Coach B's Breakdown: The Husky Nickel Defense, "The Back 5"

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

This is the second part of my breakdown of the Husky defense, and its all about the secondary in this article. For those who haven't read the first part breaking down the front 6 of the Husky Nickel Defense, I recommend reading it to get some background and context to this article. It lays out the basic premise of what our defense is designed to accomplish, and what our coaches have utilized in terms of personnel and scheme in the past to accomplish those goals.

Anyways, a quick recap from the last article, our coaching staff wants to accomplish a few fundamental goals on defense:

  • Control the LOS to hinder the opponent's run game
  • Limit explosive plays
  • Maintain schematic versatility
These three defensive goals are somewhat intertwined since explosive plays and control of the LOS can go hand in hand. Weak run games hinder explosive play action passes, or at least that's how the conventional wisdom goes. Explosive plays could also come in the form of screens and long run plays, but as long as the LOS is controlled by the DL, then the LBs are free to roam and tackle ball carriers. These aren't the only ways to score big plays on offense though. Even the soundest of schemes that are being executed by the best players can succumb to fatigue or the confusion that can come with up-tempo and multiple offenses. Situational defense has evolved over the years, and it has narrowed from getting the best personnel on the field to specifically match the offense, to only being the soundest play executed by versatile players who can handle almost anything that is thrown at them by the offense.

This is why maintaining schematic versatility is such an important trait for the defenses that Coach Kwiatkowski has crafted over the years. Having players that can successfully handle a variety of responsibilities allows the staff to keep the same group of players to stay on the field, even in situations where different personnel would conventionally be preferred, and to focus instead on creating a sound system that can handle any situation.

As I wrote in the last breakdown, Coach K has utilizes two strategies to maintain this schematic flexibility. One part is to divide certain responsibilities among various players, a type of division of labor. One recent example of this that I broke down last time was the Huskies' use of 2 stout run stuffing DTs in order to control the interior of the LOS and protect smaller but more athletic LBs and second level players that are better suited to play in space and clog passing lanes. This also has the added benefit of allowing a wider number of players to be recruited since elite and well rounded LOS players are harder to find than almost any other position.

The second component of Coach K's schematic flexibility strategy was to employ the most versatile players where possible. This ends up being in the secondary, and since we have chosen to employ a base Nickel defense, this also means that almost half of our starting positions are to be filled by players where versatility is valued. The secondary, for the sake of this article at least, will be a catch all term that refer to the 5 defensive backs that are on the field, and based on my observations, I deem the secondary as the area of the defense where versatility is valued because of the various assignments that the DBs are given on a play-to-play basis and how many can often seamlessly rotate between roles. In order to understand the different roles and the assignments, I need to establish some context.

The Huskies' Preferred Defensive Schemes

Just to get out ahead of the avid UWDP readers who are well versed in football terminology and our team, I recognize that our defense is among the more complicated ones in the country, so I'll mainly be focusing on alignments and tendencies that we can see rather than specific assignments that I can guess but don't really have any way of confirming.

Also, for this breakdown we are going to assume that the opponents personnel is lighter than 21 personnel (i.e. has a minimum of 3 WRs) since this is the most common type of look that our defense faces and what our defense is designed to beat.

Anyway, generally speaking, defenses have four main alignments that they can employ when discussing coverages and the secondary, and they each have their own pros and cons:

Cover 0:
-No deep safeties over the middle of the field
-Generally used in blitz or goal line situations
-Employs man coverage across the board
-Not commonly used by UW

Single High Safety:
-One safety is deep over the middle portion of the field and assigned to cover 1/3 or the whole backfield
-Can either employ man-heavy Cover 1 or zone-heavy Cover 3 from this alignment
-Commonly used to allow one of the DBs to move from deep coverage into the "box"
-Very common alignment for UW

Two High Safeties:
-Two safeties are aligned deep with each assigned to cover half of the defensive backfield, although variations like Cover 6 are possible
-Can employ either Cover 2 Man ,Cover 2 Zone, or Tampa 2 variations out of this alignment
-Commonly used to eliminate deep passes and is considered a conservative alignment
-Common alignment for UW

