why did i think of the band nickelback when i clicked on the link to this post? this is a sign that today is going to suck.
Hokepoints: What's a Nickelback?
Before we get to this, if you haven't yet go down to Heiko's Exclusive Interview with Borges. It is penetrating, and excellent, and kind of a coup that we got it.
I know what you were thinking. When spring practices meant there was actual FOOTBALL to pay attention to for a moment, you immediately sought the defensive back depth chart because:
- You are aware that the original X-hating god resides in our backfield
- You are aware that Jordan Kovacs isn't back there being your banky anymore
- You remember how you felt about things before Kovacs became your banky
- You remember we recruited a 5-star (to at least one service) this year and that he's enrolling early.
- You can't really name all the various Cass Tech dudes so you kinda have to check in every once in awhile to figure out which you actually have to learn.
This is likely when you discovered the aforementioned 5-star was at nickelback and you did a double-take because you read Dymonte's scouting report, and "is a cornerback" wasn't in it. I am supposing further that you think "nickelback" equals "cornerback" because by golly you've played that game with Woodson or Desmond or Denard or a handful of less important schmucks on the cover, and know that nickelback is the guy you put third on the cornerback depth chart who comes in on passing downs. Right Inigo?
Back when your grandpa was playing NCAA '06 or whatever, base defenses were 4-3 or 3-4, backfields had four dudes, and teams would cordially run on 1st and 2nd down and if it was still long on 3rd down they'd put another receiver on the field, you'd put another cornerback on the field, and because this was a 5th defensive back you called him the "nickel" and everything was nice and sense-y-make-y.
Then everything changed.
[Jump to understand]
Nickelvolution. What changed first was offenses, and Michigan had a front-row seat. In 2000 Michigan gave up 32 points to Purdue, and 54 to Northwestern, but those two games made very different points.
Purdue had Drew Brees running an early Tiller passing spread (they still did a lot of under-center too). In both of those games we went with Brandon Williams instead of Victor Hobson, a straight-up, traditional SAM linebacker for an extra cornerback trade. And against Purdue that mostly worked except the linebacker that wasn't Larry Foote kept doing Mouton things; Michigan only lost that game when Lloyd tried to sit on the lead by shelving Henson, stalling the offense in the 2nd half and letting Purdue slip back into the game. Anyway it made sense: if they're gonna create a receiver out of a fullback (or tight end in RR's West Virginia offense—it's the same difference), you turn a linebacker into a cornerback.
Carr went with the same gameplan for Northwestern. At linebacker was Larry Foote (WLB) and plugger-type Eric Brackins (MLB). They ran all over us, until Brackins started peeking into the backfield, and then they passed all over us. Here's one of Northwestern's many touchdowns from that day, where you can see Larry Stevens lose contain and cause walk-on free safety Dan Williams to shoot a hole that had nobody in it.
apologies for the quality; T3Media aka Thought Equity Motion killed the good one.
Michigan did actually string together some stops that day when going to 3-4, until Hermann weirdly reverted back to the passing nickel and Northwestern resumed the barbecue. This is instructive.
Odd fronts to the rescue
From Marc Cisco, head coach of Byron Center (Mich.) High School. Link takes you to his discussion on X&O Labs on how he uses his odd front to defeat up-tempo spread offenses
The key difference between that defense and the one Michigan is going to deploy in 2013 is where pass coverage responsibility lies. 2000 Michigan responded to the spread-to-run by putting a real-life cornerback in there instead of the SAM linebacker, and gave that guy pass responsibilities in the flat so the cornerback and safety could cover over the top. The middle linebacker was in there to take on blocks and stop runs. I can't say Brackins was good at that either, but that was the idea. Keeping the safeties high when Northwestern was running the ball all the time was a terrible idea.
That's because what Michigan was facing that day wasn't a passing offense but a running one that used passing personnel and passing formations to get the defense defending runs with their passing people and sets.
If the quarterback is going to be an extra guy whom the defense has to account for in the running game, the best way to even those numbers is have your inside defensive linemen demand double-teams. It's not as crazy as it may sound: the offense moving to a shotgun formation means it's going to take them a good half-second to a second longer to get the running back to the hole, so a good DT has more time to diagnose while using his size and strength to maintain the status quo (what's great about the I-form is it can attack the middle too quickly for the d-line to react).
Eric Wilson and Grant Bowman were used that way. Shawn Lazarus and Dan Rumishek were what Mattison would call the 3-tech and 5-tech. Larry Stevens was at that point a freshman edge rusher or 3-4 outside linebacker—pretty much what our WDE is today—and Michigan was a multiple front team built to stop heavy running attacks. Going away from assignment football let Jim Hermann attack from a lot of different places. This was Carr's answer to the running quarterbacks who'd shredded us a few years earlier.
