• Bret Rumbeck

Praise the Most Based: Why Adding Nickel Elements to the Base Defense Makes Sense for the 49ers

Image Credit: Bay Area News Group

Watch enough of the San Francisco 49er press conferences on Facebook, and you’ll begin to see a typical “debate” about which coverage the secondary should use. Quite often, I see fans write the 49ers should “run more man defense” or “blitz more.” One odd conversation I had last season surrounded why the San Francisco 49ers use three linebackers.

“Makes no sense,” said the gentleman next to me. “Five defensive linemen, two linebackers, four defensive backs. That is what they need to do.”

As usual, reality lies somewhere in the middle of the nonsense. The 49ers, like all other professional football teams, use a variety of looks throughout a game or season. No matter the base look – a 4-3 over/under, 3-4 Okie – a team can vary its defensive looks as much as it chooses to keep the offense guessing.

We’ve read quite often during the offseason that the 49ers’ defense will have a different look, explicitly using more of a wide-9 technique from the defensive ends. But as LeVar Burton used to say, don’t just take my word for it.

Philosophically, has your defense changed at all with the change at defensive line and the talk of more wide-nine? Has anything changed from your standpoint about what you want to get accomplished?

“No. We might look different, but philosophically, the overall foundation of the defense hasn’t changed.”

Robert Saleh. May 29, 2019

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has not changed the foundation of his defense. He has opened the door for the 49ers to pick elements from different packages and blitzes to use at specific points in a game. That, Gentle Reader, allows the 49ers’ defense to define the situation for the offense, a massive shift in an overall defensive tone.

Nickel Defense: A Primer

The idea of a two back, one tight end, two receiver base offense is long gone. NFL offenses stack themselves with athletes that can play nearly position.

Defensive coordinators want more than just a pair of linebackers and a safety to be the maulers on defense. If necessary, he may need to bring in a nickelback who can play the run as well as the pass.

Enter the nickel defense, which is easy to spot. The defensive coordinator substitutes a fifth defensive back in place of a linebacker.

You’ll see four defensive linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs. Typically, the nickelback will be a slot corner as he can counter the run just as well as he can hang with the offense’s receiver or tight end.

Teams could also toss an extra defensive back or safety on the field when it’s third-and-20 or longer, to counter the deep pass.

Why Would the 49ers Want to Only Rush Four Defensive Linemen?

If I’m honest, I am tired of Saleh rushing four defensive linemen and wondering why the weak pressure didn’t result in anything. There was no way Cassius Marsh and Solomon Thomas were going to generate enough force to disrupt a quarterback.

But this year is different. Today, Saleh has highly capable edge defenders. He has a dominating interior defensive line and top-end linebackers. Rushing four men may work, and allow him to drop more 49ers into coverage.

Let’s hope someone ripped out the pages of the playbook where Saleh calls for his interior defenders to drop into coverage.

Okay. Rush Four, But What’s Happening Behind the Defensive Line?

Let’s review a typical nickel coverage: Cover-1 robber, a defense the Seattle Seahawks used when Saleh was their defensive quality control coach.

With five defensive backs – two cornerbacks, a nickel, a strong safety, and a free safety – the defense will show a two-deep look, resembling Cover-2 or Cover-7.

At the snap, the strong safety becomes the “robber,” covering the middle of the field roughly 10 yards from the line of scrimmage. He’s looking outside-in, looking for crossing or squatting receivers. The free safety drops to the deep middle of the field.

The strong safety’s movement means the strongside cornerback is man-to-man with the first receiver. The cornerback may get help from the free safety if his man runs deep. Should the strong CB’s receiver cut inside, the robber takes over, and the strong CB is now the robber.

The Mike linebacker is man-to-man on a slotback, while the Will backer is man-to-man with the tight end. He can expect help deep from the safety, but no help from the robber.

The weakside cornerback is in bump-and-run, man-to-man coverage on the fifth receiver. He has help deep and will replace the robber if his receiver cuts inside.

Finally, our nickelback is playing inside technique on the slot receiver and is in man coverage. The nickelback will not have help from the robber on an inside route.

The hope this year is Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas will disrupt the quarterback enough to generate an errant or rushed throw. The robber can intercept a forced throw or tipped pass in the middle of the field, and the free safety will be in a position to break up the deep ball.

Even if the opposing team decides to run in this instance, the 49ers have six men in the box that can quickly shut down a running back.

The 49ers can also run a zone blitz from a nickel package. In this blitz, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh would send his edge rusher looping through the B-gap, which would allow the blitzing nickelback to come through on the edge.

Behind the blitz, the secondary drops into a three-deep coverage. Nothing is stopping Saleh from rushing five players and then keeping three players in short coverage.

The best advice I have learned or read about secondary coverage was in Bill Arnsparger’s book “Coaching Defensive Football.” He wrote, “The common thread among all the [coverage] ideas is this: Does it meet your needs in terms of what you want to accomplish? And most importantly, are the players capable of executing what you are teaching? In other words, does it work in game situations?”

The 49ers struggled to execute coverages last year, which makes me a bit nervous about using more elements of a nickel defense. However, I believe the team will have the right personnel on the field to make the secondary’s job much easier.

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