Now that base nickel defense has basically come to dominate every level of football there are a few different strategies for choosing linebacker personnel. The challenge faced by every team is how to build a squad that can do modern things like play good zone or match-up based pass defense against teams that attack the middle of the field with athletes while still managing old school tasks like handling lead runs.
What makes this difficult is the difference between the "good at making pass drops and following WRs out of their route breaks" skill set and the "good at blowing up a guard or a fullback in the hole" skill set. Finding guys that can be even solid in both, much less excellent at either, is a real challenge.
The guys that can excel in multiple tasks are prized by the top programs while smaller schools often find guys that can balance the tasks by looking at smaller players. The number of guys who are 6'0", 230 or smaller that are laterally quick but still sturdy and aggressive in the box is much larger than the same pool of guys that have the more highly desired 6'2" 230+ frames and needed athleticism.
There are three main ways teams choose their linebackers and draw up their defenses in order to handle spread spacing while still getting aggressive play in the box. Today we're going to focus on method 1: the pseudo-dime.
Origins of the pseudo-dime defense
This strategy was really popularized by the 2009 Nebraska Cornhuskers, who determined to stop trying to handle four-wide Big 12 offenses with traditional linebackers and came up with their "Peso" defense that flooded the field with defensive backs that could handle either playing in the box or covering inside receivers.
Much of the Big 12 initially dismissed this defense and though to bide their time and get vengeance in 2010 when the Cornhuskers would have to utilize this strategy without Ndamukong Suh single-handedly dominating games at defensive tackle. Instead, the 'Huskers secondary actually got even better and their "Peso" defense continued to throttle opponents.
The key was having a pair of brilliant cornerbacks with four safeties and only a single, true linebacker (Lavonte David) playing between them in the defensive backfield:
|Cornerback||Prince Amukamara||6'1" 205|
|Nickelback||Eric Hagg||6'2" 210|
|Free safety||Rickey Thenarse||
|Strong safety||Austin Cassidy||6'1" 210|
|Linebacker||Lavonte David||6'1" 225|
|Dime back||DeJon Gomes||6'0" 200|
|Cornerback||Alfonzo Dennard||5'10" 205|
Hagg was actually more of a coverage specialist while Gomes tended to find himself in the box but they were all versatile enough that the Nebraska secondary was nearly impervious to the problems spread teams could cause for defenses that insisted on sticking non-coverage players on the field.
If the spread offense is the football equivalent of the small ball approach by Golden State then playing dime personnel is matching up with four or five defenders who can all switch pick'n'rolls. When OKC or Cleveland did this to the Warriors all of a sudden the plays that formerly resulted in easy, wide-open three-pointers for Steph Curry or four-on-three rolls for Draymond Green were instead transformed into difficult, lower-percentage Iso situations.
There's a similar effect on pass defense when teams can play the pseudo-dime without getting gashed by the run.
The pseudo-dime and cover 3
Nowadays the Huskers have to utilize a different approach to building their linebacker units playing in the Big 10 but you can see newer pseudo-dime rosters at TCU or Ole Miss. The goal is to basically have as many space-backers or box safeties on the field as possible, up to as many as five even, who can all handle playing coverage in space or playing in the box like linebackers.
For Ole Miss, who plays a ton of cover 3, the goal is to be able to alternate which defenders are playing the hook/curl or curl/flat zones in cover 3 and which defenders are dropping into deep 1/3 zones. If the corners can play curl/flat and a deep 1/3, the linebackers can play hook/curl and curl/flat, and the safeties can play middle 1/3, hook/curl, and curl flat then they can bring a ton of disguise about who's doing what and roll coverage where it's needed in a given situation.
Last year Ole Miss' weakside linebacker was the 5'11", 208 pound Denzel Nkemdiche while the nickel was 6'0", 215 pound Tony Conner. The safety spots were filled by the aggressive, 5'11" 196 pound Trae Elston and 5'9", 184 pound Mike Hilton. All of them could handle any of the underneath zones in coverage and all of them were capable against the run so offenses couldn't be too confident of which safety would be dropping down or where they'd be dropping.
A team with specialists playing the linebacker or safety spots can be predictable in who they'll drop where as they seek to avoid match-up problems. For instance, against a spread passing attack lined up in a 2x2 set, most 4-2 defenses would look to drop down their coverage safety over the slot opposite the nickel so that their linebackers and non-coverage safety would be protected from having to cover a dangerous slot receiver:
But Ole Miss would have no qualms with having their weakside linebacker (stinger LB in their parlance) drop wide over the 2nd slot receiver and then let offenses guess which of their two safeties would drop down into the box to replace him:
This was also useful when it came time to blitz, since it was relatively easy for the different Rebel defenders to fill different roles and thus disguise where the extra pass-rusher was coming from.
The pseudo-dime and quarters defense
TCU mainly relies on different types of quarters coverage rather than cover 3, but they make use of the fact that their middle linebacker Travin Howard, a 6'1", 210 pound converted safety, can handle himself in space. One of the benefits they get from this is the ability to avoid rolling their weak safety strong to the field and to mix in a few different coverages and blitzes that lean on Howard's ability to not be a sieve if asked to cover a slot. Leaning on Howard to be able to play coverage allows them to use the weak safety to drop down and stop the run...
...or even to bracket the weak side receiver, even while TCU blitzes from the strong side:
Another advantage of playing a two-deep coverage with pseudo-dime personnel is that when TCU wants to play their two-deep/man under coverage on passing downs they are nearly impossible to find passing windows against. If all four of your receivers are being matched up by a cornerback or nickel/safety/space-backer while two safeties sit on top of everything there's not a great deal you can do about it but run the ball. TCU has always been good at that but having converted safeties like Howard at linebacker only makes them more deadly at erasing passing windows.
Good pseudo-dime teams in 2016
TCU is bringing back Travin Howard along with their strong safety (Denzel Johnson) and weak safety (Nick Orr, who might move to free safety) and could consequently field one of the stronger pseudo-dime defenses in the league. Texas will have a particularly unique blend of pseudo dime thanks to their Kam Chancellor/Von Miller hybrid linebacker Malik Jefferson who will play a role similar to what Travin Howard does for TCU while also adding fantastic blitzing.
Ole Miss will still bring this same style but will have to replace safeties Hilton and Elston along with "stinger" dimeback Nkemdiche (and his superstar younger brother). Oklahoma State could look at moving to a pseudo-dime defense to make the most of returning safeties Tre Flowers and Jordan Sterns, space-backer Jordan Burton, and losing weakside linebacker Seth Jacobs while bringing aboard transfer safety Derrick Moncrief from Auburn.
If Moncrief could play the weakside linebacker position, or play in the nickel while Burton moves over to the weakside, the Cowboys could really bolster their already disguise-heavy defense and perhaps improve on their already solid 32nd ranked passing S&P defense of 2015.
This style is on the up and up in college football and won't be going anywhere in 2016 so don't be surprised to see some other competitive teams use a similar approach to choosing linebackers.