Defensive personnel: Cowboys and Payments abandon the bottom

After trying on the offensive facet of the ball earlier this week, it is time to flip issues round and have a look at essentially the most generally used personnel groupings on protection. And, like we are saying yearly, which means we get to speak about how the league has nickel and dimed “base” protection out of existence. We noticed a brand new high-water mark for nickel protection in 2021, with defenses popping out with 5 defensive backs on 61.4% of all snaps. Base defenses at the moment are used on lower than 1 / 4 of all performs, making the title extra deceptive than ever earlier than.

It is a pure response to the growing variety of three-wide units we see across the league, and it is simply the most recent step in a course of that has been happening for over a century. The large query of the 2020s is how you can cope with a lot velocity on the sector, making your protection extra cell to cope with the elevated energy of the passing sport. That was as true within the Nineteen Twenties as it’s within the 2020s, because the historical past of defensive soccer is a reasonably straight line pulling increasingly more our bodies out of the field and into extra versatile places deeper on the sector. The query now we have now could be the place does this cease? Nickel defensive utilization had plateaued a bit over the previous couple seasons, hovering just below 60%, however now it appears to have began ahead momentum once more. How a lot nickel can a crew realistically run? And who’re the few groups pushing again in opposition to the nickelization of the NFL? Let’s dive in.

General Numbers

Defensive Personnel Groupings, 2021
Personnel 2020 Pct 2021 Pct Distinction 2021 DVOA
Nickel 59.7% 61.4% +1.7% 1.0%
Base 23.8% 23.4% -0.4% -2.7%
Dime+ 14.9% 13.9% -1.0% 2.2%
Aim line 0.9% 0.7% -0.2% -7.4%
Massive 0.7% 0.6% -0.1% -27.1%

A couple of fast notes earlier than we proceed:

  • For the report, 57% of base snaps had been in 3-4 and 40% had been in 4-3. Many of the relaxation had been 2-5s, used often by the Chiefs, Cardinals and Falcons. The lead between 3-4 and 4-3 tends to bounce backwards and forwards from 12 months to 12 months as coordinators shift.
  • There was much less front-mixing in 2021 than we had seen in earlier seasons. Twenty-two groups had been in both 4-3 or 3-4 on a minimum of 75% of their base snaps. That is up from 14 in 2020, and I’ve no rationalization for why there was such a dramatic shift. It reverses a development now we have seen over the previous few seasons, dropping from 25 to 22 to 14 since 2018. Maybe 2020 was only a unusual, COVID-fueled outlier.
  • “Dime+” contains any package deal with greater than 5 defensive backs. That features all of your dime packages, in addition to the 128 snaps in quarter and 12 snaps with eight defensive backs on the sector. We even had one play with 9 defensive backs (gold greenback protection?) with the Titans enjoying an uber-prevent in opposition to the Seahawks close to the tip of regulation in a tie sport in Week 2. Russell Wilson was capable of scramble for 12 yards and a primary down, nevertheless it ate up practically the remainder of the clock and nonetheless stored Seattle out of vary for even a Hail Mary try, so all’s nicely that ends nicely.
  • All defenses with fewer than 4 defensive backs are both “Massive” or “Aim Line.” “Massive” contains something with three defensive backs and fewer than 4 defensive linemen (principally 4-4-3 and 3-5-3), whereas “Aim Line” is every little thing else. Regardless of its title, there is no requirement for goal-line defenses to really be performed on the objective line; Arizona had 5 snaps of 4-5 on the opposite facet of the 50 in Weeks 1 and a pair of. Lining up in 4-5 in opposition to journeys on first-and-10 is a daring determination, compelled by accidents, however each the Vikings and Titans bumped into the 4-5 on all 5 performs.