So the front was right (until it wasn't again). The back wasn't. What Carr needed was not an extra corner to help the free safety cover low; he needed Victor Hobson to neutralize the running back in space. With Eric Wilson actually winning his battles inside and therefore limiting Kustok's keeper option, this was pretty effective, even though Hobson against a wide receiver was an exploitable passing mismatch. What we really needed there was some sort of mix between Victor Hobson and a cornerback—a guy who could be a plus asset in coverage yet mostly run defend. He wouldn't need a doctorate in play diagnosis since the plays were the same and coming right at him. Just a guy who's not too small to stand up to blocks and a guy not too bulky to be Eric Brackins in coverage (sorry Eric—you knows that I hates Brackinses.)
You'll note odd and offset fronts are still used against spread-to-run teams, and are far more popular today among the great defenses than the old even fronts. Michigan and Ohio State run 4-3 under. Michigan State and Nebraska are 4-3 over. Notre Dame and Alabama are 3-4. It's the same odd shit.
Course There's Still a Problem
If you didn't get to watch the gif, the moral of the story is the spread 'n shred takes advantage of the fact that the nickel is a cornerback-sized cornerback who's in there to do cornerback things, except he ends up doing very linebacker things like take on a block from the tight end, and serves as the pivot man for the rest of the defense. He also has to defend screens to that side and stuff. But against a running spread, the nickel back is going to have the running back coming straight to him, and if he can consistently stand up to blocks and make the tackle or force the play back inside, that dude has just stopped the best running play in the game.
The attributes here are not the typical cornerback ones. He doesn't have to be particularly tall (it doesn't hurt of course) since he's got two other defensive backs over top of him and he's going against shorter guys—the MLB has been given some of the pass coverage and will generally be the guy in the vicinity of the tight end. He doesn't have to be big enough to take on offensive linemen because he's starting out in the flat where it's pretty hard for OL to get to except on screens. He doesn't have to know the defense inside and out because he's got help over the top. He has to be aggressive. He has to be able to dominate blocks from whatever the offense can line up in the backfield, and he has to be able to tackle. You want him to be an excellent blitzer. In this way he's a lot like the strong safeties of the 46/Bear defense days, when teams ran inside so much you were happy to trade some of the defensive back attributes out of your secondary for some extra linebacker genes. He's also a lot like the many uber-talented young strong safeties Michigan's had over the last decade or so that we wanted to get on the field except putting them at safety meant yards after Mundy.
Michigan kind of prototyped this against Notre Dame and Purdue in 2003 to excellent results, using an extra cornerback as a free safety and Ernest Shazor as the nickel back (against Purdue they ran a lot of okie out of this nickel package – see 4:26 of the Michigan Replay that week). Shazor is the kind of guy you'd love at this spot—having Marlin beside him is the reason we got to see so much of that. In 2006 and 2007 they deployed Brandon Harrison as a nickel starter. You will remember although he was nominally a cornerback he was very safety-like (and played safety in 2005 and 2008), a little bugger who liked to tackle and take on blocks but didn't have the hips for coverage.
Ohio State made this into a starting position called the "Star." Last year it was Orhian Johnson playing it along with Christian Bryant; the first is a linebacker-ish safety guy, the second is a linebacker's brain transplanted into a corner's body (which leads to hilarious results when he tries to throw his weight around and calls it a tackle).
Michigan actually had something nearly identical to this kind of anti-spread nickelback in 2009-'10, and while you probably think I'm nuts for suggesting anything from those backfields was remotely competent, the "Spur" was. The spur in the 3-3-5 is the same thing as the SAM in a 3-4, except you're counting him as a defensive back instead of a linebacker. What the 3-3-5 did was spread out the linebackeryness (new word!) to either side of the offense. They took what was the weakside safety and strongside linebacker, and make that safety 1/3 linebacker, and made that linebacker about 1/2 safety. So instead of taking away an entire linebacker from your base defense and replacing it with a total defensive back, the net change is really just a sixth of a linebacker for a sixth of a safety.
If you recall the competence we got from Stevie Brown in 2009 and freshman versions of the Gordons and Carvin Johnson from Spur, you get a better sense of what Dymonte Thomas's role will be on the 2013 defense, and why they're putting him in that spot instead of entering him into the new-Kovacs sweepstakes. You'll also recall Woolfolk and Thomas Gordon playing nickel in 2011. According to UFR data, Michigan used nickel personnel in 38% of 1st and 2nd down situations last year, getting up to 88% of those downs against spread teams. Mostly Michigan matched personnel—when opponents went with 3 receivers or more Michigan countered with a nickelback. However that counter was mostly built for pass with Avery at the spot and Jake Ryan moving over to WDE. And you could tell because Michigan left their 4-3 defense in against a lot of 3-receiver personnel.
This year with Dymonte I expect to Michigan going to this kind of safety-nickel thing. Avery will still figure as the traditional "we need another cornerback" on 3rd and long.
Part 2 is posted today, today will not suck.
A) They're not a band.
B) Look at this photograph.
So why not call it something OTHER than "nickelback" ? It'd make it easier for everyone.
