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MHR University - The Nickel Formations

I had planned on doing a youth coaching article, but there has been some interest expressed on the site and in my e-mail about the 3-3-5. Let's expand on that a little, and talk about nickel formations (including the 3-3-5) in several contexts (history, reasoning, personnel, etc).

As a Broncos centric site, most of the readers should get some use out of this article, since Denver uses both the 3-3-5 (sometimes mistakenly called a 33 stack), and the strong nickel. Denver has nice depth at the DB positions to be flexible with the nickel.

You there, in the back row! Put down that Madden cheat sheet! That isn't "Cliff's Notes" you know! We're talking the real thing here. C'mon.

Ok. Click on the read more link and let's have a good time!


"Not on my Turf; Not on My Watch".

It's a great night for football. It's cool out, the humidity is low, the home crowd is doing its job, and most importantly, you haven't given up the dreaded big play. The head coach loves you, because as a defensive coordinator you've been helping the men on the field to keep the ball in the hands of the offense.

The other team is struggling, and now they are third and short. Another third and out maybe? They've got a bruising, power RB who hasn't had much luck tonight, but this is short yardage. It's what he's built for. You're ok though. Your 4-3 is locked, cocked and ready to rock with the best defensive line in the conference. No RB breaks your line. Not on your turf. Not on your watch. The play clock keeps ticking down, the offense breaks their huddle, and then...

Something goes wrong! The opposing team has a scripted play coming in from the sideline. Your arch rival (the other team's offensive coordinator) flashes you an evil grin. The home crowd is focused on the field, and doesn't see the drama that unfolds on your sideline like a Biblical dark storm filled with doom and dread. The opposing fullback is coming off of the field like a bat out of hell (for a big guy), and the speed demon slot receiver that is used for obvious passing downs is taking his place on the field.

The head coach sees the danger right away. Is this a pass play coming, or a run? Can we defend both? The situation calls for a nickle formation, but with only two and a half yards to go there is little chance the nickle can stop the opposing RB nicknamed The Juggernaut. The HC shoots you a worried look.

The assistant at your side has just signaled in a run defense play out of a run defense formation. He doesn't know whether to switch in an extra corner or to keep the play. But you've brought him up right, knowing he'll be the defensive coordinator some day. He does what he's been trained to do. He buys you time.

Just like a Navy Carrier Commander getting ready to send fighter planes to the rescue, your assistant yells out "Ready Nickel Danger!", alerting the team to send every nickel package player to the coach's side at once. The team picks up the cry, and the result is that 6 young men race to the sideline next to you, ready for the command, "do or die" written on their faces. The clock is still ticking, and the opposing fat, slob of a FB is still racing off the field. Only now does the crowd realize that something is going on. Something terrible. Unfortunately, they get louder. They think the noise will hurt the snap count. In this case, the coaches can barely be heard on the sideline, and the defense on the field can't hear each other for the emergency adjustment. Sometimes the knife cuts both ways.

The defense that is on the field is good. One of the best. But they're too smart. They see the offensive substitution, they hear the assistant to the coordinator calling a "danger", and the middle linebacker panics. He's a smart kid, and he does his best to make some adjustments to throw the other team as he's been trained to do. You trust this kid. But the adjustments are not going to be the ones you would have wanted.

"Guys!", the kid yells "Shift strong; slant left! Shift strong; slant left!". Expletives fly up from the rest of the coaches. Everything is going to Hell. But you are the calm in the storm, the angel at the gate, the last soldier in the last ditch. You will adjust. "Hang in there Billy", you whisper. "Help's coming".

Only five seconds have gone by since the offense broke their huddle. Time has slowed to a crawl. You scan the situation. The head coach is screaming, the kids are yelling, the crowd has no clue how bad things have gotten, but they just know to yell louder.

You have about two seconds to make a decision and pull off a substitution, change or tweak the existing defense, or blow a time out. The last option buys the offense time, the one thing they really want. Another second clicks off...

