With more and more offenses starting to use the hybrid tight ends like the New England Patriots use Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, defenses will be eaten alive if they do not match up with hybrid type defenses. The buzz words you will hear more and more this year, as far as defenses go, is “Big Nickel”.
Pat Kirwan of SiriusXM NFL Radio recently wrote about the “Big Nickel” and noted the teams he thought had the personnel to use it. One of those teams he listed was the Pittsburgh Steelers and it should come as no surprise as the Steelers used it last year in their win over the Patriots. We saw glimpses of it since that game and we will likely see even more of it in this upcoming season.
To recap, the “Big Nickel” utilizes three safeties, one of which usually plays down in the box and matches up against a flexed out tight end or stays in tighter if the formation is condensed to help play the run. Kirwan asked several defensive coaches about the three safety defense and the response he got was, “You gotta have the right kind of hybrid safety to do it right." The “Big Nickel” safety has to be able to play as a linebacker when the offense condenses the set, and of course, he has to match up on a flexed tight end when they spread out the formation.
The right kind of hybrid safety the Steelers used last season in the “Big Nickel” was of course Troy Polamalu. He played that role when the Steelers brought Ryan Mundy into the game as an extra safety when an extra cornerback was also brought into the game. This of course meant the nose tackle came off the field as well as a linebacker.
What is interesting about the game against the Patriots last season is that the Steelers defense was incredibly stretched thin in that game at linebacker. James Farrior and James Harrison did not play due to injuries and Jason Worilds was inactive for that game as well with an injury. Both Larry Foote and Stevenson Sylvester started inside and Lawrence Timmons continued to have to play outside in place of Harrison. If that was not enough, the Steelers also lost LaMarr Woodley in that game when he suffered his hamstring injury. At one point later in the game the “Big Nickel” defense featured Timmons, Foote and rookie Chris Carter at linebacker. Not the ideal personnel for the package, but it worked nonetheless.
Not only did the defense use the “Big Nickel” in that game, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau also used the “Dime” as well with rookie Cortez Allen serving as a fourth cornerback on the field alongside Ike Taylor, William Gay and Keenan Lewis. While Patriots quarterback Tom Brady still finished the game with a 101.8 quarterback rating (a stat that gets more useless by the year), he was also held to under 200 yards passing and the Patriots offense gained just 241 yards in total. Gronkowski had 94 yards of that offense, but superstar wide receiver Wes Welker was held to just 39 yards receiving thanks mostly to Taylor banging him around quite a bit in man coverage.
While the Steelers defense will not have to employ the “Big Nickel” or “Dime” every week in 2012, you can bet that they will at some point. They also figure to do so with Timmons back inside where he belongs and a healthy Harrison and Woodley outside. While Polamalu will likely continue to be that hybrid type safety to come up and play in the box, you have to wonder if maybe rookie linebacker Sean Spence might be able to fill that same role later on in the season to help lighten the wear and tear on Polamalu playing down low. While Spence is indeed considered a linebacker by the Steelers, his college tape shows him flying around the field like Polamalu does. This is why you have heard me refer to Spence following the draft as a possible “nickelbacker” type.
As far as “Dime” defense possibilities go this year, the Steelers did allow Gay to walk via free agency and now Lewis and Allen will battle to see who starts outside opposite Taylor. Your fourth cornerback on the field in “Dime” situations this year, assuming he doesn\'t win the starting nickel cornerback job, will be Curtis Brown. Although Brown did not receive any snaps on defense last year, we did get to see what type of tackler he was on special teams, where he will continue to contribute in 2012. A few of the Pittsburgh media have also noted how he stuck out during the first OTA session last week. Even though it was just football in shorts, it is worth noting.
So while Kirwan notes that a few teams still are working on ways to combat the offenses that feature the hybrid tight ends, LeBeau has been on it for a while now. Not only does he have a “Big Nickel” at his disposal, but a young “Dime” version as well.