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Brandon Hardin and the Bears Nickel Defense

He may have not seen the field, but, Brandon Hardin's skillset at Oregon State punctuates a new trend in safeties for the Chicago Bears.
He may have not seen the field, but, Brandon Hardin's skillset at Oregon State punctuates a new trend in safeties for the Chicago Bears.

One of the intriguing things about Brandon Hardin was the fact he was a converted cornerback, but shaped more like a safety. At 6'3, 220, and running a 4.43 40 yard dash, he's a solid, punishing tacker, and fair at man coverage. Like Chris Conte, both aren't Danieal Manning fast, but Hardin is decent enough in coverage to stack against some more physical beings in the slot. Two weeks ago, when looking at the Packers defense, I broke down their usage of the 2-4-5 and how they leverage Charles Woodson into a few important roles as both a slot cornerback and a safety. There's so much that defenses are doing to try to adapt to the new passing league, and with Phil Emery drafting guys all over the defensive side of the ball with coverage skills, it's a recognition of the reality of the game now. With the importance of a fifth defensive back, knowing what flexibility you have around your backs can go a long way into improving your defensive scheming.

The league stopped being a predominately smashmouth league about five years ago, the 2007 Patriots were the turning point. Fifty Touchdowns, 4800 yards, 23 Touchdown receptions. An aerial assault to end all aerial assaults. And then came Aaron Rodgers, and Megatron, and oh boy. How could a linebacker with a 4.7 40 cover these three wide sets? These 4.5, 4.45 TE's and shifty slot players. It's illogical. Remember over the past few years, how important the 3rd CB has been, Ricky Manning Jr., Danieal Manning, and now DJ Moore? Lovie has spoken about how important the position has become and has treated it appropritately. When a team plays 3 wide most games, the 3rd LB in the 4-3 doesn't become as important because you simply can't play them. And the 3rd corner becomes a de facto starter. Just because they don't show up on the NFL's official depth chart doesn't negate how important their position may have become.

In 4-3 and 3-4 Zone Blitz, and 3-4 hybrid teams, you're seeing a lot more of the nickel package, and depending on the scheme, sometimes it's a 2-4-5, sometimes it's a 3-3-5, sometimes it's a 4-2-5. How teams use the Nickel CB though varies from team to team and scheme to scheme, but a varied skill set is usually key with these Nickel CB's. Guys like Woodson are solid blitzers, good in man coverage, a bit slow against the fastest receivers, but, often good tacklers. The last point 'Good Tacklers' is imperitive when you're in the Nickel set. The Nickel CB has to be able to assist in the run game more often than not as teams can and do run from 3 WR sets, they have to have the same responsibility of a linebacker from time to time to help contain the edge and know their assigned gaps in the run game all the while, they have to be lined up against WR's in the slot. A ton of possible responsibilities.

The good news, in the passing game, there's usually a lot of help for the Nickel CB to make plays. As Steve Ronkowski wrote a few weeks back, he talked about the option of the Nickel CB in the pass rush. The Nickel CB can drop into the flat zone or a hook zone in a Cover 3 shell, the Nickel CB can play Man in an Under 2, the Nickel CB can replace a LB in the base Tampa 2 Coverage, and of course, defend against the run when teams run from a 3 wide set. Nickel CB's don't have to be the fastest, but have good short range suddenness and the ability to effectively cover the short inside breaking routes. In the Bears nickel schemes, very rarely does DJ Moore run deep with routes, but instead plays to the short routes and uses his burst in the zone to pick short routes. It's why year after year, we see the Bears Nickel CB's come away with buckets of interceptions. In two seasons and two games, DJ has EIGHT picks. That's not a bad number at all for a guy who's on the field for at most, half of all defensive plays.


Lets take a look at this play (via, a Michigan Wolverines Blog).

It's has 2 fly routes from the TE and X receiver gearing for outside release and two inside crossing routes. I'm under the assumption that the Z receiver is breaking at the 7 yard deep as opposed to the W receiver, who's going in on a seam, but cutting inside across the field at the five or shorter. This isn't an uncommon play on 2nd or 3rd and short (4 or less) between the 40's, because of how the TE can blow open the play, something you might see Detroit run. If the Bears are playing in a regular Tampa 2, but showing single high safety (in Cover 1/3 concepts) you'll see the SS start backpedalling immediately after the snap and backpedal while the TE goes to his deep zone. The X receiver will release outside, and then it plays like any outside receiver against the cover 2: find the gap between the CB and the Safety and stick the ball there. The CB has the option on the empty side to play deeper in his zone than usual as the RB is in pass protection on the strong side and isn't a threat to release into a pattern. This is actually really an important thing to recall, as we saw Tim Jennings blow open plays with this exact move by baiting the QB and exploding up to pick the ball. As Urlacher sets deeper into the middle third, it gives the FS a bit of safety to play closer to the sideline and close that hole in the coverage.

