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Cowboys vs. Buccaneers snap counts: Test-driving the Cowboys Heavy Nickel defense

Is the “heavy nickel” a good marriage of scheme and talent in Dallas?

Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

In 2020, the Cowboys lined up in the nickel (three cornerbacks, two safeties) on 71% of their defensive plays, the fifth-highest percentage in the league. But that was with Mike Nolan running things in Dallas. Will Dan Quinn run a similar scheme this year?

Quinn provided a first glimpse of what we can expect from his defense in the preseason “dress rehearsal” game against the Texans, and we took careful note:

The Cowboys lined up in a nickel formation on 26 of the 28 first-half snaps against the Texans, but five of those were in a “heavy nickel” formation, with three safeties and two cornerbacks. With Malik Hooker expected to join the first-team safety rotation soon, could we see even more heavy nickel formations this year?

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. With Hooker, Wilson, and Kearse, the Cowboys have an abundance of safeties that can play the “heavy” safety role, and with the Cowboys playing the bulk of their defensive snaps with a single-high safety, the “heavy nickel” feels like a good marriage of scheme and talent in Dallas.

If you were intently watching the lineup on the first defensive play of the night, you got an an inkling of how the defense would line up for the rest of the night: The Cowboys started the game with three corners (Diggs, Brown, Lewis) and two safeties (Wilson, Kazee), and would go on to play in a nickel formation on all but two of their remaining plays of the night.

Yes, you read that right, the Cowboys lined up in the nickel on 62 of their 64 defensive plays. The two other plays? A quarter formation with seven defensive back (a nickel is five, a dime is six, a quarter is seven ... get it?) on the two last plays of the first half.

Being in nickel formations all night undoubtedly had something to do with facing the Tom Brady-led Bucs offense, and whether they’ll maintain this high percentage over the next games remains to be seen. But we now have two data points, the first half of the Texans preseason game and the Bucs game, that suggest a high nickel percentage might be here to stay.

Of particular note, 16 of the 62 nickel plays against Tampa were in a heavy nickel formation with three safeties and two cornerbacks. 16 plays is a fairly small sample size, and probably too small to draw any far-reaching conclusions from, but they are noteworthy nevertheless.

  • 16 of 64 (25%) play in the heavy nickel against the Bucs is in a similar range as the five of 28 (18%) we saw against the Texans. Can we expect a fifth to a quarter of all snaps to be in the heavy nickel going forward?
  • Instead of providing more “safety muscle” against a tight end, could the Cowboys’ heavy nickel be about providing more “safety muscle” against the run as well? Eight of the 16 plays came on run downs, five more came on passing downs on which rookie Quinton Bohanna was on the field - perhaps the Cowboys had anticipated a run and had therefore inserted Bohanna as a run-stuffer up the middle.
  • The heavy nickel was statistically more successful than the normal nickel, though this needs to be taken with a lot of caution as these stats don’t adequately reflect the game situation. However, the heavy nickel allowed less yards per play (5.9 vs 7.3) than the regular nickel and less touchdowns (0 vs 4), even if it did have a similar first-down percentage allowed (37.5% vs 37%). Is this just a quirk of the small sample size, perhaps it’s simply the result of playing more run downs, or is the heavy nickel something the Cowboys could deploy more frequently to improve their defensive performance?

In today’s pass-happy NFL, teams are looking to put their best 11 athletes on the field on defense (and remember, the Cowboys went looking hard for athletic traits in the draft). If that means taking a hulking linebacker off the field in favor of a speedy safety who can play the run but has better coverage skills, so be it.

The Cowboys already gave safety-turned-linebacker Keanu Neal 50 snaps on opening day, and added more safety muscle with their heavy nickel formation. Perhaps that’s what Dan Quinn’s defense will look like: speed and muscle.

But just as importantly, playing with a hybrid safety - be it Keanu Neal at linebacker or the extra safety in a heavy nickel - will give Quinn the option of playing man or zone without alerting the offense to the defensive formation prior to the snap, and that could be big for the defense.

Now if only all of that would lead to keeping opposing offenses below 20 points!

Over to you: Do you think the “heavy nickel” is a good marriage of scheme and talent in Dallas?

The official snap count lists 65 Cowboys defensive snaps, but the game book lists only 50 pass plays and 14 runs for the Bucs for 64 total plays. What happened to that missing play is anybody’s guess, but here’s the 65-snap defensive tally for the Cowboys defense:

Cowboys' defensive snap counts vs Buccaneers
Defensive Tackles Defensive Ends Linebackers Cornerbacks Safeties
Player Snaps Player Snaps Player Snaps Player Snaps Player Snaps
Odighizuwa 36 Lawrence 43 Parsons 51 Diggs 65 Wilson 55
Watkins 30 Gregory 37 Neal 50 Brown 65 Kazee 52
Urban 28 Armstrong 27 Smith 16 Lewis 49 Kearse 40
Bohanna 20 Basham 24 Vander Esch 14 Canady 2 Thompson 1
Anae 10

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