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Attacking with the Nickel Package in Man Coverage

With Kevin Steele’s preference to take out the SAM backer against spread formations we felt it would be useful to spend some time going over 4-2-5 and Nickel defenses. Additionally, since some have asked us how one defends the spread and why Clemson had such a difficult time with running QBs and the rush defense against Wildcat and spread teams last year we'll show the problems we have had with the Nickel against the run game.

Kevin Steele’s defense is very similar to Saban’s schemes as I’ve said. Saban, since returning from the NFL, has veered more into the 30 (3-man) front, but in reality Saban still runs 40 fronts about 40-50% of the time, so pigeonholing Alabama into a "3-4" team isn’t really accurate. Steele does use the fronts that he learned from Saban, Dom Capers, and Charlie McBride that are 30 and 40-based, but he has more of an NFL philosophy to defend pro-style sets. This calls for more 40 fronts and Steele has a clear preference for traditional 4-3 sets. That means he wants two big tackles to plug gaps, defensive ends that can work as spill players and rush the passer, and the traditional NFL linebacker.

Coaches all want the 6-5 250lb LB who runs a 4.3 40, but we know that is just not going to happen. So there are usually differences in the types that end up filling the positions. What follows is how I was taught in how to look at each:

WILL plays weakside and ends up taking on fewer direct blocks from Guards and Centers, because most offenses are geared up to run the ball to the strongside. However, WILL ends up picking up more slot WRs and most RBs/H-backs run routes to the weakside/middle, and so the WLB needs to be capable in pass coverage and faster than the other two positions.

MIKE ends up taking on more blocks from the interior linemen, particularly uncovered Guards and Centers and veering Tackles, and also fullbacks. Because of this he needs more mass. He must be disciplined and intelligent, and in Clemson’s scheme he makes all the front calls to shift the defensive front when the offense uses motion, so he must know your defensive scheme better than anyone. In Clemson’s scheme, which is predominantly 2 MAN/ZONE and Cover 10, he’s usually playing a short zone position called "Robber" or is locked in man coverage on a RB. Most of what he will pick up are crossing WRs and dump off passes to RBs as safety valves. Because of this he doesn’t need quite as much ability in pass coverage, but must be a sure tackler skilled at getting off blocks.

SAM needs to be taller to cover the usually-tall TE and handle taller OTs but with enough mass to be able to deny the TE certain routes with his body, usually he is the tallest LB. He ends up taking on more blocks from pulling linemen, tackles, and TEs since most run plays go to the strongside.

For most purposes, we treat 21 (2-backs, 1TE) and 12 personnel groupings the same, and most of the ACC runs an offense with this personnel group. Therefore a pro-style defense in a 4-3 set is just fine. The problem we ran into last season is when teams ran 10 and 11 personnel out there against us.

Since Kevin Alexander was too big and too slow to be in many sets that called for other than run-based defense, and we know Cooper lost his athleticism and speed, so he couldn’t play as much coverage either. Daniel Andrews is a guy that I think is serviceable and did play very well in the bowl game and was capable at other times, but is neither very fast nor very massive. At best he is a spot contributor or role player. Therefore, Steele has opted to run Nickel against nearly all spread personnel groups.

There is a difference between a 4-2-5 defense and a Nickel defense. It’s a bit nitpicky but when talking to football people there is a distinction you should have in mind. A Nickel is when you take out the SLB (usually) and put in another Cornerback. The Nickelback (NB) is usually your 2nd option at one of the CB spots who happens to be your 3rd best guy in coverage. A 4-2-5 scheme is one where you take out the SLB and put in another safety.

TCU’s system is based on having essentially 2 strong safety-types with a true free safety in the middle who rotates to the side of the passing strength. John Chavis’ (LSU) system is a 4-2-5 run out of 4-3 personnel, as was Vic Koenning’s. They simply drop one of those extra SS into the box often and this dictates some of the front alignments they show.

When we take out the SLB, we do not simply put the NB over on the new slot receiver, we must shift the front around to make sure the run gaps are covered. Everyone has a specific assignment on running plays. We’ve gone over the basic OVER/UNDER alignment before, and generally we start from the UNDER at Clemson. If a back comes off the field and a WR comes on, showing 11 personnel, we set the front to OVER and align the NB on the slot. In our scheme WILL now is called "Money", and MIKE is called "Mac" but I'll leave them as is.


Where the NB plays an inside technique on the slot receiver in this doubles set, and both corners are playing outside technique above to set up Robber. I'd prefer we press hard on the slot receiver, because they're usually little guys that arent used to being beat up like the outside receivers are, and it disrupts his pattern to be jammed hard. Additionally, I don't want #2 to either side getting a free release against a single high safety.  Clemson doesn't seem to jam the slot as much as I would like, but I digress.

Playing Robber coverage gives you a "Spy" to watch the running QBs. He is free to watch the QB's eyes (usually he's watching his shoulders rather than his eyes) and should be there if the QB is flushed out of the pocket. As far as the coverage goes, there is not much more the coach can do, everything else is left up to the front and their gap control.

In what I’ve drawn below you have a basic setup for Nickel 11 Robber starting from our 2-high look. Assuming the TE goes up the seam and the back goes strong, the S would have the TE man/man and WILL the 2nd man out. MIKE steps back and plays the Robber. Conversely, if the RB peels out weakside, MIKE picks him up. WILL or the SS can then become Robber, depending on the TE’s release or gameplan (obviously a really good receiving TE will be covered by the S). I know that Saban flips the safeties against this particular formation, putting the FS on the TE and the SS to the side of the 2 WRs (called an Invert) and leaving the Robber assignment to the LBs.


