As I stated in my article on the Highest and Lowest Paid Defensive Players, the nickel defense is becoming the de facto base defense for most NFL franchises. This development has been four decades in the making. Ever since the days of Bill Walsh and Don Coryell, offenses have become more pass heavy, transitioning away from the smash mouth days of the 60’s and 70’s. As the offenses have evolved, the defenses have been forced to adapt. Leading us to this pivotal moment in schematic evolution.
Over my next three articles, it is my goal to present the fundamental changes that have lead to both the rise of the spread and the subsequent rise of the nickel. In part one, I’ll address a rule change and a blocking scheme that opened up the passing game. In part two, I’ll cover the coaches at the forefront of the nickel revolution. Finally, part three will discuss how all of this will affect future scouting, drafting, and player development.
Here in part one, let’s take a look at two liberating moments for offensive play callers: the Mel Blount Rule and the Zone Blocking Scheme.
The Mel Blount Rule
Beyond the five-yard zone, if the player who receives the snap remains in the pocket with the ball, a defender cannot initiate contact with a receiver who is attempting to evade him. A defender may use his hands or arms only to defend or protect himself against impending contact caused by a receiver.
It is critical modern NFL fans understand how important this rule was to the evolution of offensive play-calling. Before this rule was written, defensive players could do just about anything to receivers. As such, most receiving route trees were predicated on getting the receiver as far from the defensive backs as possible. Looking back through stats from the 60’s and 70’s, most receivers have a lot of yards on a small amount of receptions.
This was because these receptions often came on “fly routes”. The receivers had to force separation at the line and then run like hell. Modern routes like the quick hitch and slant were too tough. Imagine how hard it would be for Julian Edelman (5’10”, 198 pounds) to run those devastating ten yard in-routes if Xavier Rhodes (6’1″, 218 pounds) could make contact the whole way. Odds are Edelman would win some of those battles, but it would be a hell of a lot harder than it is with the five yard limit.
More than anything, this rule gave offenses more freedom in their passing games. The only problem in the 80’s and early 90’s was that even though they had more freedom in the passing game, they did still need a power running game. As such, they needed to reserve roster spots for fullbacks, blocking tight ends, and the hybrid H-Backs. Then along came Mike Shannahan and the “zone blocking” scheme.
The Rise of Zone Blocking
The picture above is a more traditional blocking scheme. It’s something out of the 70’s. As you can see, it depends on an extra lineman, a tight end on the line, and a fullback to throw a key block. At the snap, the strong-side linemen clear a hole off tackle. The weak-side guard plunges into the hole looking to stop the strong-side linebacker. The key takeaway here is this: whatever happens, the running back is looking to run between the extra tackle and the tight-end. Everything the line does is, again, to clear that one specified hole.
This scheme cannot be pulled off without a fullback and a tight end on the line. Otherwise, the strong-side defensive end and the strong-side middle linebacker have free reign. I doubt anyone will take this a shocking reveal, but running plays with free ends and linebackers don’t usually work out very well. This need for blocking personnel faded out with the aforementioned zone scheme:
As shown in the play above, the zone blocking scheme does not dictate the running back run to one predetermined hole. Instead, all that is dictated in which side of the line he’ll run to. The linemen stretch the defense to that side and the running back waits for the hole to open naturally. He may take it outside, inside, or even punish over-pursuit and cut back to the weak-side. This effectively means the offense only has to block the down linemen (3 of them above) and let the runner read the linebackers.
This means the offense can run the same plays out of three and even four receiver sets. While it is nice to still have a fullback at the goal line, teams can easily use third string tight ends or extra linemen in that role. They don’t have to invest in fullbacks anymore.
The End of the Fullback
The offensive formation shown above is right out of the Bill Walsh playbook. It’s the classic “split-back” formation. The defense can match-up with this formation in their base 4-3 formation. They can play man or zone. In man, the corners can cover the outside receivers, the strong safety can cover the tight end, and the running backs can be covered by either safeties or linebackers. In that sense, the offense and the defense are on a level playing field in terms of size and speed.
Now here’s the same defense without the fullback. This is, more or less, the common “spread” formation. One running back, one tight end, and three receivers. In the earliest iteration, the “slot” receiver (or the third receiver) was usually the team’s third best receiver. Now, the extra player can be anyone. Think about it. That slot player in the formation above could be Gronk. It could be Jarvis Landry. Or it could be Tyreek Hill. Three players of completely different size and skill. Gronk is too big for a corner. Landry can’t be given a ten yard cushion from the free safety. And Hill? Way, way, way too fast for linebacker coverage.
What is the defense to do? The easiest solution is to sub-out one of the linebackers for either an extra corner (Landry), an extra strong safety (Gronk), or the fastest defensive back on the roster (Hill).