A 1.7% bump in nickel fee shouldn’t be precisely a paradigm-shifting change. We’re speaking one or two further snaps of nickel per crew per sport; not one thing to be writing residence about. However that is the second 12 months in a row the place nickel has gone up whereas each base and dime have gone down. Nickel utilization went up in each cut up—in opposition to 11, 12 and 21 personnel; in opposition to the move and in opposition to the run; you title it. Nickel is the Swiss military knife of defenses and reveals no signal of stopping anytime quickly. The league did not set the report for many defensive backs per play, dropping from 4.89 to 4.88 as dime+ packages pale barely, however that is a rounding error of a distinction. Nickel is in every single place.

Defenses In opposition to High Personnel Teams

Defensive Personnel DVOA Breakdown, 2021
Protection Base Nickel Dime+
Break up % Used DVOA % Used DVOA % Used DVOA
11 personnel 2.8% -8.1% 77.3% 2.9% 19.9% 3.4%
12 personnel 49.9% -5.3% 45.8% -4.4% 3.6% 2.7%
21 personnel 65.7% -0.2% 29.7% -8.4% 2.9% -23.1%
All move 15.0% 24.9% 63.7% 6.2% 20.6% 1.1%
All run 36.9% -11.8% 57.7% -6.9% 3.2% 11.0%
General 23.4% -2.7% 61.4% 1.0% 13.9% 2.2%

Whereas base protection continues to have a greater defensive DVOA than nickel, that is principally due to play choice. Base is getting used increasingly more in apparent operating conditions, and since dashing is much less environment friendly then passing, base protection appears to be like higher and higher as extra of its pattern is taken up by run performs. So sure, in case you’re certain the opposing crew goes to run, it is higher to have an additional lineman or linebacker within the field. In apparent dashing conditions (say, third or fourth down with 3 or fewer yards to go), base outperforms nickel in opposition to the run, -3.8% to six.2%. The issue is that you just’re a lot, far more weak in these conditions if the offense decides to air it out anyway. In those self same conditions, when the offense decides to throw a move, base protection DVOA soars to 18.5%, whereas nickel rises to three.4%. Briefly, in case you’re guessing run, you’d higher not be fallacious.

Final 12 months, we posited groups may need to strive 12 and 21 personnel extra regularly, benefiting from groups going lighter in nickel by bringing in a second tight finish or fullback, as a result of base defenses had superior DVOAs in opposition to each of these personnel groupings. That sample has held for the previous few years however did not final season, when two-back personnel struggled in opposition to nickel. I will blame that on the groups accountable for making an attempt it slightly than the personnel packages, nonetheless. The Falcons led the league with 107 snaps of 21 in opposition to nickel, and any stat the place the 2021 Falcons are the most important a part of your pattern dimension shouldn’t be going to prove nicely. Groups reminiscent of Indianapolis, Cleveland and San Francisco nonetheless had loads of success operating 12 in opposition to nickel, so maybe the technique ought to be amended to “get greater in case you even have high quality gamers to make use of.”

Solely three groups (Seattle, Pittsburgh and Arizona) even hit 50 snaps of base-against-11 as that technique continues to die out. Placing a linebacker on a slot receiver is a good way to surrender tons of passing yards! It ought to be famous that whereas the Steelers and Cardinals struggled in these conditions, Seattle really had a strong -15.9% defensive DVOA in base versus nickel, which strikes us fairly properly into our team-specific tables.