Let's all get football coaches to call things things that make sense.
Samir: Hmm... well, why don't you just go by Mike instead of Michael?
Michael Bolton: No way! Why should I change? He's the one who sucks.
I believe it's being called "slot corner" in some of the recruiting reports here.
Until the fullback doesn't line up between the quarterback and the halfback, the whole "is the nickelback a nickelback" thing doesn't concern me.
UFR Michigan Defensive Formation # of Plays Charted - 2011 Season
|Receivers in Formation|
The absence of JMFR and the addition of Dymonte into this years early roster will only further encourage this type of formation
What I get from all this is that, personnel-wise, the nickelback is evolving from a third CB to something more closely resembling a third OLB. VERY roughly put, I break down personnel needs to zone coverage, man coverage, taking on blocks and tackling in space. The nickelback was originally intended to do #1, #2 and some #4, which left it a gaping hole in the defense for the TE or FB to block in spread offenses. Now, the nickleback needs to do #1, #3 and #4. Ideally they can cover man as well, but with the CB and safety help it's neither a requirement nor an expectation. That's why the 3-4 worked against Northwestern's spread-n'-shred -- the second ILB replaces a defensive lineman but that's not too bad when defending the run out of shotgun, and the OLB gets pushed out into the nickel position where it's not a mismatch against the run. It's not quite the dedicated anti-spread defense with a specialized nickelback, but as a tweak it meets the defense's needs to stop a spread attack.
But yeah, the 4-3-4 isn't dead, and in fact the NB is better thought of as another linebacker rather than calling the SLB-NB substitution a 4-2-5. You may want to still go with conventional "nickel" packages when the offense shows an empty backfield, but as far as I'm concerned no serious defense has a fixed starting 11 anymore.
P.S. the animated gifs are as educational as they are hilarious.
Inigo, not Indigo. I have nothing else to add, as all this football stuff (weird that you'd talk so much football on a site dedicated to The Princess Bride and The Smiths) is out of my depth. Did I mention that I'm just here for the submarine sandwiches?
I believe It's Indigo. He pronounces it like Inuugo, but it's clearly Indigo, per the boy's pronunciation of it and the original novel.
Quite enjoyable & insightful.
At around 5:25, freshman Lamarr Woodley flies into the backfield and forces Kyle Orton to dodge and make a hurried pass that is intercepted just outside the endzone by freshman Leon Hall.
Can you please reference the positions instead of/in addition to the player names when describing the 2000 defense, for those of us that can't remember what we had for breakfast let alone the roster 13 years ago?
You don't remember 2000? As a refresher, Drew Henson was quarterback and passing to David Terrell and Marquise Walker and Braylon Edwards and Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson, who was also the cornerback, punt returner, kick returner, running back (behind Chris Perry and Anthony Thomas and Tom Harmon), and strong safety, free safety, and all three linebackers. The defensive line was the 1987 season of Superfriends. Michigan went 12-0 and won the Rose Bowl over FloridaMiami State or something, and the offensive line of Steve Hutchinson, Jeff Backus, Maurice Williams, Jake Long and David Molk lifted Henson on their shoulders at which point Drew yelled "We're all coming back next year to win again! Fuck the Yankees!"
And then the Yankees were fucked and the Tigers won seven World Series in a row.
It was kind of a 3-4 defense that year but it's really easiest to make it like a 4-3 under:
NT: Eric Wilson and Grant Bowman
3T: Shawn Lazarus
5T: Dan Rumishek
WDE: Larry Stevens and Evan Coleman
SAM: Victor Hobson
MIKE: Eric Brackins and Carl Diggs
WILL: Larry Foote
FS: DeWayne Patmon and Charles Drake
SS: Julius Curry
Boundary: James "Future Star of the XFL" Whitley
Field: Todd Howard
Nickel: Brandon Williams
If you don't remember what the XFL was, be thankful you remember 2000 way less than I do.
Great article, Seth. Your work lately (and the work of the team as a whole) has been phenomenal. Thank you.
We basically adjusted to the passing spread and they never really gave us any problems with it anymore, unlike Northwestern. Having that Brees guy might have had something to do with it too. I wonder what happened to him....?
You really missed several opportunities to say, "Look at this photograph" to explain the position... Still, a great and informative post. Thanks!
It will be fun to see how Mattison uses Thomas before and after JMFR returns to the line-up. Cam Gordon is a guy that can certainly cover the flat and it will be interesting if he is lined-up a little wider.
The moving GIFs were super helpful. Thomas seems perfect fo the Nickel because he is a LB/S/CB hybrid.
Very useful to have Thomas there given Ryan is out.
Lets just call him a Michigan man. Thanks for posting I have done the learn-ed-ing today.
Very good stuff...
I, too, get video game brain where nickleback means 3rd CB against the pass. But this makes sense.
My question is, what happens when that Slot WR is a Welker type? Even a Dileo type.
Do you stay with Thomas or put Avery in against the shifty slot WR?