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Joe Woods loves the heavy nickel

Denver Broncos defensive coordinator, Joe Woods, loves using the heavy nickel.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive coordinator Joe Woods has been with the Broncos since 2015 when he came over from the Raiders staff. He was our defensive backs coach in 2015 and 2016 and he is largely credited as the architect behind the no fly zone. Prior to joining the Broncos coaching staff he had been an NFL defensive backs coach for 11 seasons with Tamp Bay (2004-5), Minnesota (2006-2013) and Jokeland (2014).

I noticed that in the first two games we have been using three safeties a large percentage of the time (Stewart, Simmons and Parks). Below is a table of their snap percentages for the first two games of 2017.

Safeties Game 1 Game 2
Justin Simmons 100% 99%
Darian Stewart 80% 89%
Will Parks 73% 75%
Jamal Carter 20% 1%

Summing those snap percentages for game 1 gets you to 273% - meaning that we used three safeties on roughly three out of every four defensive snaps. Carter did play but one defensive snap in game 2, but we still had get a summed value of 264% for that game. In other words, we used three safeties on the field somewhere between two thirds and three quarters of the time in the first two games. That’s a lot of “heavy nickel” - three safeties on the field at once.

Before we start getting deeper into this, I want everyone to remember that while Will Parks is listed as a safety on the roster, he played CB exclusively for at least one season at Arizona. So maybe we are using him more like a corner despite him being listed as a safety on the roster. A standard nickel defense uses three cornerbacks. If one of your safeties is essentially a CB, then the heavy nickel really isn’t a heavy nickel at all. It’s just a nickel, but let’s operate under the assumption that Will Parks is listed as safety because he IS a safety and not a CB.

Let’s look back to see if Joe Woods used this level of heavy nickel before during his time here as DB coach. In 2015 we had six players who played safety for us: T.J. Ward, Darian Stewart, David Bruton, Omar Bolden, Josh Bush and Shiloh Keo. Bolden had converted from CB to S at that point. The most that we ever used our safeties in any game in 2015 was 244% - game 11 vs NE: Ward (15%) got hurt, Stewart played every defensive snap, Bruton played 88% and Bolden played 41%. The average summed snap% per game for our safeties in 2015 was 215%, meaning that we only used heavy nickel on about one of every seven defensive plays that season.

Looking at last season we did use heavy nickel more than we did in 2016. The average utilization for our safeties was up to 230% per game with a high of 252% (games 2 and 8 which were IND and SD in Denver), but we never saw anywhere near the level of safety utilization in either of the past two seasons that we have seen in the first two games of this year. In game 8 last season (@home vs SD) Ward and Stewart both played every defensive snap, Simmons played 21% and Parks played 31% of the snaps.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

So the next question to ask is “who is NOT getting defensive snaps when we have three safeties on the field?”. That would be Todd Davis. He was healthy all of last season and averaged 61% of the defensive snaps for the year. This season he has been on the field for 32% and 23% of the defensive snaps through two games. Based upon this, it would appear that Joe Woods, against the Chargers and Cowboys (two teams who are supposed to have good running games), would rather have Will Parks on the field than Todd Davis.

Let that sink in.

Todd Davis is supposed to be a run-stuffing ILB and yet, against the team that led the league in rushing the season before, he only saw the field on 23% of the defensive snaps. Part of this could be a result of the blowout (Dallas did abandon the run pretty quickly), but LA wasn’t a really a blowout and he still only played on 32% of the defensive snaps. I should also note that Chris Harris Jr played some safety last game from what he said; he actually opened the game at safety.

Parks playing this much may have been a result of playing the best match-up for these two opponents, but it could also be a general trend that with the improvement of our three down lineman against the run this year; we don’t really need to have Todd Davis on the field as much. Todd Davis is a liability in pass coverage and Will Parks is not. When we go heavy nickel, Darian Stewart is the guy who walks up into the box. If Stewart is kept clean by our down linemen, he can be just as effective against the run (if not moreso) than Todd Davis.


Who would you rather have on the field on defense?

This poll is closed

  • 8%
    Todd Davis
    (96 votes)
  • 71%
    Will Parks
    (768 votes)
  • 15%
    (168 votes)
  • 4%
    (45 votes)
1077 votes total Vote Now