Formations, sets, plays, adjustments, player match-ups, opposing team tendancies, stats, down and distance, and traps within traps within traps...

Time stops. Nothing is moving. There is no crowd, no team, no game. Only you. You and your mind. You and the week of long hours and little sleep preparing for the evil that is congratulating himself on the opposite side of the field. There is only you...

Your men...

Your playcall.

Time starts picking up, the noise starts to filter back into your head, and you remember last Wednesday night with the film, the books, the rest of the staff. You prepared for this moment.

You pull the assistant's head towards your ear. No one else will ever know what you said. But they'll see the result. They'll see the assistant straighten up, fire in his eyes, realization dawning on him. They'll see the suddenly calm hand signals being sent in, relaying your instructions. They'll see two boys, two young men sprint onto the field and two sprint off. They'll see the result in the next day's newspaper. The only thing they won't see, the one thing they'll miss...

The defense goes strong nickel, the offense goes singleback 3WR set...

The only thing that the crowd and the players and the press and...

The ball snaps. The evil offensive coordinator makes the best move he's ever made. Not a run up the gut, and not a pass down the field...

The only thing missed by everyone in the stadium except for you and your evil opposite...

It's a screen to the TE! The lateral is complete, the TE turns to head upfield. The way to the first down marker is clear, and so is the way to the endzone...

Nobody sees you and coach Evil make eye contact. He's grinning ear to ear. You've blown it! You never even look at the field or the play. You don't have to. You mouth the words across the field, knowing he can read your lips...

Out of nowhere, somehow, someway, the strong safety appears out of nowhere....

"Not on my turf;....

The collision can be heard over the crowd noise, the TE goes down a full yard short of the down marker. He's frightenly slow getting back up.

...Not on my watch, you son of a..."


Congratulations. You've just lived through one play as a defensive coordinator. There will be many more throughout the game. Don't take the job if you've got a weak heart.

In a moment, we'll scratch the surface of the story you just read by learning about the strong nickel. We'll learn what a 3-3-5 is, and very briefly touch on a couple of bizzare nickel variants (multiple SAFs).

What is a nickel formation, and why is it used?

The nickel is not as old as you might think. It was first introduced to the pros by the Dolphins in the 70's. Before that it was rarely used at the college level as a gimmick formation. The nickelback either blitzed or zoned, but wasn't really there to provide man coverage. After all, who was going to throw the ball that much back then?

A nickel formation is any defensive formation that features 5 defensive backs. A nickel is five cents, hence 5 DBs. It is a formation that brings in an extra DB (almost always a CB) and takes out another position.

If you need more speed on the field, and the other team is likely to pass (perhaps they brought in an additional receiver, a "slot") you might call in the nickel. The above illustration is a standard (or base) nickel formation. Note that it isn't so skewed towards the passing game that you can't run some great, balanced schemes. Zone, man, and blitzing combinations are all there, as well as run contain and QB contain possibilities.

Also note this trend developing at the NFL level: a few teams are almost running the nickel as their primary defense, instead of the 4-3 or 3-4 (or the rare 46). Passing schemes are much more effective these days, and the fairly recent emphasis on enforcing the rule about how far a defender can contact an eligible receiver down the field has made the job of defenses harder. This may explain the trend. I'm thinking that the trend will be short lived though. The new rule about allowing defenders to push receivers out of bounds in the air (YES!) may also help to reverse the need for more nickels.

I've never been a heavy blitzer, but I liked to work a few blitzes out of nickels packages. I often had my DTs and DEs on either side lined up pretty wide (leaving a hole in the middle of my formation for the offense). It helped my DEs a little to face fewer obstacles during the pass rush, and I could either send a LB up the gut, or threaten to have my nickelback race in after RT or TE committed to my left DE. It took away the sweep runs and hindered the screens, and I felt that if 2 LBs and 2 SAFs couldn't stop a RB in the center of the field (my wide DTs should have at least peeled off 2 run blockers, and the other one was replaced by the offense's slot receiver), well then we didn't deserve to win anyway.

The title says there's more than one nickel. What's up with that?

