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Defensive personnel: Cowboys and Bills abandon the base

After taking a look at the offensive facet of the ball earlier this week, it is time to flip issues round and have a look at the mostly used personnel groupings on protection. And, like we are saying yearly, meaning 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’s a pure response to the growing variety of three-wide units we see round the league, and it is simply the newest step in a course of that has been happening for over a century. The large query of the 2020s is the right way to cope with a lot velocity on the area, making your protection extra cell to cope with the elevated energy of the passing sport. That was as true in the Nineteen Twenties as it’s in the 2020s, as the historical past of defensive soccer is a reasonably straight line pulling extra and extra our bodies out of the field and into extra versatile places deeper on the area. The query we have now now’s 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 workforce realistically run? And who’re the few groups pushing again towards the nickelization of the NFL? Let’s dive in.

Overall Numbers

Defensive Personnel Groupings, 2021
Personnel2020 Pct2021 PctDifference2021 DVOA
Goal line0.9%0.7%-0.2%-7.4%

A couple of fast notes earlier than we proceed:

  • For the document, 57% of base snaps have been in 3-4 and 40% have been in 4-3. Most of the relaxation have been 2-5s, used sometimes by the Chiefs, Cardinals and Falcons. The lead between 3-4 and 4-3 tends to bounce again and forth from yr to yr as coordinators shift.
  • There was much less front-mixing in 2021 than we had seen in earlier seasons. Twenty-two groups have been in both 4-3 or 3-4 on not less than 75% of their base snaps. That’s up from 14 in 2020, and I’ve no clarification for why there was such a dramatic shift. It reverses a development we have now seen over the previous few seasons, dropping from 25 to 22 to 14 since 2018. Perhaps 2020 was only a unusual, COVID-fueled outlier.
  • “Dime+” contains any package deal with greater than 5 defensive backs. That contains all of your dime packages, in addition to the 128 snaps in quarter and 12 snaps with eight defensive backs on the area. We even had one play with 9 defensive backs (gold greenback protection?) with the Titans enjoying an uber-prevent towards the Seahawks close to the finish of regulation in a tie sport in Week 2. Russell Wilson was in a position to scramble for 12 yards and a primary down, but it surely ate up almost 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 “Big” or “Goal Line.” “Big” contains something with three defensive backs and fewer than 4 defensive linemen (largely 4-4-3 and 3-5-3), whereas “Goal Line” is every part else. Despite its title, there is not any requirement for goal-line defenses to really be performed on the aim line; Arizona had 5 snaps of 4-5 on the different facet of the 50 in Weeks 1 and 2. Lining up in 4-5 towards journeys on first-and-10 is a daring determination, pressured by accidents, however each the Vikings and Titans bumped into the 4-5 on all 5 performs.

A 1.7% bump in nickel charge just isn’t precisely a paradigm-shifting change. We’re speaking one or two additional snaps of nickel per workforce per sport; not one thing to be writing dwelling about. But that is the second yr in a row the place nickel has gone up whereas each base and dime have gone down. Nickel utilization went up in each break up—towards 11, 12 and 21 personnel; towards the cross and towards 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 document for many defensive backs per play, dropping from 4.89 to 4.88 as dime+ packages light barely, however that is a rounding error of a distinction. Nickel is in all places.

Defenses Against Top Personnel Groups

Defensive Personnel DVOA Breakdown, 2021
Split% UsedDVOA% UsedDVOA% UsedDVOA
11 personnel2.8%-8.1%77.3%2.9%19.9%3.4%
12 personnel49.9%-5.3%45.8%-4.4%3.6%2.7%
21 personnel65.7%-0.2%29.7%-8.4%2.9%-23.1%
All cross15.0%24.9%63.7%6.2%20.6%1.1%
All run36.9%-11.8%57.7%-6.9%3.2%11.0%

While base protection continues to have a greater defensive DVOA than nickel, that is largely due to play choice. Base is getting used extra and extra in apparent working conditions, and since dashing is much less environment friendly then passing, base protection appears higher and higher as extra of its pattern is taken up by run performs. So sure, in case you’re certain the opposing workforce goes to run, it is higher to have an additional lineman or linebacker in the field. In apparent dashing conditions (say, third or fourth down with 3 or fewer yards to go), base outperforms nickel towards the run, -3.8% to six.2%. The downside is that you simply’re a lot, way more susceptible in these conditions if the offense decides to air it out anyway. In those self same conditions, when the offense decides to throw a cross, base protection DVOA soars to 18.5%, whereas nickel rises to three.4%. In brief, in case you’re guessing run, you’d higher not be unsuitable.

