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Nickel D Now ‘the Norm’

Posted Jun 7, 2014

With NFL passing attacks becoming increasingly dangerous, Jack Del Rio says sub-package defenses are more important than ever.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Just because Jack Del Rio doesn’t want to call nickel defense the NFL’s new base formation doesn’t mean he underestimates its importance in today’s league.

“I don’t consider the nickel the base, just because of the semantics of it,” the defensive coordinator said with a little laugh. “Base is base. Sub is sub. But (nickel) is the norm. It is the most frequently played defensive unit.

“I think last year, 66 percent of our snaps were in the sub package. You’re playing more and more 3-wide receiver sets, or even 2-tight end sets where the second tight end is really almost like a wide receiver. So you’re playing a lot of sub downs, so we’ve adjusted accordingly.”

Some of the adjusting has come from the front office, which acquired another Swiss-Army-knife pass rusher in DeMarcus Ware who, like Von Miller, can line up all over the formation. Likewise, signing T.J. Ward promotes nickel and dime flexibility by offering a more mobile “linebacker” option.

With a rash of injuries in 2013, Del Rio’s sub packages had to be frequently restocked. A year after featuring the league’s eight-fewest unique lineups (225) during the regular season, the defense trotted out 484 unique lineups in 2013, 35 more than any other team.

The greatest constant in 2013’s frenzied rotation was Chris Harris Jr., the nickel corner in sub packages and No. 2 cornerback in base defense. Before tearing his ACL in the playoffs, Harris led the defense with 1,042 regular season snaps, 266 clear of the next defensive back, left cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. And if his playing time doesn’t illustrate his value well enough, Harris noted Wednesday that the nickel corner is the key to unlocking defensive schemes.

“I know just from talking to [quarterback] Peyton [Manning], when he’s trying to figure out a defense he looks right at me to tell him exactly what type of [defense] we’re in,” Harris said. “Since I know that he’s always watching me and trying to figure it out, that’s a huge position.”

Harris’ skills in the slot will be missed if he isn’t ready to start the season. Perhaps equally important, one less body at corner in a league Del Rio says is seeking “more space and tempo” would be a challenge to overcome. By adding free agent Aqib Talib and 2014 first-round pick Bradley Roby to 2013 third-round pick Kayvon Webster and sixth-year veteran Tony Carter, Denver hopes to be strong at positions that keep gaining significance.

“I’d say the fourth corner becomes a little more important because you can never have enough,” Del Rio said. “And the reason people say that is because if somebody gets nicked, is tired, whatever, or something happens with the helmet, you have another guy that can go in. That’s a good position to be in.”

“So three is a necessity, I think, nowadays. I think having a fourth guy that is very capable is also very important.”

The in-season rotation is still far from being determined and certainly dependent on the health of Harris. But one thing’s for sure: Whenever Harris is ready, he’ll be on the field a lot.

“Pretty much, [nickel is] all we run,” he said. “That’s pretty much our main defense, really.”