As you can see, the Nickel package bases out of a Cover 2 look, so we now have 4 different coverages from the exact same look: 2 MAN, 2 ZONE, Cover 1 (Robber), and Cover 0. We have discussed the specific techniques and how we treat 2 ZONE and individual Man coverage before, so we won’t go over that again here. This is the majority of what we play on defense, and most coordinators will tell you to base out of Cover 2 against spread teams and then disguise the coverage by moving the Corners back and forth (press and bail technique).

Even TCU shows a 2 High look pre-snap with their 4-2-5, they just play a split coverage with it, which is a completely different way of looking at offenses.

Attacking the Passing Game

Against spread teams obviously you cannot sit back and just play coverage, you must attack. Most zone blitzes are 3-Under Cover 3, with 2 ZONE as a mix-up, particularly out of Nickel packages but thats for another post. Here we're going to look at Man coverage. Within a Nickel Cover 0 (full man/man) package you have the basic SMOKE (Safety) blitz. Here is a Nickel 0 Over Double Smoke.


(h/t brophy)

Here the 3 corners are playing with a cushion to prevent the deep throw if the blitz doesn’t record a sack quickly enough. WILL has the TE man/man if he releases.

The OG on each side has to make a choice on who to pick up, and whoever is free should get the free hit on the QB. Everyone has an assigned gap to blitz through in case the play is run. Both of the DE are watching the RB and have man/man coverage responsibilities on him if he comes out as a safety valve to their side (called "peel-off" technique).

Now let’s change the front, this time to an EAGLE, which is very similar to the BEAR front we discussed before (but no Nose Tackle), and slightly change the formation to a shotgun 3x2. Also, we’ll send a Nickel and WLB on blitzes. Auburn and FSU both run this offensive formation quite often, for example.


Both Tackles are playing a 3-technique, apparently leaving the middle of the defense wide open. After the snap they move across the face of the Guards to attack the A-gaps. This type of stunt is to prevent the quick trap from working. The Ends power rush into the B-gaps and the WILL comes around the End off the edge. The Ends here are conscious of the QB being able to recognize that there is a blitz on, so their intent is not to get a sack but instead play contain and watch for screens or a draw play. Usually when a blitz is set up off the edge, the End has that responsibility.

The NB creeps up when the QB begins his cadence and blitzes free off the edge, with the S picking up the receiver man/man. The other Corners play the same catch-man technique as before, 7-9 yards off and set up to prevent the deep throw but close enough to stop a hot route.

Next is a Nickel MIKE Cover 1 blitz against the same front. Here the SS takes over the MIKE's coverage responsibility of the RB or plays Robber when MIKE blitzes up the weakside B-gap. The FS rotates over into deep coverage, and the Tackles run a TOM/TOMY stunt to prevent the quick inside trap play. The DE here on the strongside actually has to jam the TE before WILL can pick him up if he goes over the middle, then plays the same "peel-off" technique as above on the RB if he comes out to that side. He's not looking for a sack but to play contain.


In the next play we'll illustrate a "Key" blitz. Rarely are blitzes left without a checkoff of some kind for the defense to adjust pre-snap or during a play to prevent a big play. Your "key" is just the offensive player you are watching, and for LBs its usually a RB. Key blitzes are blitzes where the defender reads his key and then decides whether to blitz or drop back into coverage based on what his key does. For example, if MIKE has the strongside back as his key, and the back stays in to block, MIKE blitzes. If the back runs out towards MIKE's side of the field, MIKE picks him up man/man in coverage. If defensive players read "run" then the play becomes what you think of as a run blitz: everyone has a gap to cover to prevent the RB from getting free into the secondary.



Here the MIKE, Nickel, FS and Strong End are blitzing off keys. Corners have man/man no matter what and play inside their receiver, using the boundary as their help defender. Both Safeties are keying the RB to their side (if there is one), so long as the back stays in the backfield to block MIKE, in this alignment, they will blitz from the outside. If the back is lined to the opposite side, the Safety has a free pass rush, so usually only one of them will blitz. If the back goes in motion to that side of the field or runs a route (e.g., a flare or wheel), then the S picks him up in man/man coverage and the opposite safety is free to rush. WILL has the TE man/man.

What if the QB reads and checks off? Well then the defense has a built-in check off already. Lets check to bracket cover 2. As soon as the Safety sees that the QB is checking, he must communicate to the defense that he is checking the play as well. The specific check will be given by the coaches in gameplan that week, and it could be to simply bracket the best receiver and play Cover 3.


Here the Safeties (or the MIKE) see the QB check off the play when he reads blitz, so one yells "Check VISE" and so both safeties peel off the blitz and get depth on the receiver in Cover 2 Bracket coverage. Bracket in this context is a double-team with one defender playing outside and the safety playing inside the receiver.

The last blitz we'll cover in this Man/Man Nickel package is a Backer Dog blitz.  Dogs are usually Safety+LB blitzes where the "Dog" is the free rusher. In some defensive schemes the term actually stands for a Rover/SS-type of player who may frequently blitz, and sometimes a "Dog" is just another word defensive coordinators use for a generic blitz, but here we just mean the free rusher and in this case its a NB.


Here MIKE keys the back as he rushes, if the back tries to block, MIKE engages him. If the back releases to MIKE's side, he covers. If the back releases to the other side, MIKE is a dog. The NB is a dog. Both Tackles bull rush into te A-gaps to free up the B. The Weak DE is playing BULL technique,  starting from head-on the Tackle (which tells the OT he can go either way, B or C-gap), meaning he must power rush the Tackle and watch for a screen or draw play. Because he is power rushing, it keeps the Tackle in the play and doesnt let him break off for the screen.

Hopefully this gives you an idea of how we will attack the spread offenses within a Cover 1 or Cover 0 package, the next post will be on defending the specific run plays we face within the Nickel package, since that will be the majority of what we run this year.