The NFL is a nickel league.
The days of defining a defense in terms of a traditional 4-3/3-4 ‘base’ is largely a thing of the past. If anything, the new base is 4-2-5 personnel featuring an extra defensive back, often a slot cornerback. The stats bear this out.
During the 2015 season, NFL defenses played with a nickel back on the field for over 63% of total snaps. Williams is no different, playing his nickel/dime package well over 80% of the Rams’ total snaps during the 2016 season.
So why have NFL defenses trended towards nickel-based personnel groupings for the last 5-6 seasons?
The movement can be attributed to a single word, “Spread”.
Spread-based offenses designed to force a defense to cover the entire width of the field (53.3 yards) have been a big part of college football for over a decade. Only over the previous 5-6 seasons have NFL coaches embraced many the offensive system’s tenants, like spreading the field to run or pass, 3-4 wide receivers groupings, and quickly getting the ball to playmakers in space.
Furthermore, the NFL is a game of match-ups. In this day and age coaches are willing to sacrifice size for speed in order to prevent smaller players from guarding flexed tight ends and slower players from guarding speedy tailbacks.
As a result of this evolution defensive coaches have increasingly placed a premium on two types of versatile “hybrid” positions:
- Defensive backs that can rotate between covering the slot, outside receivers, tight ends, and sometimes tailbacks from the nickel, cornerback, and safety positions
- Strong safety/linebacker players that can play traditional run fits inside the box, flex out to cover, blitz, and occasionally play over the top as a deep safety
With former Crimson Tide player Mark Barron, Williams has carved out a niche in his defensive structure for the second type of hybrid player, the SS/LB.
The 6’ 2”, 220-pound Barron was selected with the seventh pick in the 2012 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After starting every game he played with the Buccaneers at the strong safety position, the college First Team All-American was traded to the St. Louis/LA Rams during the 2014 season. He completed his 2014 campaign as a strong safety, although Williams began to experiment with Barron at multiple roles throughout the rest of the season.
After losing a preseason competition for the starting strong safety role entering the 2015 season, Barron made his first career start at linebacker against the Browns after starting MIKE Alec Ogletree suffered a broken leg. His performance in the Rams’ 24-6 victory sealed his new role as a hybrid player that could play as a traditional WILL one play before moving outside to cover a wide receiver on the very next.
Barron finished the 2016 season with 118 tackles, eight passes defended, two interceptions, and one sack.
His success as hybrid defender could well point to schematic and personnel changes within the Browns’ defense this offseason. While no one outside the organization knows exactly what the defense will look like, if Williams believes he has the personnel to do so, it will very likely integrate a hybrid box defender.
While many have written about the role of the hybrid defender in today’s game, few actually show what it looks like play-to-play.
Our goal today is to get a basic feel for how Williams deployed Barron by looking at various roles he played in the run and pass game last season. We’ll start by breaking down Barron’s game using the Rams’ 28-0 opening-week loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
Let’s start by looking at multiple roles Barron plays as a run defender. In our first play, he is utilized as a “traditional” in-the-box WILL (think Christian Kirksey).
The defense is facing a second and goal from the 7-yard line. The offense comes out in 21 personnel (1 tailback, 2 tight ends) with an inline tight end and wing to the right side of the formation.
The Rams’ defense counters with a 4-man surface and three box linebackers, with Barron playing the WILL.
The play concept is a Counter OF utilizing two pullers, the first to kick out the defensive end to Barron’s side and the second to wrap through the hole and block the linebacker.
Williams has chosen to ‘box’ any gap-blocked plays such as Counter or Power by using the playside defensive end to force the ball back inside to the linebackers (many teams utilize a ‘wrong-arm’ technique that spills the ball outside). This schematic choice demands that Barron plays as a true linebacker.
Against a run, Barron’s job is to fit the gap inside the defensive end, attack the second puller’s outside shoulder if he shows in the hole, and then attempt to take the ball carrier to the ground.
This is big boy football. The pulling tight end will likely outweigh the Alabama product by 40-50 pounds, so he must come downhill with bad intentions or he will be put on his rear end.
The important point here is Barron’s technique. This is nitty-gritty, in-the-box linebacker play. Read the run/pass key, fill against the puller, and make the tackle if possible. At 220 pounds Barron gives up A LOT of weight in the box, but again, coaches are willing to sacrifice size for speed.
When Barron reads the double team on the 2-technique, he immediately fits downhill on the inside hip of the defensive end. A “true” drop safety playing the run will generally have an outside run fit against this formation and play. He will not be asked to fill the hole against a puller. Barron is.
While he doesn’t make the tackle here, disciplined football generally doesn’t look very sexy. It is players reading their keys, getting to where they are supposed to be, and executing their technique. If all eleven players do their job, the ball carrier will go to the ground.
As Williams says, “Find ball, see ball, get ball” and “blades of grass”.
Our second play starts with Barron aligned as the fifth player in 5-man surface against the same personnel group and formation we looked at in the previous play.
After lining up as a WILL against the same formation previously, why the change?
Notice that Barron is set to the same side as the tailback. This alignment gives away his role immediately if you understand the offense’s base running plays, in this case Inside Zone.
When running Inside Zone, former head coach Chip Kelly utilizes a backside read in which the edge defender to the tailback’s side is left unblocked.
If the edge defender stays wide to maintain his gap, the quarterback will give to the tailback. The defender has been eliminated from the play due to his width. If the defender chases the dive inside, the quarterback will pull the ball and bootleg through the area the defender has vacated. The read man is wrong no matter what he does.
In response to the success of Zone Read many defensive coordinators now teach read defenders to play a PUP or ‘Pop and Squeeze’ technique.
