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MHR University: Nickel for a Quarterback

This week we are going to take a look at the nickel defense and it's sub packages.

Up to this point we have established that the Broncos are not strictly a 3-4 or 4-3 defense. We've also established that they think in terms of "over" and "under" which shifts the front 7 into different alignments to create favorable matchups. We have heard that the Broncos played upwards of 65% of their defensive snaps in the nickel defense. But do we know exactly what "nickel" means?

nickel defense--one defensive back comes into the game and takes the place of a front 7 player (the defense now has 5 defensive backs in the game)

That is all you need to know to identify the nickel defense. Count up the number of safeties and cornerbacks and if that number equals 5, the defense is in it's nickel package. After the beginning of the season when the lineup was shuffled a bit, the Broncos base defense had Champ Bailey as the #1, Chris Harris as the #2, Mike Adams as the box safety, and Rahim Moore as the centerfielder. When the Broncos played nickel, Champ was still #1, Tony Carter came in on the outside as the #2, Chris Harris kicked inside to cover the slot, and we had Mike Adams and Rahim Moore.

When this happened Von Miller became the stand up LDE, and Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan became the two linebackers. Now because of the versatility of Von Miller, sometimes the Broncos were in a 4-2-5 look or a 3-3-5 look. You can see with Von's ability to flex from the SAM backer/rush DE positions the Broncos could pretty much do either. Instead of using a diagram to show you what the Broncos look like in the nickel defense, let's get the look straight from film:


I hope you know the numbers of the Broncos defenders because that's how I've ID them. If you're unsure about one or two here's the breakdown:

D-line: RDE Dumervil (#92), DT Wolfe (#95), DT Unrein (#96), LDE Miller (#58)

LB: #59 Trevathan, #52 Woodyard

DB: CB #24 Champ, S #20 Adams, CB #25 Harris, CB #32 Carter, S #26 Moore

I chose not to label the LB's as Will, Sam, or Mike because their roles are pretty different in this formation. Danny Trevathan is the cover LB charged with manning up on Jimmy Graham. Wesley Woodyard is really the "Mike" charged with playing zone over the middle. This is my reservation against Manti T'eo as a Bronco. Sure he could be a 3 down backer, but that becomes more irrelevant with what the Broncos do. If he is a 3-down backer who do you take out when we play nickel? Do you take out Trevathan who by far is our best man-to-man coverage LB and make Woodyard who is better in zone play that role? Or do you ask a slower and less athletic T'eo take over his role? Te'o for Woodyard would work ok, but then the impact is negligible and you've wasted a pick on some guy who will essentially be replacing what you already have on your roster.

Both the DT are lined up as 3-techs, this leaves the C uncovered. The coverage over the top is Cover 1. They used Rahim Moore in this role a ton. The Broncos are one of the few teams out there that can play man underneath across the board and be effective. This alignment would be labeled "4-2-5" and it is easy to see why. The key with identifying whether or not the Broncos are playing "4-2-5" or "3-3-5" is going to be to identify what Von Miller is doing. Here's an example of a "3-3-5" look:


Here Doom is lined up as the LDE and Vickerson as the RDE. Bannen is playing the 0 tech DT. Our three backers are Von, Trevathan, and Woodyard. Again Trevathan is playing coverage man up on Greg Olsen. On this play Von will tease blitzing up the middle but will drop back as a spy on Cam Newton. The safeties tease a Cover 2 shell look but Adams steps up to take on coverage responsibilities and Moore rotates deep centerfield into Cover 1. I would expect this look quite a bit against more mobile QB's such as RGIII next season.

There is another variation on the "4-2-5" and it has been discussed as the formation to counteract the Patriots and their 12 personnel looks. It is called "Big Nickel" and does something I don't think I saw the Broncos do much (if at all). Instead of substituting a front 7 player with a CB and using the trio of Champ, Harris, and Carter, "Big Nickel" brings an additional Safety into the game. In other works think of having Champ and Harris with Adams, Moore, and Leonard.

The reason we didn't see this with the Broncos is that the trio of Bailey/Carter/Harris is better than any combination of Bailey/Harris with either Mike Adams OR Jim Leonard. The Broncos could be looking to add a coverage or "match-up" safety in 2013, but that remains to be seen. One interesting wrinkle would be to have the match-up safety AND Trevathan on the field at the same time. That would give you the best man coverage across the board.


Nickel defense is when you bring an extra DB into the game and take out a front 7 player. The Broncos would bring in Tony Carter who would cover the outside receivers with Champ Bailey while #2 corner on base downs Chris Harris would kick inside and cover the slot. Sam LB Von Miller would be free to flex as a LB or DE depending on if the Broncos ran a "4-2-5" look or a "3-3-5" look. The base down "Mike" Brooking would leave the game and be replaced by Wesley Woodyard who slid over to the middle to assume the zone coverage responsibilites while Danny Trevathan would come in and play man coverage on the TE (usually). Essentially a hybrid player like Von makes it possible for the Broncos defense to play "4-2-5" or "3-3-5" interchangeably.

While I was doing research for this article, I stumbled upon a very interesting observation that seems to describe the Broncos defense and Von Miller to a T:

The final element of the hybrid-defender movement is both the most important and the least newsworthy. Defensive coaches are absolutely not inventing new defenses to feature these players. You see a few unique sets, like the 3-3-5 stack or TCU's 4-2-5, but most coaches are simply introducing these hybrid players and their multifarious skills into existing schemes.

If a coach runs a 4-3 "under" - four defensive linemen, three linebackers shifted into an "under" look - he stays with the same playbook but swaps out a defensive end for an "elephant" hybrid end/linebacker or a SAM linebacker for a hybrid-safety type. With those changes, what was once staid and predictable becomes more difficult to scheme around. There's less certainty about who's rushing and who's staying in coverage. These athletic hybrid defenders are allowing old defensive coordinators to maintain the basic systems they know while learning a few new tricks in the meantime.

Here is an amazing read about the Patriots defense and their hybrid defense--it gives a good explanation as to what makes them a hybrid defense. I would give it a read and ponder the implications for the Broncos Defense, in fact next week's MHR University might take a more in depth look at this!

Hope you enjoyed this weeks' version of MHR University, again if you have any questions ASK! GO BRONCOS!!!



While I was searching for snips to show you examples of the Broncos in nickel defense, I stumbled upon a cool look:

Von with his hand in the dirt


It isn't noteworthy that Von is being used as a LDE, it is noteworthy that he is being used as a true DE and it is noteworthy that the Broncos still have three LB's in the game. In this instance Brooking is the Mike. It is more difficult for me to label the other two backer positions. Just know that it is Trevathan's responsibility to take Jimmy Graham. This provides a potential sneak peek into what the Broncos COULD do next year if they feel like they need to replace Dumervil with Miller. I still say it won't happen as a full time move but we could see more of it. If you add Manti Te'o or another stud MLB to the mix, you could potentially have Te'o, Trevathan, Woodyard on the field or Te'o, Irving, Woodyard on the field depending on what you wanted. It would also give the Broncos ridiculous flexibility and I dare say we would see more true 3-4 looks with 3 true LB's on the field and Von Miller in a flex/joker role.

How's that for logic--I gave you a point against taking MLB/Manti Te'o and a point for taking MLB/Manti Te'o. Remember context is everything and it all depends on what the Broncos are looking to do defensively.