Last yr, we posited groups would possibly need to strive 12 and 21 personnel extra continuously, making the most of groups going lighter in nickel by bringing in a second tight finish or fullback, as a result of base defenses had superior DVOAs towards each of these personnel groupings. That sample has held for the previous few years however did not final season, when two-back personnel struggled towards nickel. I’m going accountable that on the groups accountable for attempting it reasonably than the personnel packages, nonetheless. The Falcons led the league with 107 snaps of 21 towards nickel, and any stat the place the 2021 Falcons are the largest a part of your pattern dimension just isn’t going to prove nicely. Teams comparable to Indianapolis, Cleveland and San Francisco nonetheless had loads of success working 12 towards nickel, so maybe the technique needs to be amended to “get bigger if you actually have quality players to use.”

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

Team By Team Frequencies

Defensive Personnel Frequency, 2021

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

Eight groups have been higher in base than nickel towards each the run and the cross, which does not stand out as notably fascinating. What is fascinating is that each one eight groups have been in the NFC, together with all 4 groups in the NFC West—the Cardinals, Rams, 49ers and Seahawks have been joined by the Vikings, Saints, Giants and Washington. Base defenses had a -8.7% DVOA towards NFC West groups, the finest in the league. They have been at -3.9% towards the NFC as an entire, in comparison with -1.6% in the AFC, and all 4 NFC divisions have been in the detrimental.

The convention scenario is generally a “splits happen” situation, I believe, however offenses in the NFC West particularly being dangerous towards base defenses is complicated. It needs 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 towards base defenses. There’s an 11.7% DVOA hole between NFC West offenses towards base and nickel; the NFC East at 7.5% is the solely different division above 5%. A number of that is the Rams, particularly, struggling towards base, placing up a -42.4% offensive DVOA towards base defenses, however all 4 groups have been down when opposing groups loaded the field towards them. Defensively, the Rams and 49ers have been main the method in base with defensive DVOAs in the -20% vary, however the Seahawks and Cardinals have been above common there, as nicely. I’ve no clarification for this in any way; there’s not any actual similarities between the offenses or defenses in the West particularly that would appear to result in this outcome. Vince Verhei means that since the secondaries of all 4 groups have 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 clarification, so a few of that is simply “look at the weird stat!” protection, however man, unusual issues are unusual.

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

Off Base

The Cowboys and Bills change into the sixth and seven groups in our knowledge set, going again to 2011, to make use of base on fewer than 10% of defensive snaps. Buffalo needs to be even decrease—26 of its 54 snaps in base got here towards the Patriots in the Week 13 climate sport the place New England solely tried three passes; no want for additional cornerbacks in that scenario. And then 18 extra snaps in base got here towards the Patriots in Week 16. That simply leaves 10 snaps the remainder of the season in base protection for Buffalo; it was virtually completely an anti-Bill Belichick plan. As Mac Jones was held to 139 yards passing in the non-wind-affected sport, I’d say the technique labored, but it surely’s very odd to see a workforce change its complete defensive philosophy just for one opponent.

As for Dallas? You have one snap of base towards the Buccaneers in Week 1, one towards the Chargers in Week 2, 4 towards the Panthers in Week 4 and six towards the Patriots in Week 6. The Cowboys‘ true “base” was Dan Quinn’s 4-2, utilizing a bunch of athletic gamers in the secondary for velocity. But it is not like Quinn’s groups in Atlanta have been utilizing base this not often, or that Dallas was an outlier for nickel or dime packages earlier than Quinn arrived. This was a major change in fashion from Quinn.

And it labored out for the higher—the Bills and Cowboys have been first and second in defensive DVOA last season, each general and towards the cross. Is that solely from sitting in nickel all day lengthy? No, however there is a 0.52 correlation between base utilization and general defensive DVOA. If you may have the horses to play in nickel and dime frequently with out getting completely destroyed on the floor, it is extra seemingly than not a good suggestion to not less than give it a shot. Unless, apparently, you are enjoying Bill Belichick or the NFC West.

Changes From 2020

The largest change from 2020 to 2021 occurred in Green Bay, the place the Packers dropped from utilizing dime 50% of the time to only 24%. The Packers had used dime over half the time in every of the earlier two seasons, and they 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 optimistic for the first time in ages. With Green Bay utilizing a first-round choose on Quay Walker, I’d anticipate the Packers to stay a nickel-focused workforce reasonably than a dime-focused one, even when the Pack keep close to the prime of the league in dime proportion.

Dime adjustments normally have 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 circumstances, this was largely simply sticking an additional linebacker on the area so as to add nickel snaps, though Carolina noticed a reasonably important enhance in base proportion (5% to 21%) to associate with it. That’s 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 function ended up largely changing Tre Boston’s from 2020, and Chinn’s previous function was crammed extra by Jermaine Carter, resulting in a rise in base proportion.

Buffalo Nickels

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

This is one motive why I’m rooting for a Buffalo Bills versus Los Angeles Rams Super Bowl this season. It would tickle me to see the workforce which by no means leaves nickel play towards the workforce that by no means leaves 11, only for the sake of novelty.

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