Football 101-Falcons Nickel Defense vs Saints Aerial Attack


Don’t let the title of my new football (NFL) weekly column fool you.  This isn’t for people who say “football” instead of “soccer” or think a trip to the Audubon Society is in store when they hear, “wanna go see the Atlanta Falcons?”  There will be something for fledgling DirtyBirds, the knowledgeable old school Falcons guard, and even fans of Atlanta’s opponent each week.  I’ll initially introduce and explain some football terminology or concepts for the novices.  Elementary terms such as “quarterback” or “line of scrimmage” won’t be covered but here’s a nice football glossary from in case you want to brush up a bit.  The grizzled veterans will have their itch scratched with deeper analysis of how those concepts will play a pivotal role in whether Atlanta gets a notch in the win column that week.  The interactive comments component at the end is my favorite part.  Rookies post questions and comments while knowledgeable pigskin addicts add their expertise and give opinions on my analysis.  To tweak a saying from one of my all-time favorite quote machines, Terrell Owens: “I love me some critique of me!”

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  • Let’s jump into our inaugural FB101 topic – the “nickel” defense.

    The scheme was originally devised by Philadelphia Eagles defensive coach Jerry Williams in 1960 to corral a pass-catching trailblazer, tight end Mike Ditka, who could be covered by virtually no contemporary LB.  The novel alignment brought another defensive back on the field to replace the hapless linebacker, which brought the total number of DBs on the field to 5.   Eventually the term “nickel defense” was coined (sorry, couldn’t resist it).

    Teams have typically employed either a “4-3” base with 4 defensive linemen and 3 linebackers or a “3-4” base with 3 linemen and 4 ‘backers.  The 4-3 base D converts to a 4-2-5 when the aptly named “nickelback” comes on the field, while 3-4’s take on a 3-3-5 look.

    The 70’s brought regular use of the nickel on obvious passing downs, but it was also occasionally used as the base formation for entire games in response to cutting-edge vertical passing attacks like the Chargers’ Air Coryell offense in San Diego.  NFL offenses have become progressively more pass happy ever since.  This trend, coupled with the relatively recent influx of uber athletic cross-sport TEs such as college basketball player and former Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez, are giving today’s defensive coordinators no choice but to dramatically increase use of the nickel.  Pro Football Focus calculates that 45% of all defensive downs league-wide in 2013 were played with five DBs.

    One reason I chose to focus on the nickel defense was the Falcons are at the forefront of this movement.  They became maybe the first team to openly confirm use of the nickel as its base scheme when Mike Smith proclaimed this past June, “… [the nickel] is our base defense because we play it 65% of the snaps.”’s unofficial depth chart confirms this by unconventionally listing 5 DBs and 2 LBs on the starting defense.

    This means the Falcons appear to be following the traditional convention of converting a base 4-3 into a 4-2-5 nickel.  Yes, they deployed this in the preseason, but I’m not buying this quite yet.

    My suspicion is not based solely on defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s 3-4 preference throughout his career.  Well-coiffed GM Thomas Dimitroff during the offseason clearly targeted players with abilities suited to stuffing the run from a 3-4.  Considering either a 4-3 or 3-4 would likely be the sub package for a base nickel in obvious running downs, it seems logical the Falcons brought those players onto the roster in order to employ the 3-4.  However, the Atlanta Falcons organization in general has a penchant for being coy and even clandestine regarding anything they deem a strategic advantage.  That’s why I don’t put it past them to have thrown a little preseason misdirection out there for those ‘Aints who will come marching into A-town this Sunday from the Crescent City.

    We know the Falcons are ahead of the curve in how often it employs the nickel, but I want to take a deeper look at how it might match up with the Saints’ aerial attack, which is perennially among the league leaders… at least when their coaches aren’t all suspended for organizing marauding bands of headhunters looking for five-figure bounties.

    One primary reason the Saints have a dynamic passing attack is they frequently roll out an effective, if not elite, 3-WR set along with possibly the best TE the league has to offer – Jimmy Graham.  This combination provides a seemingly unlimited array of play-calling options for its head coach, Sean Payton.  He has the air assault capabilities of a 4-WR set since Graham performs like a WR, but he still has a solid running attack because it isn’t hampered by a 4-WR set in which there’s no tight end available to run block.

    Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan tells that a primary reason for Saints QB Drew Brees’ success is that he’s “very good at recognizing the blitz; he’s very good at getting rid of the ball, avoiding the sack in the pocket.”  While Nolan won’t go into detail as to what he has specifically devised to counteract those traits, my guess is it will be based on another innovation recently devised to counter the amazing passers of our era – the advent of the hybrid or, in Nolan’s terminology, “multiple” nickel schemes based on both hybrid and specialized front-six players.

    Hybrid players have the ability play on the line of scrimmage in a three point stance or upright at the ‘backer level.  This allows the scheme to line up these players differently among various front-six positions throughout the game.  The goal is to create responsibility confusion among pass-blockers with missed assignments and free runs to the QB.  This pressure tends to cause an increase in QB mistakes in the form of incompletions and, more importantly, interceptions.  The Falcons certainly have a defensive coordinator who knows how to implement such a scheme as Nolan is widely recognized as having one of the better hybrid schemes and knowing exactly how to use both hybrid and specialty players.  This is all well and good in theory, but this wasn’t exactly devised in the past 9 months, so how are the Falcons in better position this year than last when Brees tossed the rock to the tune of 635 yards in his two matchups with Atlanta?