Quarters/Cover 4 Alignment:
-Two safeties aligned at shallower depth (10-12 yards) with corners playing off the LOS
-4 DBs split deep coverage assignments with fewer players covering shallow zones
-Commonly used to incorporate both safeties in run defense while still maintaining deep coverage integrity
-Not commonly used by UW

As I mentioned before, the two specific strategic goals for Coach K's defenses have been to control the LOS and to eliminate the opponent's big plays. The best way of achieving both goals is with the single high safety look. There is the schematic/assignment versatility that comes with the option to be either in Cover 3 (zone) or Cover 1 (man), as well as the ability to move an extra DB towards the LOS. This can mean the extra DB is over one of the slot receivers if an opposing offense is trying to stress our defense our horizontally with sweeps or screens (UO, Arizona, etc.), or it can mean the extra DB is moved in closer to the "box" against a team that might try to run the ball with heavier/compact formations (i.e. Stanford, USC, etc.).

Since our base personnel features 5 DBs, we also have the ability to mix and match the ideal skill sets to their best assignment fits within the system and against opponents. Also worth noting, running a Nickel defense just means that we use 5 DBs, but it doesn't necessarily mean we run 3 CBs & 2 Safeties or 2 CBs & 3 Safeties. It doesn't even define which DBs stay on the field against various personnel packages. In our case we have used 2 CBs, 1 Safety in the conventional sense, 1 slot corner, and 1 hybrid Safety. We had a particularly rough year when it came to injuries, so I won't try to be too specific with who was a starter and what the hypothetical "perfect" traits for certain positions are, but here's generally what I noticed from the personnel we deployed.

Positions and Roles: Outside Cornerbacks

Key Traits:
  • Length, not necessarily tall, but above average reach
  • Well rounded athleticism to break on passes
  • Comfortable playing various coverage techniques
Recently we've actually been going through a transition at outside CB, so this breakdown feels a little premature as a summary of where Coach K and Coach Lake want to take this position group. We have had the fortune of having supremely talented CBs like Sidney Jones, Kevin King and Marcus Peters locking down WRs over the past five years, and they were all at least 6' tall with solid length and great ball skills. By comparison, the marquee CB recruits over the last three recruiting classes have been under 6', but all have been touted for their superior athleticism and ball skills.

The trade offs between length and overall lateral athleticism (agility, acceleration, and quickness rather than straight line speed) are important to consider when you dissect the specific techniques that outside corners are expected to execute. Length is really only a factor on the perimeter when facing WRs that are on the LOS, and only an advantage in jump ball situations and in press coverage. Jump ball situations are actually a relatively low efficiency play from the start, and only become advantageous in certain match-up related situations, which are affected by game-to-game adjustments. Therefore the only situation where length is advantageous is in press coverage. The ability to play effective press coverage is really useful when designing pressure packages that are based on disrupting timing routes in man coverage and blitzing the remaining players. The problem with this approach is that lanky CBs generally lack the lateral agility to play close coverage on underneath routes that many Spread Offenses rely on.

Since Coach K and Coach Lake prefer to play more conservative coverage concepts, the value of lanky press-centric CBs are diminished. Instead we have seen an influx in more compact athletes that have the mirroring ability to play sticky coverage in all situations. Players like Byron Murphy, Myles Bryant, Austin Joyner, and Kyler Gordon are all examples of this new recruiting approach. All are under 6' tall and under 200 lbs, but are all exceptional quick-twitch athletes that have closing speed and mirroring agility. This change in athletic profile lends itself to more aggressive play on the ball and turnovers, as well as versatile coverage match ups. While bigger CBs aren't as susceptible to match-ups on big bodied WRs, they are often exploited by quicker slots or receiving backs. Smaller but more athletic CBs have the athleticism to at least keep a body on every eligible receiver, and there are numerous other coverage techniques that Coach K and Coach Lake employ with their CBs within their Cover 1/Cover 3 scheme that can effectively mask any disadvantages that their lack of stature might bring. Instead of press coverage, CBs often utilize bail coverage techniques that align them near the LOS as if they were going to jam the WR, but immediately backpedal and mirror the WR at the snap. This technique doesn't disrupt the route like a jam would, but it does eliminate many of the quick passes that press coverage does without the risk of a whiffed jam.

