Nickel…can mean many things actually.
Last season, former Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine used dime personnel more than anyone in the league and nickel personnel less than anyone in the league. According to Football Outsiders’ charting, the Packers used five defensive back sets (nickel) just 27 percent of the time, with the league-wide average being recorded at 60 percent. They also used six defensive back sets (dime) 50 percent of the time, with the league-wide rate being 15 percent.
One of the selling points on Joe Barry, who coached under Brandon Staley with the Los Angeles Rams last season, was that he would bring more varied defenses to Green Bay. The Rams under Staley, now the head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers, not only were one of the most diverse NFL teams in terms of personnel but also coverages last year.
Over the last two games, against the 49ers and Steelers, we’re starting to see Barry deploy the same mindset to the Packers’ defense. After playing fairly “stock” base 3-4 and nickel looks over the first two weeks of the season, one of the ways Barry is beginning to separate himself from his NFL peers is how he deploys nickel personnel and how he lines those players up.
The example below is a traditional nickel set:
Outside linebackers (pass-rushers) are circled in yellow. Interior defensive linemen are circled in red. Inside linebackers are circled in blue. There are two of each, which is normal (if you consider 3-4 outside linebackers and 4-3 defensive ends as “pass-rushers”) across both 4-3 and 3-4 defensive structures.
Traditionally, 4-3 defenses take a Sam/Strongside linebacker off of the field to add a fifth defensive back into the game while 3-4 defenses take an interior defensive lineman off of the field. Often, Barry does do this, but he has more variations to his personnel packages.
Below is another “nickel” example against Steelers that looks very different:
Instead of pulling an interior defensive lineman off of the field, Barry decides to pull an inside linebacker. What’s the benefit of this? Well, on the line of scrimmage it presents the 3-4 Bear front that the Packers typically play in their base defense. In theory, it’s a way to stop the inside run game more efficiently while also being able to get a nickelback on the field to cover a slot receiver.
With that being said, Barry is getting into these five-down Bear looks with “normal” nickel personnel, too.
Above is an example of just that. This is your traditional nickel personnel. Two pass-rushers, two interior linemen, and two inside linebackers. This is still a look designed for one-on-ones across the line of scrimmage that makes it very difficult to run against, despite there being six defensive backs on the field.
The way the Packers did it on this snap was by walking down pass-rusher Rashan Gary (#52) over the center, essentially where a nose tackle would play, while kicking inside linebacker Oren Burks (#42) to the edge, where an outside linebacker would typically play. A walked down pass-rusher on the interior should not be a new sight to Packers fans, who have seen what Za’Darius Smith was able to do in Pettine’s defense, but the big difference is that they are now playing nickel personnel and not dime personnel, meaning they don’t have to have Adrian Amos playing linebacker in the box.
The personnel and alignment flexibility this defense is starting to show can cause offensive play-callers problems.
Here’s one example:
When they’re in “normal” nickel personnel, are the Packers going to line up with two linebackers off of the ball or are the Packers going to put five defenders over five offensive linemen at the line of scrimmage? That drastically changes what type of runs you want to call…and it becomes a game of rock-paper-scissors unless your quarterback can get you into the right call at the line.
Here’s another example:
If you go in 11 personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers) as an offense, you have to now guess which position is going to come off the field to get the nickelback in the game. Is it 1st and 10? Maybe the Packers will keep all three defensive linemen out there and be sound in the run game first. Is it 2nd and 7? Maybe the Packers will keep both inside linebackers on the field to tap into more speed and coverage ability. Unconventional personnel packages that take advantage of the down and distance situation just adds another layer of anxiety for offenses.
No matter how you spin it, we’re seeing the evolution of this defense in real-time, something that both the 49ers and Steelers have struggled with over the last two weeks. It’s not something you see week-to-week in the NFL. The way Barry is deploying his fronts is starting to look more like what we’re seeing in the SEC (see: Alabama, Georgia, etc.) these days than the NFL. The stock defense that we saw in the first two weeks of the season has seemingly changed overnight.