Nickel Defense: The Redskins and their Even Fronts

PHILADELPHIA - NOVEMBER 29:  Michael Vick #7 of the Philadelphia Eagles passes the ball against Andre Carter #99 of the Washington Redskins during their game at Lincoln Financial Field on November 29, 2009 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

If you take a good hard look at the details of the Redskins new 3-4 defense this preseason, well, you’ll likely notice that our formations aren’t much different from the way they were last year.  The Redskins ran a lot of odd fronts last year, taking advantage of the defensive line histories of OLBs Brian Orakpo and Chris Wilson.  This year, the biggest switch is that Andre Carter is going from the weak side to the strong side, and Orakpo is going to the weakside.  You pick Carter’s hand up off the ground, slide the interior lineman towards the strong side, and move Rocky McIntosh inside the tight end and you have this year’s base front.  It’s not a big difference, so long as the offense lines up in a pro set with two receivers.

When the offense comes out in three receiver sets, the difference is night and day.  Last season, in rushing downs (usually first downs), the Redskins would try to defend three and four receiver sets with their base 4-3 personnel.  I shouldn’t need to tell you how dumb this was, as even high school quarterbacks know when they see a linebacker splitting the distance between a tackle and a split end that 1) it’s zone coverage, and 2) he’s not going to get blitzed.  The Redskins rightly came under criticism last season for such practices, and as you might predict for a team trying to outnumber it’s opponent in the box, fell to 20th in passing defense DVOA and stayed at the top of the league in rushing defense DVOA.

But this year, the Redskins have a new gameplan that is more in line with the modern game, where teams match defensive personnel to offensive personnel.  That in itself isn’t surprising.  What is more interesting is how the Redskins line up in their front when they go with five plus DBs.  Those “odd” fronts that the team has employed since the beginning of last year, and will feature as a base set: they’re gone in our pass defense sets.  The Redskins base nickel look, at least through two preseason games, involves a pair of down lineman, and two stand-up ends.  That’s a four man front.  You could call it a 2-4-5 defense if you wish, but if I’m an offensive coordinator, I can’t treat either Brian Orakpo or Andre Carter as stand-up linebackers when I know that two down lineman are dictate that they will be coming a lot.  It’s essentially a 4-2 nickel formation (even front) from a 3-4 concept (odd front): the interior players are still trying to disrupt and eat up blocks (while still trying to pressure the quarterback, Mr. Haynesworth), trying to get one of the four linebackers free to hit the quarterback.

This is not an unprecidented defensive look, in fact the Redskins faced a similar scheme when they played the Arizona Cardinals in 2008, back when Clancy Pendergast was the defensive coordinator, and the Cardinals would go on to play in the Super Bowl, representing the NFC.  This version of the nickel defense hasn’t exactly proliferated from there.  The Dallas Cowboys do something similar, but usually let DeMarcus Ware put his hand on the ground since, well, have you seen him in coverage?

But the question you’d want answered isn’t is it unprecidented, its: will it work?  Can the Redskins get pressure on the quarterback in the situations they struggled in: long yardage, and third downs?  The advantage to using stand-up ‘backers in the nickel defense is that until that rusher engages the offensive tackle, there’s always some amount of doubt in the tackle’s mind as to what he is going to see.  Most of the time, it’s not going to matter that the rusher is in a two point stance: he’s coming around the edge.  But having them as linebackers gives the flexibility to pick which gap you want to attack as a defense, and use the most creative schemes to attack that weakness.  It makes the other two linebackers more of a factor in the pressure scheme.  Stunts are easier.

But you trade in the first-step advantage that the defense has with the offense from putting one’s face right down on the line of scrimmage next to the football.  You lose the muscle memory advantage of getting the leverage on an offensive tackle from a familiar three-point stance.  And that was one of the team’s pass rushing strength’s last season.

It’s not a difficult transition to admit a mistake and let them rush with their hands in the dirt if they struggle early.  And I’m a huge proponent of double A-gap pressure, something this scheme can use that the previous scheme could not.  I think the rush will be more successful in the specific situations they struggled in last year.  But overall, I do think the pass pressure is going to take a small step backwards, and I’m not so sure it will be an adjustment step.  It will, however, be the first time in three years that the Redskins don’t need the linebackers to be integral parts of the coverage unit to stop an offense.  And that can only mean trouble for opposing quarterbacks.  But last year, our ends couldn’t be stopped by most protection schemes, and change in our nickel defensive look seems, at best, a bit unnecessary.

And as a prediction, I think the biggest plays for this defense are going to come after the quarterbacks throw the ball, rather than before.  That will also be a welcome change for a unit that has ranked near the bottom of the league in interceptions every year since 2006.

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