Understanding a Mike Nolan Staple: The Big Nickel

Back in January, Mike Nolan said the current state of the NFL offense will require five defensive backs in the base defense.  This is far from shocking.  We have seen pass happy offenses the past few years, with many teams employing 3 or 4 wide receivers even on early downs.  Teams like New England are also using two highly athletic tight ends, consistently creating match-up problems against either smaller nickel backs or slower linebackers.  Most teams run five or more defensive backs over half the time.

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Who has got two thumbs and runs exotic defenses?  This guy!

Maybe a Nolan-favorite formation will finally come into its own in Atlanta.

Matt Barrows, beat writer for the formerly Nolan-coached San Francisco 49ers, mentioned that Nolan loves the big nickel formation.  That is true, as the big nickel has become widely associated with Nolan, usually to varying degrees of success.  With the NFL going fairly pass heavy, the loss of a linebacker like Curtis Lofton means less than it would have only five years ago.

Greg Cossell, NFL analyst for NFL films, scouted the Giants defense during the most recent Superbowl.  How did the Giants plan to counteract the Patriots pass offense?  With plenty of big nickel formations.

Many 49ers likely remember the term, “big nickel.” This was a defensive scheme that Mike Nolan liked when he was the coach here, one that replaced a linebacker with a safety and which is designed to give defenses an advantage against passing teams. That’s often what the New York Giants use as their base defense – five defensive backs, three of them safeties

What is a big nickel formation?  Also called the “Wolverine” formation, the big nickel was originally created and successfully utilized after a rash of linebacker injuries.  In a normal nickel formation, an OLB is removed to put in a nickel back.  For example, last year Atlanta would remove Stephen Nicholas for Chris Owens/Dominique Franks on 3rd downs.

Instead, the big nickel would would have replaced Nicholas with another safety.  There are some positives.  For instance, the big nickel could be employed sooner on drives.  The big nickel also gives a defense a definite step between a poor pass coverage linebacker and a poor run stopping nickel.  Many would say you plug in another strong safety, who has better run stopping abilities than a free safety.

How would this look in Atlanta?  As Greg Cossell mentions in his article, the Giants had multiple different personnel in the big nickel.  This could occur in Atlanta, but I will describe how it will likely look.

Stephen Nicholas comes out and is replaced by either a drafted safety or perhaps Shann Schillinger.  The more athletic tight ends, like Jimmy Graham, are now covered by a defensive back, improving the match-up without loosing too much in run defense.

If Nolan switches up formations, Sean Weatherspoon could take snaps as the middle linebacker, with either Akeem Dent or Lofa Tatupu leaving the lineup.  Spoon has the size to play in the middle and would make sure the defense did not loose some pass coverage abilities, such as when Nicholas is subbed out.

What should we expect?  The Falcons will likely add a safety with Nolan’s use of three safeties.  Atlanta has already started looking at safeties.  Tavon Wilson is projected as a free safety, which leads me to think Nolan is modifying his two strong safety set or perhaps Thomas DeCoud‘s position.  DeCoud is very nice in run support, but leaves a lot to be desired in coverage.  He may play closer to the LOS with a new safety up top.  Theoretically, Dominque Franks has the size to play free safety and could see a move to that position.

Expect to see plenty of safeties on the field next year and likely plenty of exotic formations we rarely saw the previous few years.

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