Group By Group Frequencies

Defensive Personnel Frequency, 2021
Group Base Rk Nickel Rk Dime+ Rk
ARI 29% 7 58% 19 1% 29
ATL 25% 12 74% 4 0% 31
BAL 24% 15 54% 24 20% 11
BUF 5% 31 92% 1 3% 27
CAR 21% 23 62% 15 16% 16
CHI 29% 8 55% 23 16% 15
CIN 21% 24 64% 12 15% 17
CLE 25% 13 62% 16 12% 19
DAL 1% 32 78% 2 20% 10
DEN 24% 16 58% 20 18% 12
DET 26% 11 60% 17 11% 21
GB 19% 27 56% 22 24% 6
HOU 32% 6 67% 9 0% 32
IND 21% 22 78% 3 1% 30
JAX 32% 5 52% 28 13% 18
KC 27% 10 45% 31 28% 2
LAC 24% 14 63% 14 12% 20
LAR 19% 26 54% 25 26% 3
LV 21% 21 58% 21 21% 9
MIA 34% 2 33% 32 31% 1
MIN 34% 4 63% 13 3% 26
NE 11% 30 66% 11 22% 8
NO 14% 29 60% 18 25% 5
NYG 22% 19 54% 26 23% 7
NYJ 20% 25 73% 6 6% 24
PHI 23% 17 73% 5 3% 25
PIT 34% 3 47% 30 17% 13
SEA 38% 1 52% 27 9% 22
SF 22% 18 69% 7 7% 23
TB 29% 9 68% 8 2% 28
TEN 22% 20 51% 29 26% 4
WAS 16% 28 67% 10 17% 14
AVG 23% 61% 14%

The Seahawks led the league through the use of base 38% of the time. That is a brand new low-water mark for the NFL, though solely simply—the Jaguars had been at 39% in 2020. It labored for Seattle—the Seahawks had a greater DVOA in base than in nickel, each in opposition to the run (-23.6% to 0.0%) and the move (15.9% to twenty.4%).

Eight groups had been higher in base than nickel in opposition to each the run and the move, which does not stand out as significantly fascinating. What is fascinating is that each one eight groups had been within the NFC, together with all 4 groups within the NFC West—the Cardinals, Rams, 49ers and Seahawks had been joined by the Vikings, Saints, Giants and Washington. Base defenses had a -8.7% DVOA in opposition to NFC West groups, the very best within the league. They had been at -3.9% in opposition to the NFC as a complete, in comparison with -1.6% within the AFC, and all 4 NFC divisions had been within the adverse.

The convention state of affairs is usually a “splits occur” state of affairs, I believe, however offenses within the NFC West particularly being dangerous in opposition to base defenses is complicated. It ought to be famous that we’re noting two separate however associated issues right here — the 4 NFC West groups are each good when in base defenses and dangerous when enjoying in opposition to base defenses. There’s an 11.7% DVOA hole between NFC West offenses in opposition to base and nickel; the NFC East at 7.5% is the one different division above 5%. A number of that is the Rams, particularly, struggling in opposition to base, placing up a -42.4% offensive DVOA in opposition to base defenses, however all 4 groups had been down when opposing groups loaded the field in opposition to them. Defensively, the Rams and 49ers had been main the best way in base with defensive DVOAs within the -20% vary, however the Seahawks and Cardinals had been above common there, as nicely. I’ve no rationalization for this in any respect; there’s not any actual similarities between the offenses or defenses within the West particularly that would appear to result in this outcome. Vince Verhei means that for the reason that secondaries of all 4 groups had been subpar final season that eradicating a nickel nook for a entrance seven participant was a pure improve for all 4 groups. I suppose that is a chance, however one thing about that does not fairly ring proper for me. I haven’t got a greater rationalization, so a few of that is simply “have a look at the bizarre stat!” protection, however man, unusual issues are unusual.

I might dismiss it as random likelihood … besides the identical factor occurred in 2020, with defenses placing up a -8.1% DVOA in opposition to the NFC West in base. That is way back to it goes, so it might simply be a bizarre cut up occurring two years in a row. However it’s bizarre as heck. Perhaps Pete Carroll is on to one thing counting on base protection as a lot as he has.