    Nolan now has some hybrid guys to work with this year as opposed to how many he had in 2013: exactly none.  Kroy Biermann, injured for almost all of last year, is a hybrid player who was missing from Atlanta’s defense for most of 2013.  While he still needs to shake off the mental aspects of playing with a repaired Achilles, he can reprise the same critical hybrid role in Nolan’s scheme that he played in 2012 after taking over from the forgettable Ray Edwards.

    Jonathan Massaquoi had a nice sophomore campaign in 2013 with 4 sacks in his primary role of defensive end.  However, as Vaughn McClure of ESPN notes, Massaquoi’s athleticism likely makes him even more effective when playing outside linebacker.  I also agree with McClure that this could very well be a breakout year for the former 5th round draft pick.  My reasoning includes the fact that Nolan can use Massaquoi in the hybrid role for which he’s much better suited than as every-down defensive end

    Nolan will continue deploying Osi Umenyiora as the Falcons’ designated pass rush specialist for 2014.  While Umenyiora was generally a disappointing part of defense in 2013, he was able to collect 7.5 sacks.  The problem was he was boom-or-bust player as six of those sacks came in three games, so he did not appear to be particularly effective at getting to the QB during the remaining thirteen games. However, the former NY Giant arrived at camp this year in tremendous shape.  He won’t admit losing a good amount of weight for football reasons, but it stands to reason he’ll be quicker than he was in 2013 when it was clear he seemed to have lost a step.  Nolan is likely to limit his reps as he progressively did as last season wore on.  Fewer reps combined with a sleek physique should allow Umenyiora to be yet another arrow in Nolan’s quiver.

    “Nolan will continue deploying Osi Umenyiora as the Falcons designated pass rush specialist for 2014”

    The impact of new additions to the defensive line shouldn’t be forgotten just because their roles are fairly one-dimensional because their roles as specialists allow the multiple scheme to flourish.  GM Dimitroff brought in two nice pieces to instantly upgrade the defense’s ability to stop the run in 340lb defensive tackle Paul Soliai and fairly large DE Tyson Jackson, checking in at 296lbs.  Possibly the most intriguing addition to the line is roll-of-the-dice 2nd round pick, Ra’Shede Hageman who has the athleticism of a man much smaller than the 318lbs he carries.  Opposing offenses won’t be able to push the line of scrimmage into the faces of Atlanta’s linebackers as seemingly happened every other play last year.  Getting stout play in the middle truly allows Nolan to use the afore-mentioned hybrids as he prefers.  It will also permit the most glaring weakness on the defense, 2nd year inside linebackers Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu, to have more space to do what they do best: read and react to the play and run to the ball.

    It’s possible none of these front-six players make the Pro Bowl this year, but then again the Falcons really don’t need that.  All they need to do is perform the roles they’re assigned by a master defensive strategist. These players as a group allow him to open up his aggressive scheme more than at any time during his tenure with the Falcons… which I can’t imagine thrills Brees very much.

    So, who covers Graham?  The answer is nobody.  Fact is that Graham has been so successful because he’s as much of a physical freak today as Mike Ditka was back in the 60’s.  As a 6’ 7” 260lb man running a solid mid 4.5 forty-yard dash, he has enough speed to keep DBs honest and can simply get to balls which are indefensible for any DB under 6’ 5”, which effectively is all of them.

    In Nolan’s defense, the secondary’s ability to play multiple roles isn’t critically important.  What 2nd year cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford lack in experience they make up for in ability and confidence.  Both players more than held their own last year considering corner may be the most difficult position to play as a rookie aside from QB.  Nolan’s scheme is designed to allow defensive backs to stay within themselves and play to their strengths, much like the interior defensive linemen, while the guys up front cause havoc and create opportunities for the secondary to make plays on the ball.

    The only time the Falcons have really held Graham to a fairly pedestrian performance was late in 2012 when, as Pete Prisco of CBS noted, “[his] low numbers were more a result of the pressure on Drew Brees rather than anything they did to Graham.”  Hmmm, when was the last time Nolan had hybrid players to employ?  That’s right, 2012.

    Saints fans and certain Fansided blogs dedicated to the WhoDat nation like to crow about their recent record against the Falcons.  It’s common to hear something like, “since 2008 the Saints have a 9-3 record against the Falcons!”  What they never mention is that only once during that run have they won by more than 8 points.  In fact, only 2 of those 12 games were decided by more than 8 points.  So this series, while surely in the Saints’ favor, seems to always be decided by a single drive and often much less.  The question is whether the Falcons’ nickel defense has what it takes to hold back the Saints’ offense enough to be that one-drive difference?  I’m fairly confident that Mike Nolan and his shiny new toys will do exactly that by making Drew Brees wish he stayed back in New Orleans taking selfies with his beautiful new baby girl.