We are (finally) just weeks away from week one of the 2020 NFL regular season, after what has truly been the most chaotic off-season in recent memory. This is depending on if there are no further setbacks caused by the global pandemic we all know as COVID-19. That, of which, we all sincerely hope ends sooner rather than later.
On the subject of football, the headlines in Chicago have been fixated on what’s going on with the Bears’ offense. Yet, for every article detailing Mitchell Trubisky vs. Nick Foles, an opportunity is missed on covering an equally big development. What could possibly be that story?
This elite defense is in an early state of evolution as training camp continues each day.
Yes, you read that correctly. The Bears’ defense is (likely) seeing it’s own transformation come the beginning of the 2020 regular season. This has been in the works for almost three seasons, and expedited recently by defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano. The players added since 2019 have pointed in a change of personnel groupings as well as alignments.
Introducing the “new” base alignment: 4-2-5 Nickel
The NFL has turned to such a pass-happy style of football as it’s cash cow on offense. Thanks to all these spread concepts being adapted into the league, defensive coordinators are left with the options of using more nickel and dime packages to counter pass-heavy formations. Quite simply, defenses need more skill players to combat skill players in the secondary.
As a result, the utilization of either base 4-3 alignments (four down linemen and three true linebackers) or 3-4 alignments (three down linemen and four true linebackers) are falling out of favor. Instead, an emergence of 4-2-5 nickels (pictured above) and 3-3 stack (three down linemen and three true linebackers) has taken over a lot of defenses around the league.
The Bears’ defense is a great example of this.
Dating back to 2018, in Vic Fangio’s last season with Chicago, the Bears’ defense lined up in any variation of nickel 64% of the time on the field. By comparison, they lined up in “base” 3-4 only 17% of the time. Those numbers only changed further in 2019 under Chuck Pagano. In 2019, the Bears lined up in nickel around 76% of the time, more than 3⁄4 of time spent on the field. When everyone is healthy, nickel has been the most effective alignment for the Bears in each of the past two seasons.
The aforementioned statistics are sourced from this article by beargoggleson.com, who did a great job in breaking down the numbers on defense from last season.
Plus, with the additions and subtractions made during the 2020 offseason, having a base front of a 4-2-5 allows for the Bears to maximize their new talent. This is compounded by the loss of Eddie Goldman with his respectable decision to opt-out of the 2020 regular season. The base nickel will help solve those problems.
Robert Quinn and Khalil Mack will be “dirt” linebackers
When news broke of Robert Quinn landing with the Bears, I couldn’t believe how many people overlooked the potential impact this signing will have. I’m even more astonished with the thought Quinn didn’t make sense, all because he’s a true 7-tech edge player that plays better when in a 3-point stance. “He can’t play linebacker,” some have said.
That, the idea he was brought in as a “true” linebacker, is the wrong way to look at this signing. He was brought in to do what Leonard Floyd could not accomplish - apply consistent pressure from the edge. Whether that is against the run, or when it’s time to harass the quarterback, you can guarantee we will see Robert Quinn and Khalil Mack lined up more often as linemen instead of in 2-point stances.
Both Quinn and Mack have seen success in lining up from multiple techniques. Both players, understandably, have played better when they’re focused on wrecking havoc behind the line of scrimmage. These two players fit in a 4-2-5 nickel better than in any 3-4 alignment; in such a grouping, Mack and Quinn would be the bookend players as if they were in a 4-3. It’s just logic at this point.
It’s all about getting your eleven best players on the field. Quinn and Mack are two of those eleven players. Beyond Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn, you will see more “tweener” defensive ends/linebackers backing them up. Barkevious Mingo along with rookie Trevis Gipson are two examples. Again, the idea is not to ask for these players to add into coverage nearly as often as they normally would in the 3-4.
Instead, leave that up to your extra DBs on the field. And we haven’t even looked into what’s happening in the secondary.
Ryan Pace has netted tons of DBs in the last three off-seasons
Whether it has been through the draft, or free agency, Ryan Pace and his scouts have completely revamped the Bears’ secondary. So much so, that there is a much greater amount of depth at defensive back than there currently is at inside linebacker. This was done on purpose.
Depth is crucial at any position, especially inside linebacker. With that said, the 4-2-5 nickel is designed to where depth at inside linebacker is not as critical as opposed to a true 3-4 front or even a 4-3 front. There are only two true linebackers any time the Bears line up in nickel, as a big body is exchanged for more speed to utilize in coverage. Where the depth behind Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan is shallow, the burden will be felt less in the nickel.
When including recent additions like Buster Skrine, Kindle Vildor, and Duke Shelley, these are all players who fit in best when tasked with covering the slot. With the ascent of slot receivers and receiving tight ends over the past decade, it has become essential to have a quality skill player available to man the slot. Therefore, there is less of a need for an additional linebacker, unless they are a true freak of nature.