Evil never sleeps. It's always hunting the endzone, and we're the guardians that stand in the gap. In short, one kind of nickel isn't enough.

In the story above, the opposing team put us into a bad situation. Sure, bringing in a third receiver signals a pass, but what if the play is near the 1st down marker? What if the play could go either way and perhaps be a run?

We call in the strong nickel.

The SS comes up closer to the line (how close depends on the playcall itsself). The FS centers to adjust for the displaced SS. The defense can cover the TE with either the SS or the nearest LB if they want to. They can show an almost 4-3 look at the offense if the offense wants to run the ball. If the offense passes, the WRs are covered, as is the SAF. It's a good pass protection formation if you suspect the bad guys might just run the ball. Often, the DL (or even just the left DE) shifts over the TE to bump him at the line in case he (the TE) is going to take a route for a pass play. Remember, right and left is from the defense's view when talking about the defense. There are several variants of the strong nickel, but the emphasis is on using the line, the SS, or a combination of the two to exert pressure on the side where most runs go, and (it is hoped) to pressure the TE.

Quick quiz! Why would the Broncos have been keen on this defense for so long? If your answer was because of the elite TEs in the AFC West, buy yourself a cold drink. By forcing the TE to stay in and protect the QB, you take the KC-Gonzales / SD Gates variables out of the equation. The AFC West also features good RBs (or has) from all four teams, and the strong nickel is more run-resistant that all of the other nickel packages.

In our story, you called in a strong nickel. You pulled the SS that was playing (he was a deep cover kind of guy), and you pulled one of the LBs. You sent in a run stopping TE, and your nickelback (#3) CB. You also did a half dozen other things, including changing assignments, disguising coverages, and undoing the "scissor" we discussed last week.

If the play is almost certainly pass, and you want to zone the midfield with speedy, coverage LBs (the Denver type), you can call in the 3-3-5.

You know, I'm really not a fan of the 3-4. But this "3-4" kind of looking nickel is one of my favorites. It will give up short yardage if the other team decides to run, but you can hide anything in this defense. You can man the CBs on each WR to stop the pass, and keep the SAFs back as insurance. Then, you still have three players to use in man, zone, or blitz. A DE/OLB tweener can shift the formation between a regular nickel and a 3-3-5 so quick with just two to three steps, that the adjustments made by the QB (as spelled out in a terrific article by TedBartlett905) have just been tossed out of the window.

There are two more nickels, but I don't want to spend much time on them. I love one of the two ideas in theory, but have never been able to muster much respect for the product in practice. Also, here's something you can have fun with at your next football party:

What defines a nickel? Do you remember? The correct answer is 5 DBs. But MOST folks focus on the fact that there are 3 cornerbacks on the field. Even some of the media commentators that we put up with will see the following formations and not realize they are seeing a nickel (because there are only 2 CBs on the field). So at your next party, while watching the game with your buddies, watch for the following formations. Ask your buddies if they think the formation is a nickel. Odds are that they say no. Don't correct them. Just pat yourself on the back for knowing something that you perhaps didn't know before you read this edition of MHR University.

Let's say you take out a DT and add an extra SAF. Let's say you line up three DLs, then line up the 3 LBs a few yards behind them, and a few yards further back (15 to 20 yards behind scrimmage), line up the three SAFs. We would call this a "33 stack". Sometimes you will hear a media type call the 3-3-5 a "33 stack". It drives me up the wall. (Although I remember MANY years ago hearing a play by play commentator get corrected by his color commentary guy). Sometimes the formation is also called a "tight cover three" (tight, because the DLs, LBs, and SAFs are bunched together, but at different levels of the field). This is one example of a cover three formation. (Remember from one of our old discussions, a cover three is a formation, not a system. A cover two is a system, not a formation).

Another triple SAF formation which belongs to the cover three family and is a nickel formation (though hard to recognize) is the "Umbrella". (Or, as singer Brianna calls it, her "umbrella-ella-ella-ella-ella"). I like this formation a lot, at least when I draw it up on the board and work with it. At the HS level I couldn't realisticly run it. But I once had high hopes for it at a much higher level. I'll get to that in a second.

