The football world is buzzing about the rise of the nickelback as a full-time starter and essential piece of the puzzle in building a good defense. In the NFL, the Green Bay Packers demonstrated the shift in thinking in 2010 when they relied heavily on a 2-4-5 nickel package with superstar Charles Woodson manning the nickel position.
Four years later, most NFL teams play nickel personnel essentially as a base defense. Because the quick passing game has become so precise in today's game and teams are frequently putting three or four receivers on the field, having good players in the slot is essential. In fact, if the quick passing game is starting to become the new running game in the NFL, then nickelbacks are starting to take on an importance comparable to that of a middle linebacker.
In the college football world it's a little different. Chip Kelly is doing all he can to advance the spread option into the professional ranks, and it's slowly working, but the concerns of the college defensive coordinator are still different. The average college DC rarely ever has to worry about defending option routes from a brilliant TE or facing a QB with the kind of accuracy or command of the route tree you find from players like Tom Brady, Aaron Rogers, or Peyton Manning.
What they do have to contend with are constantly evolving takes on the option and concepts that put their underneath defenders in run-pass conflicts. The notion of putting a great receiver in the slot and feasting on the ensuing mismatches against linebackers and safeties is old hat in college football and teams have moved on to other sinister tactics. What's more, most of them don't use the option routes that make the slot so devastating in the NFL.
Modern option teams now love to feature their toughest match-ups at the innermost slot position and on the outside, the places where they can face the worst coverage defenders when playing against nickel packages. It's already generally assumed at the college level that teams are playing mostly nickel.
So the ways in which the nickelback is relied upon and featured at the college level is a bit different than from how it's done in the pros. Here are the assignments typically given to a college nickelback:
When playing in quarters
Most defenses in college football rely on quarters and cover 3/1 as their base defenses because these two schemes have enough variety within them to change things up while still providing option-sound answers for the kinds of plays that have to be defended these days.
When a team's in quarters, the nickelback is mostly an underneath defender responsible for defending the perimeter. Against any two-back set by the offense or a formation with only two receivers to one side, the nickelback is typically going to be playing a role in stopping the run in a quarters defense.
So in these looks, the nickelback has to be competent to play the edge on runs towards him and fill cutback lanes on runs away from him. This may include taking on a lead block from a fullback, tight end, or even pulling lineman.
He also needs to be ready to defend quick throws to the perimeter and potentially beat blocks to make tackles against perimeter screens. In general, he needs to be instinctual like a linebacker but also have enough short area quickness to defend routes and break on the ball and some range to chase ball carriers in space.
Then there's trips formations, the scourge of college football defenses, which overload one side of the field with three good receivers and then punish the defense for any overplays.
Within quarters, there are two primary methods for defending trips formations: "Solo" and "Special"
In solo the nickelback is responsible for defending the flat vs passing plays and playing the edge vs running plays. Thus, he's able to maintain a role as an underneath defender and doesn't have to turn his hips and run with receivers since vertical routes will be picked up by the safeties and cornerbacks.
That pesky Y receiver is covered on vertical routes by the free safety, sliding over from the other end of the field, and sandwiched underneath between the nickel and middle linebacker. The key to this coverage is a good free safety and a very good weakside cornerback.
In special, which is like a form of cover 6, the nickelback is either locking up a slot in strict man coverage or playing a pattern-matching coverage that would require him to turn and cover that slot receiver on vertical routes. The middle linebacker and strong safety handle the innermost slot (Y here) with the linebacker walling him off from breaking over the middle and the strong safety playing him on deeper routes.
To run this coverage requires a nickelback who can either make all the pattern reads that a corner normally makes or one who can play man coverage. The benefit here is that the defense doesn't have to underman the boundary side of the formation and leave themselves vulnerable against a potent outside receiver or weakside runs.
When playing cover 3
The main reason teams play cover 3 these days is so they can leave their inside linebackers in the box to control the middle of the field and this has been bolstered by the development of pattern-matching schemes. These concepts allow cover 3 teams to adjust to vertical routes and avoid bad leverage against passing routes.
Cover 3, and the closely related cover 1, are all about keeping players in sound position to make plays. In cover 1, teams assign match-ups to play man coverage whereas in cover 3 those match-ups are based on which players have leverage advantages vs routes rather than individuals.
In either case, the nickel has to be able to play man coverage, but he may also have to play the edge against the run, which means he could be put in run/pass conflict.
On the positive side, playing man coverage is easier for nickelbacks in cover 3 than in quarters because they have help inside from the deep safety and linebackers and help deep to the sidelines from the cornerbacks.
When playing against a trips formation, the nickel can either be on the edge if he's a strong run defender:
Or the safety can handle playing on the edge in a more "cover 1 robber" style look with the nickel back free to play the flats or on the outside away from run/pass conflicts.
