Will The Cowboys Use More "Heavy Nickel" Formations In 2014?

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

A "heavy" nickel formation is when an extra safety is brought in to the game for a front seven player instead of a cornerback. Is that something we should expect to see more of from the Cowboys in 2014?

The 2013 Dallas Cowboys defense had a different starting lineup in every single game. For those keeping track, that would be 16 different starting lineups in a 16-game season. The Cowboys were the only team to achieve that feat last season, but before you call a whambulance, consider that other teams with high numbers of starting lineups include the Patriots (15), Bears (15), Chargers (14) and Bengals (14), and that the league average last year was 11.5 starting lineups.

Having a high number of different lineup combinations is not an issue per se. What's much more interesting is to look at the lineups in a little more detail. Here are some of the Cowboys toplines:

  • The Cowboys used 445 different lineups over the course of the season on defense, the third-highest total behind the Packers (449) and Broncos (484).
  • The most frequently used Cowboys lineup was used on just 4.4% of the total defensive snaps, the 10th-lowest value in the league.
  • The Cowboys' most frequently used lineup was on the field for only 48 snaps and featured Ware - Hatcher - Hayden - Selvie || Lee - Carter || Claiborne - Scandrick - Carr || Wilcox - Church.
  • Ware, Hatcher and Selvie were on the field at the same time on less than 30% of all defensive snaps. The trio was in the game at the same time on 323 of a possible 1,096 total defensive snaps, slightly less than 30% of total snaps.
  • There were 343 lineup combinations which the Cowboys used just one or two times all season.
  • The Cowboys had 437 snaps in which Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne were on the field at the same time.

That last point intrigued me, so I dug a little deeper into the data to figure out how often the Cowboys went into a nickel (five defensive backs) or dime formation (six defensive backs), and how many of these were "heavy" formations - a Heavy Nickel (also "Big Nickel") is when an extra safety is brought in to the game for a front seven player instead of a cornerback, a Heavy Dime is when instead of adding an extra nickel corner (two nickels make a dime, get it?) you feature an extra safety so that you have three corners and three safeties on the field.

The trick with the heavy formations is that you need a "heavy" or hybrid safety for the formation to work. The heavy safety has to be able to play as a linebacker when the offense condenses the set, but also has to match up on a flexed tight end when the offense spreads out the formation.

The issue defensive coordinators face in today's pass-happy offensive game that features an ever increasing number of athletic tight ends flexing out is that without a heavy nickel package, your base defense is largely reduced to zone coverage.

Take New Orleans' Jimmy Graham, a prototype for the new-school "move" tight end with high-level athleticism and the ability to run routes more like a receiver. If you're matching up a linebacker against a flexed or "move" tight end like that, odds are you're playing some kind of zone coverage, and everybody knows it. The QB knows it, the tight ends know it, and they'll use it to beat your coverage.

For a while, the Patriots ran the prototype of this type of offense, with their two move tight ends. It's no coincidence that Tom Brady had his worst passer rating since 2008 last year with Aaron Hernandez in jail and Rob Gronkowski battling injuries, as the table below shows:

Tom Brady's passer rating and tight end performance
2011 2012 2013
Tom Brady passer rating 105.6 98.7 87.3
Rob Gronkowski targets 90 79 67
Aaron Hernandez targets 79 51 - -

But back to the topic at hand.

According to the NFL game stats, the Cowboys played 1,096 defensive snaps. Of those snaps, they played 671 snaps (61%) in some kind of nickel formation, 33 snaps (3%) in a dime formation, and 'just' 379 snaps (35%) in their base package with four defensive backs. In Dallas and everywhere else around the league, the nickel defense is the de facto base defense; it's just not called that.

But what about the heavy nickel? Care to take a guess how many of those 671 nickel snaps featured two corners and three safeties?

The answer: Zero.

That's right, the Cowboys did not play a single snap in a heavy nickel formation. Not one. For all the talk here and elsewhere about safety/LB hybrids, heavy nickel formations and so on, the Cowboys played every single one of their 671 nickel snaps with three corners and two safeties.

When I started researching this post, I had certainly expected more snaps in heavy formations. After all, with more 2 TE sets and use of receivers in the slot, not to mention increased running out of passing sets, I would have thought defenses would have started responding with more safeties on the field. And while that may be the case for other teams, it's not the case for the Cowboys.