But wait, what happens if the offense decides to run the ball against nickel? Considering the talent at inside linebacker between Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith, I’m not nearly as concerned. There is also the likely chance we will see a “heavy” or “big” nickel used.
What is a heavy nickel?
The term “heavy” is used when lining up an additional safety in the box instead of a “light” corner. My suspicion is whomever does not win the starting job at safety between Deon Bush and Tashaun Gipson will be said “heavy” nickel. We could also see Kevin Toliver, Jaylon Johnson — if he’s not starting at corner right away — or Sherrick McManis used in such a role.
Something else we may see more of this year are exotic blitzes from the boundary that utilize the extra nickel or safety.
For example, Chuck Pagano fancies himself as an aggressive play caller when it comes to blitzes. However, he may be less inclined to send additional assets up front as he now has Hicks, Quinn, and Mack on the field at the same time. Or, he could use that trio to his advantage, and draw up a nickel or safety blitz to catch the opposing offense off guard. Tashaun Gipson and Eddie Jackson are both good at dropping into the box as additional blitzers.
Likewise, Chuck Pagano could utilize more “cloud” concepts. The addition of Jaylon Johnson fits this idea quite well, given his ability to jam and press receivers on the line, with Kyle Fuller continuing his best work from a “loose” technique. In cloud, Fuller and the two safeties would be responsible for deep threats, while Johnson and the nickel would be responsible for more short-to-intermediate routes, depending on their assignments.
At the same time, I would not expect to see “sky” concepts used as much. In sky, the two corners and one safety would be responsible for deep coverage, which doesn’t match the skill-sets of corners not named Kyle Fuller.
Base Nickel will allow Chuck Pagano and Jay Rodgers to be creative with their defensive line
The loss of Eddie Goldman does create issues when it does come time for Chicago to have their 3-4 personnel grouping on the field. Heck, it’ll create issues everywhere, as having him alongside Akiem Hicks was the most beautiful sight on nickel packages. Goldman is just one of the truly great “zero” technique nose tackles left in the NFL.
There is no true nose available who can replace Goldman one-for-one in any true 3-4 alignment, in my personal opinion. The solution is to maximize the talent between Bilal Nichols, Roy Robertson-Harris (RRH), and the depth chart to lessen the impact. Also, lining up in nickel will give you access to Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn. They’ll essentially be defensive ends in these packages anyhow.
There are far more techniques than just the typical five and zero techniques you’d see in a classic 3-4 alignment. In fact, I’ll post such techniques below.
Typically, we’d see Eddie Goldman lined up at the “zero” when in a 3-4 alignment. While in nickel, Goldman would be lined up as a “one” or “shade.” An example of the later is featured in his safety against Jared Goff in 2018.
One key advantage of running Nickel instead of the 3-4 is the ability to utilize both one-gap and two-gap concepts up front. Since the Bears no longer have their top two-gap player available, why take the risk? Otherwise, if they’re not careful, they will be more susceptible to the run.
So, who’s filling in for Eddie Goldman in the meantime?
So far, it has been Bilal Nichols lining up as the primary player at nose in Eddie Goldman’s absence. Where he doesn’t have the ability to anchor as well as Goldman — nobody realistically can anyhow — Bilal Nichols has shown the flexibility to play anywhere between the five and zero techniques. His best technique, frankly, could be as a shade.
Meanwhile, when the Bears line up in the 3-4, we will undoubtedly see RRH as an end with Nichols lining up as the nose. However, RRH can play tackle in a hypothetical “NASCAR” package. He can also rush from the edge fairly well.
Oh, and there’s this monstrosity named Akiem Hicks, too. It’s time to unleash him.
You can line Akiem Hicks anywhere, he’ll win his battles. Five technique head on against the tackle, that’s a win. 4-tech or even the 4i where you can maximize his explosiveness? That’s also a win. How about kicking Hicks along with Nichols to 3-tech in a “G” technique? Or, if you need the beef, kick Hicks and Nichols both to 5 techs and bring in John Jenkins at the zero. Jenkins himself is a capable veteran who can stuff the run when called upon.
The versatility along the defensive line is good enough to where you can maximize the effectiveness of the nickel by utilizing leverage instead of raw power. This versatility cannot be realized in a 3-4 grouping. Thus why it’s likely we’ll see a base 3-4 alignment even less next season as more nickel and dime packages take over.
The Bears’ defense experienced a setback in 2019 due to the sheer amount of effort needed to keep their team in winnable situations with mistake-free football. Given the expectation of a more productive offense, the Bears’ defense is also going to be re-tooled to fit their players better. Expect a more creative looking front seven as players are shifted around to maximize their effectiveness.
Even with the loss of Goldman, this defense is an elite unit on paper. These claims will be put to the test starting on September 13th at Detroit, where they’ll face a healthy Lions team loaded with good receivers. If everything works out as I envision, we should see a return to the top in terms of sacks and takeaways generated.
It just feels good to talk football again, doesn’t it?