Eye in the Sky: Nickel and 3rd Down

Our first of two defensive film reviews examines every third-down snap, plus Notre Dame's new base defense (its Nickel) and its most intriguing (the Dime) in this, our initial film review of 2014.

The nickel is the new base. Or to be more accurate, Notre Dame's nickel defense -- one that features five defensive backs, two linebackers, and four down linemen, will often be the preferred form of attack for new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder over the team's ensuing 11 games this fall.

It was Saturday, with senior Matthias Farley replacing the team's strong side linebacker for 39 snaps. Add to that a 10-snap dime package, one that included not only Farley but freshman Drue Tranquill (who joined the fray through various alignments), and 49 of the game's 56 competitive defensive snaps for the Irish were played with Notre Dame's sub packages on the field.

Defensive Alignments vs. Rice

A whopping 74 percent of Notre Dame's defensive snaps included a sub package (Nickel or Dime) vs. just 10 percent a base 4-3 front with the first unit defense. Another 13 percent were second unit snaps from the 4-3 as the clock wound down. (Kneel-down accounts for the remainder.)

39 snaps -- Nickel: A rotating defensive front, most often including either Andrew Trumbetti or Romeo Okwara at RDE and Anthony Rabasa at LDE.

Isaac Rochell saw time at nose in this alignment, though so did Jarron Jones and Daniel Cage. At times, Grant Blankenship (LDE) spelled Rabasa.

SLB James Onwualu is the only player that always exits (for Farley) in the nickel, though Jones and Rochell often do as well. (Sheldon Day noticeably less, but it happens.)

10 snaps -- Dime: Three down linemen (heavy rotation), most often with Justin Utupo and Rochell and Day. Jones, Trumbetti, Rabasa, and Okwara worked in as well. I didn't see freshman Daniel Cage in with the dime unit.

Joining Farley among the back eight is Tranquill, who lined up over the slot, as a middle 'backer, as a LDE and as a RDE. Remarkable for a true freshman.

7 snaps -- Base 4-3: These are your listed "starters" including SLB James Onwualu. Greer Martini subbed for an injured (finger) Jaylon Smith to open the second half. When Martini struggled, Onwualu took over at WLB and the Irish went nickel with Farley. (This pertains only to the first drive of the second half, but it's a notable reaction to briefly losing Smith.)

9 snaps --Base 4-3 Reserves) Not much strategy involved with a 38 or 31-point lead, but statistically, every snap counts, and this unit gave up a deep touchdown when Rice's James Mayden got by S Nicky Baratti for a 53-yard score. Baratti recovered a fumble thereafter making his return to the field after 20 months and two shoulder surgeries less painful.

Kneel Down: Didn't record the alignment.

3rd Down Defense

Rice converted 6 of 15 third-down opportunities, including 2 of 4 in the fourth quarter with the game well in hand. (Thus 4 of 11 in competitive action.)

-- 3rd and 8: (Nickel) Day's penetration and a great read by Schmidt help close out a designed draw for no gain…

-- 3rd and 10: (Dime) Smith cleans up a scramble up the gut by QB Driphus Jackson. A slot blitz by Tranquill was picked up nicely in the backfield, but Smith came from boundary (the old "Cat" spot, for lack of a better descriptor) and erased a certain first down. Remarkable closing speed by the sophomore…

-- 3rd and 6: (Nickel) Rice gains 30 yards on a short cross to the left flat and it appeared that Farley's false steps to the post cost him in zone overage. I can't imagine that's the fault of Trumbetti who dropped into coverage and stayed with this tight end on a shallow cross (thus vacating the left flat)…

-- 3rd and 11: (Dime) Tranquill aligns as a middle 'backer and the freshman combines with Cody Riggs to negate 1st down yardage on another scramble...

-- 3rd and 15: (Dime) Irish allow 10 yards on a scramble up the middle but easily converge to force a punt...

-- 3rd and 8: (Nickel) Redfield waited for Jackson to come to him and thus allowed himself to be blocked as a result. First-down scramble up the gut by the Rice QB…

--- 3rd and 5: (Nickel) Schmdit with good force to the outside after Okwara made Jackson leave the pocket due to edge pressure. Smith is left free to roam and he cleans it up -- as he usually will -- short of the first-down marker to force a field goal...

-- 3rd and 1: (Nickel), Rice's RB Darik Dillard barrels into the B-gap hole and over Schmidt. My first thought is you'll see this often against Stanford, and against every ND LB, to boot. Schmidt made the tackle, and in fairness, Notre Dame was allowing a 3rd and 1 run with the Owls more than 65 yards from pay dirt, just over a minute remaining in the half. (Hence, the presence of the nickel on 3rd and 1.)

-- 3rd and 4: (Nickel) Incomplete pass down the left sideline just outside the Irish red zone. Nice coverage by Cole Luke, but a terrible throw. Jackson shouldn't be allowed to throw passes in public...

-- 3rd and 11: (Dime) Tranquill with his second nice stop to force a punt. Day ran down the left sideline covering a wheel route as the Irish executed a zone blitz. (I might have considered throwing it toward Day and taking my chances if I were young Driphus.) Rabasa dropped from a rush position into short zone coverage as well. Tranquill came from the right DE spot to make a stop in the middle of the field. Great play recognition to skate down the line through traffic and make a stop.

He won't look this good every week, but I'm on the Tranquill train for 2014…

-- 3rd and 10: (Nickel) Smith was a touch late in space chasing a screen play -- he can't let that get outside. Luke was blocked well...so well he might have been held? If not, he was simply pancaked on the perimeter.

-- 3rd and 6: (Dime) Tranquill aligns as a standup pass rusher (LDE) with Smith opposite (RDE). Instead, Farley comes on a delayed blitz that's picked up and Rice should have converted on a short post, but Jackson's receiver let him down again. Elijah Shumate came in late for a nice pop (decent coverage by Shu). Notre Dame ran Farley on this delayed blitz twice Saturday and also once in congress with Joe Schmidt (that one worked)…

-- 3rd and 1: (2nd String Base) Two-yard gain to the left side and Blankenship makes a nice clean stop (his second tackle of the game).

-- 3rd and 8 vs. 2B: (2nd String Base) Martini misses a tackle in space but CB Devin Butler does not, coming in for the hit and strip to force a fumble recovered by Nicky Baratti.

Takeaways: There are two freshmen that Irish fans should be forever thankful did not end up at Stanford: Andrew Trumbetti and Drue Tranquill, because had they, the pair would murder Notre Dame for three years if not the next four. You can add Cole Luke to that short list...

-- Notre Dame opened in a nickel defense in six of 10 drives prior to inserting its second unit.

-- Four of the defense's first six snaps showed a base 4-3. The first-string base played just three more snaps the entire contest.

-- Aside from special teams, Joe Schmidt did not leave the field until the second unit made it's appearance. Smith would not have if not for a dislocated finger. Nor did either safety due to lack of available bodies behind them.

Note: Part II of the defensive film review is forthcoming...


IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories