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Nickel Defense Packages: Defining the Defense

Taking a look at the nickel subpackage, and its many uses. UW uses the nickel as a base package if you define Shaq Thompson as a DB, or as a sub-package if you consider him a versatile freak of nature that we love to have on the Huskies.

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Recently this series has been breaking down the different defensive fronts that the Huskies have used. With GAMEDAY tomorrow this series is taking a slight detour. Washington uses a 4-2-5 nickel front frequently. NCAA Football 14 lists Washington's defensive playbook as a 4-2-5. That is thanks to Shaq Thompson's versatility. He is listed as a safety in the aforementioned game. He is listed as a nickel in the PAC-12 media guide. At the University of Washington spring practice the graphics that displayed Thompson's position listed him as a linebacker. I think we have been over his versatility before, and how he may be the best player on the UW D.

Washington's opponent this week is the Boise St. Broncos. They run a nickel as their base defense. A quick little refresher on two different nickels: a 4-2-5 is a defense with four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs; a 3-3-5 nickel has 3 DL and 3 LBs. The defensive backfield has some versatility in personnel. They could run out another cornerback; the standard nickel defense has three corners. Another option is the big nickel. Another safety is put on the field. Both of these are still the 4-2-5, just different variations.

The difference between a 3-4 and a 4-3 is a fourth linebacker versus a fourth down lineman, respectively. The difference between a 4-2-5 nickel and a 4-2-5 big nickel is a third cornerback versus a third safety.

When a team is in a nickel defense it is going to defend the pass better and defend the run worse. Bishop Sankey can attest to this.

A nickel defense is a defense with five defensive backs. Five cents makes it a nickel. Dime and quarter defenses continue the pattern of using coins. There is also a dollar defense as well.

Big Nickel

The ‘big nickel' is a way that teams scheme to get an extra DB/linebacker hybrid (doesn't Shaq Thompson just pop into mind) into the lineup. It can be used with any type of nickel scheme, a 3-3-5, 1-5-5 or the focus of this article, the 4-2-5.

UW's big nickel isn't really all that different from their regular nickel, because Shaquille Thompson is amazing. The more a player can do the better. A defensive player that set the edge as a SAM one play and deflect a pass on a slant route to a slot receiver on the next can help to disguise coverages and blitzes. Versatility gets Shaq onto the field more. Danny Shelton, as a run-stopping interior defensive tackle, gets subbed out in certain packages because he is not a pass rusher. Andrew Hudson can play a strong-side 5-tech on first down then slide into a 3-technique DT on third down.

Versatility is the name of the game when it comes to the nickel. How can a defensive coordinator get the maximum benefit to his pass defense while minimizing the damage to his run defense? Can the safety play well in run support while slipping into the slot with a smaller receiver? Does the nickel corner have the ability to play in the slot against the quicker wideouts?

Versatility of the 4-2-5

Defenses tend to match personnel with the offense so that they don't end up with a shifty wide receiver being defended one-on-one with a massive run-stuffing linebacker. You lose that battle. You lose that battle nine times out of ten. For every receiver the offense puts on the field, the defense puts an extra defensive back to defend. That is why the 4-2-5 and 3-3-5 are seeing more prevalence in the game today: more multi-receiver formations for the offense means more defensive backs. Shaq is listed as a nickel, and he is starting.

What happens when the defense has more corners (or an extra safety) when the offense is in 12 or 21 personnel with only two WRs? Play call, personnel and opponent all have to be taken into account. When UW went to some 2 WR looks BSU often countered with a 4-2-5. If both WRs lined up as twins, both being on one side, the third corner would take the slot receiver and the CB who has no WR to his side would line up close to the LOS with his body turned toward the offensive formation.


Here BSU is in the 4-2-5 countering a heavy 22 set for the Dawgs. Keith Price starts with ASJ and Evan Hudson both on his left and Amosa and Sankey in the Weak-I, receiver on the weak side. The screenshot above shows that Evan Hudson has motioned to the right side to create a balanced line. There was no response by BSU, showing that they are in a zone defense.

There are four down linemen in a multitude of one and two-gap techniques. From offensive left (bottom of screen) to the top of the screen the linemen are in 6, 3, 1 and 5-techniques. The DT's are focused on disruption while the DE's are focused on controlling the offensive linemen.

Something I noticed: The D-linemen for Boise are playing a full yard off of the ball. Now, Boise is a speed defense. They play fast and fly to the ball. Speed Ds can be out-physicalled by bigger and stronger teams. Washington learned this lesson against LSU last season.

Anyways, what the Broncos want to do is force the opposing offensive linemen to play in space. The better athlete will usually win if they play in space against a big, lumbering hulk. This plays into the speed defense philosophy. If the rhinoceroses masquerading as human beings get their hand on them, they will likely struggle to get off of the block. If they can increase their chances of avoiding the blockers altogether a speed D can take that opportunity.

Before you ask why UW doesn't do this, think about who plays on the D-line for Wilcox. Danny Shelton is a run-stuffing 1-tech nose tackle who could even play some noseguard. He may even be better at that. Taniela Tupou isn't small. 5-tech Andrew Hudson is undersized to be playing inside, where he was forced at times last year, but now the only person outside of him should be a linebacker. Evan Hudson brings a very long frame and decent girth. Just ask Kirk, he knows about the Washington D-line.

Aside over.

In the following play we see BSU in another 4-2-5 look against 21 personnel for Washington. ASJ is lined up slot left, Amosa and Sankey in the I.


The nickelback is in ASJ's general area, but probably has in inside zone responsibility. Notice that he is not looking at ASJ at all, but exclusively at the backfield. If he had the duty of defending ASJ he would be shifting his eyes back and forth, with potential responsibility in the run game.

It is first and 10, the defense feels there is a higher chance for a pass at this point, and has the d-line set accordingly. The four linemen line up (strong-side/bottom of screen to weak-side/top of screen) in seven, three, one and seven-techniques. All of these are one-gap penetrating techniques, with the DEs lined up wider than in the previous play. This could be described as the nickel version of a ‘pure' 4-3 with all of the d-linemen one-gapping.

The way the front six plays is very similar to the front seven of the 4-3, except there is one less player. The nickel and strong safety both often come into the box (more often the SS) in run support, because a six man front can get run over.

Here is Boise with the nickel in the box against a very unbalanced formation for Washington.


Looks like a 4-3, doesn't it?


There are several variations of the 3-3-5 that will come up TOMORROW for BSU as well.

One is the 3-3-5 defense. Another team UW will face this season that runs this, actually as their base defense, is Arizona. Rich Rodriguez ran it at West Virginia and brought it over with him. The 3-3-5 is also the defense Washington used to attempt to defend the Oregon attack. That did not work out too well.

The 3-3-5 is intended to be unpredictable. The players tend to be more athletic, quicker players and not as big and bulky. Versatility is the name of the game with the nickel, and things don't get much more versatile than the 3-3-5.

"You can show people different looks," said Strong, now the head coach at Louisville. "Because it's a balanced defense, they don't know where to attack you from and they don't know where you're attacking from."
"You can show people different looks," said Strong, now the head coach at Louisville. "Because it's a balanced defense, they don't know where to attack you from and they don't know where you're attacking from."

Unpredictability is part of the 3-3-5's appeal.

The defensive linemen in the 3-3-5 tend to be smaller and more mobile, their main objective not to rush up the field, but to tie up blockers so the linebackers and safeties can fill the gaps and make tackles.
The secondary typically features a pair of cornerbacks and a free safety with two other safeties - Arizona calls them spur and bandit - who are often hybrid strong safeties/outside linebackers who can stop the run, play the flats or cover tight ends in man coverage.

The point of it all is to make the defense difficult to decipher.

With so many skilled players lining up in a multitude of spots on the field, it can be hard for offensive players to keep track of their assignments, particularly on zone-blocking schemes and pass protection.

The 3-3-5 also allows for a seemingly unlimited number of blitz options, whether it's a linebacker on a stunt, safety up the middle or a cornerback charging in from the edge.

"That was kind of the whole intent of this thing when people started: Where are they going to bring their fourth or fifth guy from?" Gibson said. "Everybody in our defense, we have a blitz for them at some point, with the field corner being the exception. Everyone else could come."

Part of what makes the 3-3-5 such a good fit against the spread is that adjustments from the sideline, whether in personnel or play-calling, are often quick and easy because there are so many athletic, interchangeable players on the field.
Where it can get into trouble is against power-running teams with big offensive lines that can push the smaller linemen of the 3-3-5 back.

If the linemen get knocked off their spots, the gaps, which are already bigger than usual because there are only three down linemen, can become larger or filled with 300-pound behemoths, which smaller linebackers and defensive backs certainly don't want to see.

The 3-3-5 also puts a lot of pressure on defensive players to think on their feet.


UWDP's very own Brad Johnson makes a very important note about a particular statement in this article in the comments section below:

The defensive linemen in the 3-3-5 tend to be smaller and more mobile, their main objective not to rush up the field, but to tie up blockers so the linebackers and safeties can fill the gaps and make tackles.

"This is quite the contradiction here. The author of that story is only half correct, but either half could be correct depending on the scheme.

"San Diego State’s 3-3-5 uses small, mobile d-linemen in an attempt to penetrate and get pressure. Some teams use larger, more stout linemen (as in a standard 3-4) to keep the o-linemen off the linebackers. Some teams use a mix of both (West Virginia under Casteel is one example). But no team uses fast, mobile defense linemen to not penetrate and instead to keep the offensive linemen off the linebackers."

So, the 3-3-5 has several different ways it can be lined up. It can be schemed so that the SAM is lined up on the line of scrimmage, essentially duplicating the 4-2-5, like how the 3-4 and 4-3 under are almost the same defense, with only a couple of differences. More on that in the future.

Since the offense has a balanced line, The side with the WRs becomes the strong side. Bishop Sankey is to Price's right, the strong side. UW runs a read option, and he is reading the Will LB to the offensive right. Usually the QB would read the DE, but we can tell he is not the defender being "read" by the fact that he is being blocked, as the defender that is left unblocked is the defender that is unread.

Both DEs are lined up in 5-techniques with a noseguard right over the top of center. The Will is outside of the DE in a 6-tech while the Mike is in a 2-tech. This defense has some wide line splits - as does all of the variations of the 3-3-5. It is why it struggles so much against power running teams.


This formation is better suited to blitz a linebacker, the SAM in particular (duh). It also can defend outside runs better with the LOS defenders being a bit wider. It will struggle against runs up the middle.

One way the defense can use its versatility is with pressure off of both edges. The coordinator can dial up a blitz off of both edges and still drop six back into coverage. This look is very similar to the 3-4 except that there is only one LB off of the line of scrimmage. In this instance, the nickel is also showing interest in getting after the QB.


Now, not only is the defense bringing pressure off of the edges, it is using fast, athletic players to do so, thus getting to the QB, and Keith Price in particular, faster.

What is coming next is an interesting formation, one that I can't quite get a handle on what its strengths and weaknesses would be, other than strong against horizontally stretching plays and weak against straight-ahead assaults. The Will and Mike are both wide of the SDE in a 5-tech again. One of the safeties has moved up, but not into the box, just in a nickel spot. There is a blitz coming on the strong side. It is difficult to tell who is who on the camera angle, to see how they are defending the strong-side flanker.

The defense confuses those of us with replay buttons and freeze frames.


This is just yet another look at the versatility of the 3-3-5. Versatility and speed are what make the nickel defenses work. It doesn't take a large defensive line to free up the linebackers to do the dirty work. It doesn't require super exotic blitzes to get pressure. It has the speed all around the defense. A lot of this all can go with the 4-2-5 and the 2-4-5. All three of those are defenses that Boise St. will run TOMORROW.

For a look at the personnel of Boise's defense, check out Ryan's position preview. For more on the Broncos check out One Bronco Nation Under God.

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