As soon as the tackle releases to the second level, the defender assumes he is being read out of the play. Rather than hold his C-gap or pinch inside, the defender will drop his hips to “get athletic”, pop his feet parallel down the line of scrimmage, and maintain an outside-in relationship to the quarterback. This technique allows the read man to play the quarterback boot and squeeze inside to make a tackle if the tailback tries to cut into the backside A-gap.
While many NFL defensive ends can execute the technique effectively, a 220-pound athlete will have more success due to superior short-area quickness and speed.
Simply put, Williams expects a run here. Barron is on the line of scrimmage because it is preferable to have a skill position player working in space against a quarterback that might run.
Notice how quickly Barron drops his hips, shuffles, and maintains his proper relationship to the quarterback. He doesn’t make the tackle, but by doing his job the ball is forced inside to his teammates who make the stop for a minimal gain.
Good things generally happen when defenders stay in their lane and execute their assignment.
The second section of our breakdown will look at Barron’s use in pass coverage.
Like the first play of the article, Barron is aligned just above the right has as a traditional WILL backer'.
The offense is running a Chip Kelly favorite, the ‘Mesh’ concept. The defense is in Cover 1, or ‘Man-hi’, man coverage across the board with a single deep safety providing help on vertical routes.
In Cover 1 linebackers are generally responsible for tailbacks or tight ends. Barron has the tailback here.
Watch Barron work his way through traffic to cover what should have been a wheel route from the tailback.
As an aside, notice the defense’s aggressiveness in coverage.
One of former defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s major pitfalls was the lack of aggressive reroutes in pass coverage. All too often, wide receivers, tight ends, and tailbacks were allowed to run up-field unimpeded. NFL skill players need to be roughly handled in order to disrupt the quarterback’s timing, interfere with the pass catchers routes, protect open holes in the coverage, and provide the safeties time to cover distance in order to help with vertical routes.
The right defensive end disrupts the tailback, preventing him from running the correct route. This should have been a wheel route, but by the time he recovered from the collision the quarterback’s time was up and Barron was in the position to make a play on the ball.
Move to the middle of the field and watch the MIKE handle the tight end running a shallow cross. If you pay close attention to the NFL’s best defenses, you will see plays like this several times a game. Watch how aggressive New England plays Atlanta’s receivers in two weeks. Cornerbacks, safeties, and linebackers will get ‘hands on’ potential pass catchers as they run routes. Guaranteed.
Expect to see the same from the 2017 Browns.
Our next example of Barron in pass coverage demonstrates his versatility as he aligns as a cornerback to ‘play the point’ against a stack formation.
Barron’s ability to cover in space like a true defensive back contributes to three important factors for the defense here:
- The defense can stay in their base nickel, keeping the best eleven players on the field.
- Williams can avoid being out-leveraged in the run game by using the nickel back to maintain a six-man box. The nickel is responsible for the strong-side C-gap and will play a PUP technique to protect against the quarterback bootleg if the offense runs Inside Zone.
- The NFL is a game of mismatches. Because Barron can cover in space, he is aligned as a cornerback to press the tight end at the line of scrimmage. A nickel back would likely be overwhelmed due to the tight end’s superior size and strength. Not Barron.
Barron’s jam is just okay here.
The tight end does a good job of eating the jam and clearing the hybrid defender by using a nice swim move, but Barron’s athleticism allows him to recover, get his head turned around, and make a play on the ball. A cornerback is probably not recovering from this collision in time to make a play on the ball.
Our third example shows Barron reversing roles against the same stack alignment as the second level defender.
Barron can clearly hold his own playing point against the tight end. Why the switch?
Like the PUP play we looked at previously, Williams is moving Barron around like a chess piece for strategic reasons.
Williams is expecting a run here, so he has placed Barron on the tailback’s side of the field. From here Barron can help the defensive end if the offense attempts to read him out of the play running Inside Zone. The defensive end will execute the PUP technique, but he will have outside help if the quarterback should pull.
At the same time, the hyper-aggressive coordinator is hedging his call against a possible pass, particularly a bubble screen (a common concept out of this alignment).,
As the second-level defender, Barron can now help a weaker space player against the quarterback bootleg if the offense elects to run, cover a wide receiver if the offense runs a pass concept, and attack the screen if the offense decides to run the quick game. Few players have the skill set necessary to successfully handle these responsibilities. Furthermore, we have not touched the hybrid defender’s role in the blitz game and deep coverage. We will circle back to that later in the offseason.
Gregg Williams has shown the ability to adapt his scheme to personnel and player strengths throughout his career. After looking up and down the roster, he could well utilize a hybrid defender if he finds the right player to fill the role. If he doesn’t believe he has the horses necessary to play the role, he could push for a player acquisition via draft or free agency if he feels the position is important enough to the success of his defense. At this junction, just how important he feels about utilizing a hybrid defender is uncertain.
One must be careful when projecting what Williams might or might not do based on his previous body of work due to differences in roster construction and personnel skills and strengths. Alec Ogletree was the only legitimate NFL-quality linebacker on the Rams' roster, necessitating a player like Barron to play in the box a vast majority of the defense's snaps. Furthermore, nickelback Lemarcus Joiner and strong safety T.J. McDonald were both quality in-the-box players that were often assigned interior run fits, a rarity for nickels in particular. The Browns already have two quality linebackers in Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey.
The Browns already have two quality, versatile linebackers in Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey. Unless Collins is moved to an edge position, the question of who comes off the field for the "hybrid" player looms large. If the answer if "neither" than the hybrid better be able to guard a quick slot receiver because based on Williams' history, the defense will be in nickel personnel most of the time.
While the idea of a 'Swiss Army Knife" player who can fulfill multiple roles and make plays all over the field sounds great in theory, it is much more difficult to implement in practice. With that said, if anyone can get it right the author believes that guy is Gregg Williams.