The QB's best bet at this time is a quick throw to the TE while the SS is dropping back and the Nickel and MLB are tending to their responsibilities (of the W receiver and Middle zone respectively). The problem is, is unless the TE is the first read, and you know you're playing cover 2, you can't make that throw unless the SS starts dropping back before the snap because the SS has the advantage in the coverage immediately after the snap. Discipline and speed are hallmarks of the defense, and being able to disguise coverages like this are exactly what makes it difficult for offenses to play against the Bears.

The Nickel probably takes a step back and inside, because knowing that there's going to be a vertical handoff of receivers as the SS drops into the strong side deep half, the Nickel has a ton of opportunities to drive on a ball thrown on inside routes. If the QB quick releases to the W receiver here immediately (which out of the shotgun still takes a moment), the Nickel (along with all back 7 players in Lovie Smith's defenses) is looking at that QB. If the QB is zoned in on that short pass in front of the Nickel, that's a high risk, low reward shot that has very little chance of seeing YAC. As the play develops, the Nickel would sink left after playing the curl, QB probably progress to his X read and see the FS ranging over, and maybe try to fit it in there on the outside shoulder. If not, when the QB comes back to the right side of the field, the W should have cleared out the Nickel's zone, and the LCB would be in the process of passing off responsibility of the Z Receiver to the Nickel. The QB could possibly make the play over the center of the field, assuming the hole between the Will, Mike (who's sunk back a bit) and Nickel is there (likely to be). It's a short yardage play that ends up churning the chains and nothing more that has a tough time getting more than a yard or two after the catch because the Mike is driving down, and both the Will and Nickel pinch the sides of the reception. Ideally for the offense, the protection would hold up long enough for the W to eventually pass out of the will linebacker's zone and sit between a CB who's deeper on the empty side from the fly route, that there's a gap in the zone there to get some good YAC and force open field tackles.

It's how the Bears defense, even in it's base Tampa 2 makes its sauce week after week. Forcing QB's into tough throws over the middle and down the seam, and dinks and dunks to move the chains play after play.

Suppose you motion the TE (Y) out, a decent one like Brandon Pettegrew. If the Bears are playing Tampa 2, the overload to one side is pretty rough to deal with. The 2 of the 3 bunched run deep routes, the X (maybe Megatron) gets weaker safety coverage, and both the SS and FS have responsibilites on one side of the field with the Mike still dropping back to cover the middle. It's 'splitting the Safety' essentially by forcing the FS to move closer to the Y and abandon the X, or having the SS take the Y but not necessarily have the same ability to close in on the Z in as they move up the sideline. The LCB or Nickel absolutely has to reroute the Z or W receiver off the line respectively. If the CB isn't playing close enough to reroute the timing and allow the SS to get deep enough, someone is going to be behind the Safeties, and that's very, very, very bad.


So, if the Bears actually play Cover 3 and the SS is reading the TE the entire time, where if the TE stays in pass protection, the SS will rush the passer in a Safety Blitz, if the TE goes onto a route, you have a safety covering the TE, with the Safety playing deep center field. With the bunch on the right, and the TE shifted out, the SS will come into defending the pass, which is where Chris Conte and Brandon Hardin come in who don't have elite top end speed, but have the size to match up against TE's effectively and are ex-CB's who have decent skills in man to man coverage.

With the TE split out, You can't make the same assumptions as the play develops that you did in the previous example. Because if the Z receiver looks like, and smells like he's going deep, the CB has nothing to do but give him the space because he's no longer playing with safety help over top, he can trail, but if it's a speedster like Titus Young, it's best to not let him get too far behind you. With the TE's responsibility being manned by the SS. As the TE goes deep, and the Z cuts inside, the LCB won't be stuck on the Z as much as before, and again, the Nickel sitting in the curl zone over the W has the opportunity to step up and take away the inside breaking route that the CB can't cover with the cushion he had to provide to the Z. Not necessarily saying the Nickel will make it to break up the play as the W receiver pushes the Nickel inside as they pass off to the Mike, but, there's players there and forcing the QB to find the right hole in coverage is always the challenge with that sudden speed.

We've come to the point where the the league requires you to have 3 competent, if not very good cornerbacks. In that last example, if you replaced the Nickel with Nick Roach, you'd probably have an unfavorable matchup based on speed that would be easier for the offense to exploit with 2 WR's lined up strong side with a good TE. The Nickel package, and safeties who have the ability to not only hit, but cover, are becoming the new norm in improving NFL level defense. One day soon, you'll see draft boards talking about how a player will be a solid nickelback, who plays well in small spaces, tackles well, and has good hands. May not have the size to necessarily matchup on the outside, but, will be an class unto themselves that provides valuable relief to an increasinly pass heavy league and bigger, but slower cornerbacks who can tackle find their way into the deep secondary as the safety position becomes redefined again from a physical standpoint.