Off Base

The Cowboys and Payments turn into the sixth and 7 groups in our knowledge set, going again to 2011, to make use of base on fewer than 10% of defensive snaps. Buffalo ought to be even decrease—26 of its 54 snaps in base got here in opposition to the Patriots within the Week 13 climate sport the place New England solely tried three passes; no want for further cornerbacks in that state of affairs. After which 18 extra snaps in base got here in opposition to the Patriots in Week 16. That simply leaves 10 snaps the remainder of the season in base protection for Buffalo; it was nearly solely an anti-Invoice Belichick plan. As Mac Jones was held to 139 yards passing within the non-wind-affected sport, I might say the technique labored, nevertheless it’s very odd to see a crew change its complete defensive philosophy just for one opponent.

As for Dallas? You’ve one snap of base in opposition to the Buccaneers in Week 1, one in opposition to the Chargers in Week 2, 4 in opposition to the Panthers in Week 4 and 6 in opposition to the Patriots in Week 6. The Cowboys’ true “base” was Dan Quinn’s 4-2, utilizing a bunch of athletic gamers within the secondary for velocity. However it’s not like Quinn’s groups in Atlanta had been utilizing base this hardly ever, or that Dallas was an outlier for nickel or dime packages earlier than Quinn arrived. This was a major change in type from Quinn.

And it labored out for the higher—the Payments and Cowboys had been first and second in defensive DVOA final season, each total and in opposition to the move. Is that solely from sitting in nickel all day lengthy? No, however there is a 0.52 correlation between base utilization and total defensive DVOA. When you’ve got the horses to play in nickel and dime regularly with out getting completely destroyed on the bottom, it is extra seemingly than not a good suggestion to a minimum of give it a shot. Until, apparently, you are enjoying Invoice Belichick or the NFC West.

Adjustments From 2020

The largest change from 2020 to 2021 occurred in Inexperienced Bay, the place the Packers dropped from utilizing dime 50% of the time to simply 24%. The Packers had used dime over half the time in every of the earlier two seasons, they usually ranked first in dime utilization from 2017 to 2020. Joe Barry changing Mike Pettine produced a predictable drop in dime packages, and it did not harm that De’Vondre Campbell made the Packers linebacker corps a constructive for the primary time in ages. With Inexperienced Bay utilizing a first-round choose on Quay Walker, I’d count on the Packers to stay a nickel-focused crew slightly than a dime-focused one, even when the Pack keep close to the highest of the league in dime proportion.

Dime modifications generally had been behind the largest shifts between 2020 and 2021. The Patriots dropped from 47% to 22%, the Panthers from 41% to 16% and the Texans from 21% to 0%—Houston did not have a single snap in dime final season after enjoying 221 snaps in it in 2020. In all 4 instances, this was principally simply sticking an additional linebacker on the sector so as to add nickel snaps, though Carolina noticed a reasonably important enhance in base proportion (5% to 21%) to associate with it. That is nearer to what Carolina used earlier than Matt Rhule and Phil Snow got here in, and I believe it is associated to Jeremy Chinn getting used extra as a real security final season versus a hybrid security/linebacker. Chinn’s position ended up principally changing Tre Boston’s from 2020, and Chinn’s outdated position was crammed extra by Jermaine Carter, resulting in a rise in base proportion.

Buffalo Nickels

Wrapping round to complete again with Buffalo, the Payments did not simply keep away from base—they prevented all non-nickel packages. That they had simply 85 snaps all season exterior of their nickel; each different crew had a minimum of 231 snaps in different packages. Buffalo managed 9 complete video games with out ever leaving nickel and was principally compelled out of it by circumstance. We talked about the Patriots-forced base defenses, however Buffalo additionally solely had 26 snaps of dime, all in opposition to the Chiefs when Matt Milano was inactive with a hamstring damage. The Payments had been again in nickel for the playoff sport on all however two snaps; it was extra about Milano than any worry of Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas Metropolis offense.

That is one motive why I am rooting for a Buffalo Payments versus Los Angeles Rams Tremendous Bowl this season. It could tickle me to see the crew which by no means leaves nickel play in opposition to the crew that by no means leaves 11, only for the sake of novelty.

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