Picture 3 DLs. A few steps behind the DT is the MLB. Just to the outside and a couple of steps in back of the DEs are the OLBs. Much further back you have 3 SAFs who are spread far apart. You can draw a straight line from the DT back to one of the safeties, and a diagonal line that goes back and to the side of the field going though each DE, his nearest OLB, and the outer SAF. This is the "Umbrella", sometimes called (also correctly) a 3-5-3. In this formation (and the 33 stack) we call the weakside SAF the "weak safety", and the middle safety is called the "free safety". This formation is heavily zone based.

Did someone in the back row say "middle safety"? No, That's not correct. It's still "free safety". No, I don't know why the MLB isn't called the "free linbacker". Probably because his assignments don't leave him free like a free safety generaly is. Back to what I was saying...

Neither this umbrella formation, nor the 33 stack should ever be called "3 deep". They both fall in the "cover three family" of formations, but using the term 3 deep can have several meanings, not even relating to the formation itself (and can cause confusion).

Even though the 33 Stack can be called a "tight cover 3" I have never heard the umbrella called a "wide cover 3". I confess that I don't know if the term is used or if it is considered correct in some region or not. I asked a few coaching buddies while putting together this article, and they didn't know either. (My old head coach said he never heard the term "wide cover 3" in all his years, and is pretty sure the 33 stack is considered a variation of the umbrella. By that token, he reasons, the "wide" isn't "wide", it's just the base. The term "tight cover 3" for the 33 stack is used to show that it is a variant from the "normal" spacing in the umbrella).


Now I'm going to admit to something a little embarrassing. I always wanted to innovate a new formation or system, and one I played around with was based on using the Umbrella as a base formation. (This was when I was still pretty young and wet behind the ears). It would get slaughtered at the HS level (I reasoned) because of the heavier emphasis on running. But if I could be like Bum Phillips, and work my way up to the pros, I could destroy the passing games of many teams, and earn a SB trophy in no time! The key was to develop a run stopping scheme within the formation.

Anyway, I was at a seminar and for one of the free elective classes that sounded right up my alley we were supposed to present a new formation or scheme (the program itsself was on learning some college level techniques for matching systems with players, instead of running the same thing year after year that the coach likes). I brought in my "homework" assignment on the second day and (being young and foolish) didn't realize that the point of the excersise was to get you to "think", not to really advocate the system you had drawn up.

But when I was picked to go up front and talk about my wonderful creation I should have noticed that the other coach from my school who had signed up for the class (our OL/TEs coach) was shaking his head and turning red because he was embarassed, not because he was too proud of me to speak! I went on for several moments before I realized I had missed the entire point of the excercize. We were in a conference room with about 80 to 100 people. It remains one of the most embarassing memories I have. I heard about it the entire flight back a few days later, and I spent several years hoping I would never run into anyone that took that particular course at that seminar. There's a time to be innovative and to stand your ground. There's also a time to realize that you are just plain digging a hole.

I also learned what a true wingman is. A couple of minutes into my realization that I had just made a fool out of myself and couldn't think of a witty way I could just stop and save face, one of the presentation experts cut me off with a not so subtle (and kind of cruel), "What do you call your little system?"

Another attendee who had made friends with the position coach from my school, remembering that the nearby strip club was called "Annabelles" or something like that, spoke up. "I believe he calls it the 'ten scotch and sodas at Anabelles and us dragging him away from the clutches of Ilka the Milk Maid last night system' sir". While everyone broke up laughing I walked to my seat and sat down. The position coach elbowed me in the chest and quietly warned my not to speak to him, lest someone think that we knew each other. He was smiling though, and I've grown much older and wiser since that dark day.


As always, feel free to drop any football questions (no matter how simple you might think they might be) in the comments section below. We have a lot of sharp folks around these parts, and someone is bound to be able to help you out.

We're all here to help each other out.