Summary: While we have made good use of long press-oriented CBs in the past, our defensive tendencies and the scheme versatility of smaller and more agile CBs seem to be a better fit moving forward. I suppose the logic behind this new strategy could be boiled down to favoring anybody on a receiver rather than nobody.

*The emergence of Keith Taylor during spring practices further muddies the water when trying to draw definitive conclusions. I'd recommend to stay tuned as to the starting line ups this fall, and I'll likely have to revisit this breakdown.

Positions and Roles: Slot Corner

Key Traits:
  • Short area agility and athleticism
  • Slot coverage skill set, emphasizing Off-Coverage
  • Physicality to disengage from screen blocking and make tackles through traffic
For any of you football fans that have a more advanced knowledge of the game, the proliferation of the slot receiver began in earnest in the 2000s with players beginning to specialize their skills running routes from the slot. Defenses lagged behind this development for years until more recently when DBs began to refine their coverage techniques to better defend against the slot. Just like you wouldn't want to have a DT rush the edge every down even though DTs and DEs are both on the DL, putting a more specialized athlete in the slot pays dividends to a passing defense.

Myles Bryant was a hero in the slot on defense last year. His smaller stature didn't wasn't as big of an issue as a slot corner in our defense since there are few routes from the slot where receivers can box out or out jump a smaller DB, and the routes that do (slants, rub routes, seams) are often negated by the zone heavy coverages we utilize. The bigger potential issues arise from targeted play calls that apply physicality to the slot corner position. Screens, outside runs, and rub routes often aim to put bigger bodies on smaller positions (i.e. OL on DBs or TEs on CBs). The simple WR/bubble screens are staples of almost every spread offense. At only 5'8" 185lbs, Bryant might be considered a liability if a blocker even gets a hand on him, but shiftiness in navigating traffic is often more than enough for a hard-nosed defender to evade blocks in space.

The benefit of having a player that can erase the slot receiver is immensely powerful in a defensive scheme, and in the era of spread offenses it can actually be more useful than an outside corner that can eliminate a WR since offenses often deploy their best athletes in the slot.

Summary: Myles Bryant and the other potential slot corners have been molded to become the new age anti-spread shutdown corners. The best way to eliminate multi-talented space-athletes is with a combination of schematic help and specialized coverage athletes.

"Rover" Safety

Key Traits:
  • Exceptional instincts and play recognition/anticipation
  • Pure movement athleticism
  • Comfortable in space/coverage
To a certain extent, this positional breakdown isn't quite accurate from the get go. Based on the film, UW's safeties all share a lot of the same responsibilities and almost all find themselves in situations that force them out of these loosely defined roles. Therefore, versatility has to be one of the most important traits from this point on. Also, I have to add the disclaimer that I really don't know the accuracy of the actual names that UW uses for these positions. Based on a diagram that John Coalson managed to get from Coach K, I made a guess as to what the abbreviations used actually meant.

Anyways, back to the "Rover" Safety. Based on my film study notes, JoJo McIntosh manned this position most of the time in several games. As I discussed when giving a quick tutorial on the various safety alignments in the various coverages, there is usually only one deep safety over the middle of the field in Cover 3/Cover 1 defenses like ours. The "Rover" is the safety that is often assigned to this deep safety alignment. Since the "Rover" is the only DB between the hashes, it is imperative that this has a high football IQ in order to quickly process the various offensive concepts.

As a former offensive coach, I routinely designed and called plays in order to manipulate the deep safeties in order to open space around the field. Since there is only one deep safety in our scheme, there is a much smaller margin for error when the "Rover" decides to shade towards a specific receiver or break on a route. However, this is only a foundation for effective "Rover" play. Being able to understand your assignment and where you are supposed to go only takes you so far. The "Rover" still has to have the athleticism to act on what he reads in the offense. With only deep safety, the "Rover" has to have the athleticism to maintain depth over the deepest routes, the lateral agility to cover both seams, and the straight line speed to clean up broken plays near the LOS that make it to the second and third levels.

The balance between football instincts/IQ and athleticism can flow back and forth depending on the types of athletes that are on the roster since strength in one area can often mask deficiencies in the other. McIntosh is a fairly large "Rover" type of safety at 6'1" 211lbs, and he has average athleticism compared to some of the other DBs that we have had roaming the secondary, but he is quick processor that makes decisive breaks on routes. His reaction time masks his lack of recovery athleticism, and his reputation as a vicious hitter definitely benefits him when he gets to the ball a split second too late as he is still able to dislodge the ball at the catch point.

