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Got a (Big) Nickel? You'll need one to combat hybrid offenses this fall


The Jets imported Yeremiah Bell (37) from Miami to help contain Rob Gronkowski. (Getty Images)  
The Jets imported Yeremiah Bell (37) from Miami to help contain Rob Gronkowski. (Getty Images)  

There are plenty of storylines floating around the NFL right now, including concussions, Bountygate, rookie minicamps and the Drew Brees contract. But it is also the post-draft time of the year and a chance to break down segments of the game itself.

Trends in the game are always an interesting part of what I like to explore in the spring. Today it is the concept of the "Big Nickel" defense. It's not new and was made popular by Bill Belichick a number of years ago, but oddly, it's Belichick's offense that is causing teams to study it closely.

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Ask football fans what they think a "hybrid" defense is, and they'll say it's a cross between a 3-4 and a 4-3. It usually means there are certain players who can put their hand on the ground as a defensive end, creating a 4-3 look, or pop out of that stance and present a 3-4. It helps the defense disguise its intentions up front, which in turn can cause some stress to the offensive line trying to block the defense. It is an effective concept, but it doesn't always answer the offensive problems created by teams with "hybrid" tight ends.

Webster defines "hybrid" as a person whose background is a blend of two diverse cultures or traditions, or something that has two different types of components performing essentially the same function. Bringing in an extra corner to play standard nickel defense doesn't present a defender who can usually play the run as well as the pass. A big safety in for a front seven defender might be able to create a hybrid back end to a defense that can play the run and the pass.

Just about every defense in the NFL has studied the Patriots' Hybrid 12 personnel package (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers) to determine how many problems those two tight ends can create. Aaron Hernandez can line up as a wide receiver, a slot receiver, an inline tight end, a wing, a fullback or even a running back. Rob Gronkowski can line up as an inline tight end, a slot or a wing. No matter what defensive personnel is on the field, the Patriots can make you feel like you are in the wrong one. Play base personnel with a front seven and four defensive backs and they spread you out in a four-wide look. Play nickel defense with an extra cornerback subbing for a linebacker in the front seven, and they condense the set and run right at you. It's a problem, and defenses are studying the Big Nickel concept for an answer.

I asked a number of defensive coaches about Big Nickel, when an extra safety is brought in to the game for a front seven player. The first thing I always hear is, "You gotta have the right kind of hybrid safety to do it right." The Big Nickel safety has to be able to play as a linebacker when the offense condenses the set, and of course, he has to match up on a flexed tight end when they spread out the formation.

As one coach said. "The Big Nickel is a hybrid defensive package that changes as the offense changes. The problem with not having a Big Nickel package is it can reduce the base defense to zone coverage calls, and the quarterback knows right away that there are a limited number of ways a team can play an offense like New England or San Francisco."

Walking a linebacker out on a flexed tight end like Hernandez is a clue that there is a zone call on, and both the QB and tight ends have a leg up on beating coverage.

The New York Jets have to play the Patriots at least twice a year, and they seem to be preparing to have a very interesting Big Nickel defense. In the offseason, they signed LaRon Landry and most recently Yeremiah Bell to go along with Eric Smith and draft picks Josh Bush and Antonio Allen. Bell, (6-feet, 205) a former Dolphin, has 13 games against the Patriots with 79 tackles and three sacks; Landry (6-0, 225) has 285 tackles and six sacks in his 64 career starts, making both guys capable of playing a linebacker role if the offense dictates it's necessary. Eric Smith has 12 games against the Patriots with 55 tackles and one sack. We could see all three men on the field at the same time vs. New England. How many other teams will be able to do the same?

I went through all 32 rosters asking that very question, and surprisingly, only a handful of teams looked ready to employ a Big Nickel. When you consider that over the past four seasons, NFL offenses have averaged close to 7,500 snaps of two tight end sets as compared to 6,400 snaps just 10 years ago, it is a growing problem for defenses. The 49ers led all teams with 350 snaps in that formation, and followed by Houston and Dallas with more than 300 each.

In the draft, the Colts took two tight ends, Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, and you can bet they will build an offense like the Patriots, have with Fleener playing the role of Hernandez and Allen taking on the Gronkowski role. The Chargers drafted Ladarius Green and they already have Antonio Gates, so get ready when the Chargers come to town. Cincinnati had 270 snaps of two tight ends last year and drafted Georgia's Orson Charles, who averaged 14.6 yards per reception. Miami could also be considering an expanded package with the drafting of Michael Egnew to go along with Anthony Fasano.

Besides the Jets, which teams seem ready to employ a Big Nickel package when they want to? I could see the Bengals with Taylor Mays, Reggie Nelson and draft pick George Iloka being a very interesting team. Mays and Iloka have exceptional size, and along with Nelson, could handle any variations in formations. The Broncos, with the addition of Mike Adams in the offseason to go along with Quinton Carter and Rahim Moore, could also present a favorable package. The Steelers could cause some real problems with Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark and Ryan Mundy.

There are still a few interesting safeties on the market that could give a team some flexibility to employ a Big Nickel defense. Deon Grant claims the Giants, Cowboys and Lions have shown interest, and that wouldn't surprise me, because all three teams would instantly be able to install a Big Nickel package. Dallas would have Brodney Pool, Gerald Sensabaugh and Grant available. The Giants would have Antrel Rolle, Kenny Phillips and Grant, or the Lions could go with Louis Delmas, Spievey and Grant.

It's a buyers' market for veteran safeties right now, with close to 20 players with 2011 playing experience available to be signed. If I was looking to build a Big Nickel package and still needed a safety, I would look closely at this list for an answer: Deon Grant, Chris Crocker, Jim Leonard, Abram Elam, Sean Jones, and James Ihedigbo.

Finally, a Big Nickel package isn't going to be the base defense for any team, but it sure would be nice to have in those tough situations like second down and 3 to 6 yards. The Patriots' first six games are against Tennessee, Arizona, Baltimore, Buffalo, Denver and Seattle, and will those teams be ready for the Patriot hybrid offense with a hybrid defense of their own?

I hope so for their sake, because Tom Brady and Co. already know what to do against base and nickel defenses. Should be an interesting year as NFL defenses develop ways to combat the hybrid offenses that are coming at them.

Pat Kirwan has been around the league since 1972, serving in a variety of roles. He was a scout for the Cardinals and Buccaneers, a coach for the Jets as well as the team's Director of Player Administration where he negotiated contracts and managed the team's salary cap. He is the author of Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look, and the host of Sirius NFL Radio's Moving the Chains.

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