Heavy doses of criticism are being levied at Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt this morning for his heavy use of a nickel defense in yesterday's 52-28 loss to the New England Patriots.
On the surface, snap count data reveals that the Bills were playing a nickel defense regardless of the personnel packages or formations the Patriots were employing. New England's three best skill position players - Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Brandon Lloyd - were each on the field more than 90 percent of snaps, and there was always a running back on the field, as well (with those reps being divided between Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen).
Two Pats players, however, were the key to understanding how the Patriots split up their personnel packages. Third wide receiver Deion Branch was on the field for 58 percent of snaps, while second tight end Daniel Fells was there for 47 percent. That means the Patriots were split almost right down the middle between 2WR-2TE-1RB and 3WR-1TE-1RB packages.
Knowing that the Bills had to deal with both Welker and Gronkowski - both elite weapons that operate primarily out of the slot - it's to be expected that the team would play more nickel than base defense, as that "coverage" package gives them more flexibility in mixing up coverages against those two players.
Buffalo, however, skewed too far in favor of that nickel package. Bryan Scott and Justin Rogers - the two designated "nickel" defenders on the team - played 88 and 87 percent of snaps, respectively. The two base package players they replace, linebacker Kelvin Sheppard and Arthur Moats, saw ten and nine snaps each, respectively.
New England saw Buffalo's heavy use of the nickel defense and pounded the ball down its throat. Ridley and Bolden combined for 243 rushing yards and three touchdowns at 6.4 yards per carry. That's not even the bad news: with so much balance on offense, Welker and Gronkowski still combined for 14 catches, 233 yards and a touchdown against the look.
Blaming Wannstedt's use of the nickel defense solely for yesterday's performance is, however, ill-advised. It is fair to argue that switching back to more base defense might have helped the beleaguered run defense, but Welker and Gronkowski would have had easier matchups in that scenario. The bottom line isn't that the scheme was bad - even though it was - it's that it was horrendously executed. To a man, every front seven Bills defender was schooled on Sunday. Over the long haul, that is a much bigger worry than how often the coordinator uses a specific look against one of the league's most prolific offenses.