Perhaps it's a question of not having the right talent on the team for a heavy formation, and the Cowboys trusting their corners way more in pass coverage than they did their safeties. Perhaps injuries took their toll on the formation flexibility as well. But perhaps it's also simply a matter of scheme.

In 2012, when Rod Marinelli was the defensive coordinator in Chicago, the Bears played 1,021 defensive snaps. Of those snaps, they played 487 snaps in their base defense with two CBs and two safeties, and 534 snaps with three CBs and two safeties.

That's it.

Not once in that entire season did the Bears put a dime defense on the field. Not once did they go into a heavy formation. Not once, not even in goal-line stands, did they have less than four defensive backs on the field. Yet that defense finished third overall in points allowed and fifth overall in yards allowed. Not bad for a defense that feels a little bit anachronistic in today's pass-heavy NFL.

Back to the Cowboys: The Cowboys did use some heavy formations last season, just not in the nickel. Instead, they used a heavy formation on 32 of the 33 snaps in which they put a dime package on the field.

What they'll do in 2014 is anybody's guess. You would assume that with Barry Church looking like that prototype LB/Safety hybrid (6-2, 218), the defense looks set for a heavy nickel package.

But perhaps all of this is semantics. Because what all the numbers above don't show is where the safeties lined up.

When we think of modern pass defenses, we often think of Cover 2 schemes in which the two safeties play in a double-high safety zone. The Tampa 2 added a wrinkle by extending the coverage duties of the middle linebacker, whose responsibilities extended beyond the middle underneath zone, and who was now required to run down the middle of the filed, matching the level of the deepest interior target.

But most Cover 2 or Tampa 2 teams are drifting more and more towards playing with a single high safety instead of two high safeties. The 2012 Bears played 52.9% of their defensive snaps in a single-high safety look.

I don't have the numbers for the Cowboys in 2013, but it was obvious from watching the games that the Cowboys showed a great deal of single-high safety looks. I reviewed the All-22 tape from the Week 17 game against the Eagles to at least have the numbers from one game. What I saw was that on 64 defensive snaps (excluding the kneel-downs by the Eagles), the Cowboys played with two safeties split high on just 25 snaps. That means they were in a single-high look on 39 snaps, or 60% of their total defensive snaps. And what's even more interesting is that the Cowboys split those snaps between their three safeties: Barry Church (23 snaps as the single-high safety), Jeff Heath (11) and J. J. Wilcox (5) all took turns alternating in centerfield.

Rod Marinelli has said he wants his corners to play more man coverage this year, and that will be a direct result of showing more single-high looks. But for a single-safety defense to be effective, you need safeties that can interchangeably play the free and strong safety roles, just like the Cowboys did in that Eagles game. In Chicago, Marinelli had two versatile athletes in Chris Conte and Major Wright, who were both comfortable maneuvering through traffic in the box or patrolling in open space in the secondary.

So far, the Cowboys have only Barry Church who can play both positions equally well, a fact that leads to a lot of irritations among fans: The Cowboys consistently list Church as a free safety, yet most fans perceive him as a strong safety because they see him in the box a lot. Be that as it may, a large part of the Cowboys success in 2014 will be determined by their ability to find the guy next to Church who can effectively play both the centerfield and the in-the-box position equally well. Because if not, they'll have to fall back on variations of a Cover 2 defense which modern offenses can rip apart at their leisure, as 3 WR sets, quicker passing, and more progressive quarterbacking can easily expose huge holes in that coverage scheme.

Ultimately, the Cowboys are unlikely to show any more "heavy nickel" formations than they did last year. What they'll likely do instead is play even more single-high looks, mixing it up with two-deep looks pre-snap from which they can rotate to single-high formations (e.g. "single-high robber") once the ball is snapped.

If you're going to training camp this year, watch the safety play; if you're reading coverage of camp, pay special attention to the safety play; if you're watching preseason games, keep your eyes on where the safeties line up: The success of the Cowboys defense in 2014 rests to a large degree on their ability to move one of the safeties down into the box, where he'll serve as an extra LB in run and pass support, while the other safety successfully covers the center of the field. The single-high safety, executed properly, gives the defense an advantage at the line of scrimmage. Add physical cornerbacks playing press coverage, and opposing offenses could be forced into one-dimensional play. If the Cowboys can do that, they won't need any "heavy nickel" looks.

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