As for the "Rover" safety's alignment, I have noticed that he is usually aligned away from the passing strength of the offensive formation. For example, the "Rover" would often be aligned away from the trips side of the field, but this is largely irrelevant since the defensive secondary adjusts their alignment once the offense sets its formation. This eventually puts the "Rover" near the middle of the field with a slight shade to either side depending on personnel and match ups.

Summary: As I will reiterate several more times, versatility is still a key trait among the Huskies' secondary players, but the "Rover" safety is often the last line of defense in the secondary. Typical alignments will put the "Rover" at least 15 yards from the LOS with a sea of grass to cover. This player will likely be the DB with the best combination of athleticism, zone coverage, and sure tackling ability.

"Free" Safety

Key Traits:
  • Sure tackler in space, as well as a physical presence in the box
  • Versatile coverage skill set and repertoire
  • High football IQ and situational awareness
This is where the terminology gets a little more dicey. Conventional nomenclature would actually consider this position more of a strong safety, and there's a case to be made that the athletic profiles of Taylor Rapp (the Free Safety in UW's scheme) and McIntosh (UW's Rover Safety) would actually fit the prototypical FS and SS roles respectively, but just hear me out. For simplicity's sake, from now on I'm going to keep to the UW terminology as I understand it (please correct me if I am wrong though).

As I mentioned, this is the Taylor Rapp position, and before him it was the Budda Baker position. The Free Safety, and the players that man the position, is what separates UW's defense from a lot of other nickel based defenses. Recent developments in defensive scheming have made the fifth DB in the nickel the focal point of the defense, and this is the position that UW has decided to feature their best DBs.

There are several directions that defenses have gone when addressing their needs at nickel. The old-school nickel DB was just the 3rd CB on the depth chart, but these days they might be the best players on the defense.The Nickel DB can be Safety/Slot Corner hybrid along the lines of Tyrann Mathieu and Budda Baker. These guys are physically more similar to the original Nickel DBs. They might not have the stature to keep up as outside CBs, but they have excellent coverage ability and athleticism to keep up with shifty slot receivers or receiving RBs. These guys might be the movable chess pieces within a defense if they also have an complementary safety or slot corner that is also worth featuring in a more conventional role in order to free this DB to better utilize their versatility.

Others come in the form of Minkah Fitzpatrick and Derwin James. These are more similar to an old-school SS in terms of size, but they emphasize their ability to cover receiving TEs rather than engaging in trench warfare against blocking TEs. NFL comps might be someone like Kam Chancellor. Rapp fits into this mold. Rapp has borderline LB size, but he also has the athleticism in space and feel for coverage to be a jack-of-all-trades type of player. Similar to how the best modern RBs have speed, power, vision, and receiving ability, UW has been able to feature an equivalent defensive athlete to counter.

Taylor Rapp's special ability to play everywhere from deep safety to a blitzing edge rusher makes his presence so important. He has the ability to cover a seam-busting TE, credibly apply pressure off a zone blitz, set the edge against outside runs, blow up underneath passing concepts, and roll into the deep third coverage in disguised coverages. This type of versatility needs to be featured at all times, no matter the offensive personnel. By making the focal point of the defense a hybrid Safety/LB we are able to keep this player on the field in heavy and spread personnel and still maintain our versatility. It also allows us to deploy our favored single-high safety coverage and maintain an advantageous box count since our safeties can maintain the physicality of our LBs.

Summary: The "Free" Safety is our Huskies' ace up the sleeve. We like to use these ultra-versatile athletes to be the linchpin in all of our coverages in order to leverage our other defensive talents. The epitome of a force multiplier.

Overall, by emphasizing the versatility of our best players (Taylor Rapp), we are able to utilize more specialized or athletically less well-rounded players at other positions in order to gain schematic and personnel advantages in other areas (Myles Bryant and Jojo McIntosh), just like in our front seven.

Hopefully you learned something from my breakdown and commentary, and for those of you who might know more than I do I welcome you to comment below and give me an education.