important position across the league. The best players in this role are good reactive athletes with the athletic ability to make quick movements and adjustments. They need to be able to work in the congested middle of the field, handling not only slot receivers but also tight ends. Additionally, they should be strong run defenders and willing tacklers who can stop the ball carrier.

Having Charles Woodson in his prime allowed the Packers to do quite a lot with this role. He could drop into zone or man-to-man coverage against the slot receiver or tight end. He could be used on a corner blitz or even just in run support. This is why Capers has played so much nickel – because he could get his best players all onto the field in positions to succeed. If Casey Hayward shows a similar ability to be a Woodson-like jack of all trades, then we might not see the defense change identity too much. Otherwise, Capers might look to find some other wildcard to play with.

The Nickel Defense in Action

Here is a great example of how the nickel defense works against a three-receiver set. This is from Week 2 in 2012, when the Packers had their first game against the Chicago Bears. It comes about halfway through the first quarter, and the Bears are starting a new drive on their own 17-yard line.

Breaking Down the Play

The Bears start their second drive of the game in an 11 personnel grouping (1 RB–1 TE–3 WR). Considering it’s first down, and without knowing the tendencies of the Bears, there’s about an equal chance of it being a run or pass play. With their nickel package, the Packers are adequately prepared for both.

The defense is showing a normal front, with Ryan Pickett in a 3-technique off the right guard and B.J. Raji in a 1-technique inside the left guard. Clay Matthews and Erik Walden are playing the ends of the line, with D.J. Smith and A.J. Hawk in their normal positions.

What is quite interesting, though, is the position of the strong safety (Jerron McMillian). Playing up at the line of scrimmage outside Walden, he seems to be feinting a blitz. His presence also adds an eighth player to the “box” in support against the run. This is a wrinkle that the offense will have to account for in their pre-snap diagnostics.

Here’s what happens on the snap:

nickel

This is a fairly simple play action bootleg by the Bears. The offensive line slides right at the snap in an effort to sell the run while Cutler fakes the handoff and rolls left for the pass. (This is actually called a “naked” bootleg, since no offensive linemen are being pulled to pass protect for the quarterback.)

The two wide receivers run basic play action routes: a vertical 9-route to clear out the cornerback and occupy the safety, plus a post route to attack the middle of the field. The slot receiver runs a common drag route underneath to help keep the slot corner and inside linebackers down and away from the middle post.

The tight end crosses behind the offensive line to attack the opposite flat left vacant by the receivers. However, it’s this counter movement in conjunction with a poor sell of the handoff that tips off some key defenders. If you watch the play again, you’ll notice Clay Matthews, B.J. Raji, and A.J. Hawk all immediately reverse direction to flow back towards the tight end.

Feeling immediate pressure from Matthews, Cutler looks for his hot read, which in this case is the tight end. Unfortunately for the Bears, three key things happen: (1) Cutler doesn’t have time to really set his feet, (2) Matthews is able to tip the ball, and (3) both Hawk and Woodson are in positions to make a play.

Dom Capers also put the defense in a good position to make this stop work, though. I realize that in my diagrams, I merely show the relative path of the players as the play unfolds rather than identifying man and zone coverage assignments. That aside, it’s not hard to determine based on this information and the video that the secondary is working mostly in zone coverage. They all have vision to the quarterback, which allows them to quickly diagnose the play action. Charles Woodson, in particular, is able to bail on the slot receiver and get into position for a possible interception on the tipped ball. He sees the crossing tight end, the pressure on Cutler, and reacts accordingly.

(Tramon Williams is also able to dump his man off to the safety and come up to help make a potential tackle on the tight end, should the pass have been completed.)

Not only is this a good example of the nickel defense, it is also a good example of how the defense works together to make stops on the field. The pressure from Matthews in combination with the diagnostic skills of the players in coverage all work in tandem to get the job done. For the Bears, they had no real chance of making a positive play. Capers put the Packers defense in a position to succeed, and they executed.

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Chad Toporski, a Wisconsin native and current Pittsburgh resident, is a writer for AllGreenBayPackers.com. You can follow Chad on twitter at @ChadToporski

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  • Mr.Bigg

    This wonderful. I am watching a random nfl game from last year in its condensed form each night as I fall asleep. I just watched Baltimore and Denver – the pack is not just a good team, they are enjoyable to watch.

  • GBPDAN

    Hunh ? I had ham for dinner….

  • steve cheez

    Herein lies the conundrum of this type of analysis.
    You can make an off-the-cuff comment like “someday Aaron Rodgers will get old” and get 100 comments running the gamut from outright bashing to unadulterated adulation.
    But something like this, that requires thought and concentration to comprehend you just get the occasional “thanks”.
    But even though I generally don’t have anything to add or comment on from these analyses, they are also my favorites to read, and I for one always look forward to them.
    Thanks for making me smarter, Chad!

    • Chad Toporski

      You’re more than welcome, steve. And thanks for the thoughtful words. They are much appreciated.

  • marpag

    So the Bears try to run a naked boot to the side of a totally unblocked Clay Matthews. Interesting.

    I hear there is a new coaching staff in Chicago…

    • Chad Toporski

      I’m wondering if the TE was maybe supposed to at least chip him more… But yeah, not the brightest play call in the world.

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