Teams can choose based getting the safety and nickel in the positions where they are most comfortable. You want the better run support player inside and the better coverage player on the outside.
Most teams are running man-1 blitzes now rather than zone-based Fire Zone blitzes. The defense still plays with three underneath defenders but they typically split amongst themselves who covers the slot receivers, tight ends, and running backs in man coverage. There are no run/pass conflicts in man-1 blitzes because the outside rushers keep the ball inside of them.
So, when running these blitzes the nickelback can find himself in one of four roles.
He can be an underneath defender who's playing man coverage and might have to play inside the box as a de-facto linebacker. He can be an outside blitzer, he can be an inside blitzer, or he could be a deep dropper covering an outside receiver or playing deep safety.
Most nickelbacks are only asked to play man coverage underneath or blitz (usually on the edge) but the more versatile the nickelback, the more wonky blitzes a defensive coordinator has at his disposal.
Different teams will ask their nickelback to play different roles depending on what kinds of athletes they can find to man the position. Teams will typically draw from the following categories of player types.
The first round draft pick
This is the player who can do it all; play man coverage on a slot receiver, play the edge in the running game, blitz the edge or blitz inside, and even drop into deep coverage as needed. This player is extraordinarily rare and no defense is designed around him because no defense can consistently count on finding him in recruiting.
A perfect example would be Kenny Vaccaro, formerly of the Texas Longhorns and now of the New Orleans Saints. Vaccaro was a demon as a blitzer and run support player but he could also drop into deep coverage and play press or off man coverage against either a tiny slot receiver like Tavon Austin or a tight end like Jason Witten.
At 6'0" and 215 pounds with press coverage skills, Vaccaro was a rare breed of player.
This is the undersized spread linebacker who can run and play in space but still has the quick instincts of a linebacker and the explosive power to blitz or take on blockers. The space-backer doesn't come from outer space but typically from high school programs all around the country. The rise of the spread offense has been a boon to the feisty, 5'11", 210 pound linebacker who is an excellent football player but can't bang with 300 pounders in tight spaces.
The space backer typically thrives in schemes like quarters, blitzes, or cover 3 provided he doesn't have to turn and run with explosive receivers. If he's playing a lot of coverage in space he's vulnerable but if he's making quick reads and flying to the ball he's in great shape.
Some teams will move the space-backer to inside linebacker against four receiver formations or on passing downs so they can play a better coverage player at the nickel.
Examples include OU's Eric Striker, Oklahoma State's Shaun Lewis, or Michigan State's Denicos Allen.
The big nickel
Another common tactic to fill this position is to play a third safety on the field. In the NFL this type of personnel package is called a "big nickel" set since the goal is to put a DB on the field who won't be a liability in stopping the run.
These players often have the versatility to handle a myriad of assignments, including playing underneath coverage and being a part of the run fits, blitzing, or playing some man coverage. However, they are generally less effective in each role than a corner or space-backer would be and simply provide the defense with versatility and competence against all of the offensive looks they have to face.
A player who can help you be sound while wearing multiple hats is very valuable in today's game. If he excels in one facet or another? All the better.
Examples include Jarrick Williams of Alabama and Sam Carter of TCU, both of whom are very versatile and Sam Carter is effective enough vs the run that he can play inside at linebacker and could be labelled a space-backer.
The third corner
The main way teams are finding to be option sound against today's option is to embrace man coverage, so every position in the defensive backfield typically needs to be able to man up with at least some offensive skill players. The more good man coverage players you can put on the field, the better things will be for everyone else on the field in your defense.
This has led teams to move more in the direction of playing a cornerback as the nickel. With schemes like cover 3 and "special" the defense can rely on the man coverage abilities of their nickelback to free up their safeties and linebackers to handle the run while the nickel erases a troublesome slot receiver.
That said, it's impossible to protect the nickel from all run responsibilities so this can't be just any cornerback it needs to be someone who will tackle and who can understand and handle run fits. When this player can be trusted to make tackles against the run, play great man coverage, and blitz the edge he's arguably the best option college teams can find for filling the nickel role.
Tough, physical cornerbacks often allow for greater versatility in coverage schemes and are often quick and anticipatory enough to make the quick game a risky business for offenses that don't want to throw interceptions. They are also generally much quicker at responding to option plays on the edge than either the space-backer or the big nickel thanks to superior quickness, although they aren't as punishing of tacklers or as good at taking on blocks.
Examples include LSU's Honey Badger, Florida State's Lamarcus Joyner, and Texas' Quandre Diggs.
However, now that the NFL is paying top dollar to nickelbacks you can expect some of America's best athletes to start developing their skills to fill this role and then perhaps defenses can adjust to accommodate an influx of superior talent. Keep an eye for how this position develops in 2014.