Big Nickel, Super Safeties, and Defending 12 Personnel

How Safeties and Tight Ends Are Changing Football

About two-thirds of every defensive play in the NFL is run out of a nickel or dime defense. This is a reaction to what offenses are doing. Offenses are making the slot receiver a primary offensive weapon, and are increasingly using tight ends and running backs in the passing game.

The Big Nickel – The NFL’s Hottest Defensive Trend

The growing trend is to use the “big nickel,” or a third safety, as part of the base defense.  How did we get to the point where a third safety is so common? As always it was a back and forth game of trying to get a mismatch. First, offenses started to use a slot receiver to take advantage of a speed mismatch with the defensive linebacker that would be forced to cover the extra wide receiver.  Offenses started to see a lot of production out of slot receivers, and so defenses would go into a “nickel” package, taking a linebacker out of the game and bringing in another defensive back.

Big Nickel Defense
Two safeties here are down in the box, marked in red, with a third off-screen covering deep. On this play, the safeties are used to defend the use of 2 Tight Ends.

So common is the Nickel that most defenses don’t reflect a 4-3 or 3-4 most of the time.  They are generally in 4-2-5 or 3-3-5. But of course, some clever offensive coordinators noticed that defenses were bringing in shifty cornerbacks to cover the shifty slot receivers. So offensive coordinators adapted and started using different types of slot receivers that were bigger and taller, or using the slot receiver to clear out space for run plays – after all, there is one less linebacker on the field.

So what have defenses done? They started to use a “big nickel” defense with three safeties; the third acts as a hybrid linebacker/cornerback. With the right type of athlete, the big nickel can cover tight ends, receivers, and help in the run game. These players are being referred to as hybrid corner-linebackers, swiss army knives, big nickels, etc. The idea is to try to gain back the advantage over offenses. With more versatile defenders, defenses can mix up looks for the quarterback as the role of players is not so easily dissected by the quarterback before the snap.

“12” Personnel – The Biggest Headache Today for Defenses

The primary chess match that is going on in today’s game is between teams that are equipped to run “12” personnel, or one running back, two receivers, and two tight ends- but with tight ends and running backs that are used often and interchangeably in the passing game. When used in this way, defenses need to have very versatile players that can cover multiple positions.

The Need for a New Type of Defender

In regards to the draft, this means once again that the “super safety” type player that can cover short, middle, and deep, can blitz, and can help in the run game, are prized players. In college, this type of athlete is probably used in multiple positions- safety, linebacker, and corner- and often used on offense because they would have to be great athletes.

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