Buffalo Bills 2014 training camp battles: nickel, dime defensive backs

Rick Stewart

A scheme change and the need to replace two excellent coverage players has left the Buffalo Bills with several interesting competitions to keep track of for their nickel and dime defenses this summer.

Thanks to the loss of free safety Jairus Byrd in free agency and linebacker Kiko Alonso to a season-ending ACL injury, the Buffalo Bills have some major decisions to make in assembling their pass defense packages this summer. Competitions will ensue for virtually every defensive package conceivable, at a variety of different positions. Let's take a high-level look at some of those packages and focus on where the Bills need to find answers when training camp starts next week.

Base defense

Last week, we discussed the pending competition at outside linebacker, where at least three (and potentially more) players are vying for starting jobs in the base defense around middle linebacker Brandon Spikes. We'll also talk about the safety position tomorrow, as the Bills need to decide which of their young players will be replacing Byrd in the lineup.

In the below example, Da'Norris Searcy is listed as the starting strong safety. He has a tremendous experience edge over players like Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks, who both could conceivably push for that starting job with strong showings this summer. Stephon Gilmore, Leodis McKelvin, and Aaron Williams are all locked in as starters, and will be a part of every coverage package the defense runs.

Heavy nickel

Many NFL teams run a "heavy" nickel these days, as offenses have become increasingly efficient at spreading defenses out and running the football. As we discussed in the outside linebackers post listed above, the Bills need to decide which two linebackers to use in this defense; Keith Rivers and Preston Brown held down these roles during minicamps, so we're listing them here.

This is a coverage defense based on personnel, but it's also a package designed to hold up against the run, which is why Corey Graham gets the nod in the slot over Nickell Robey. Graham is the fourth pure coverage player on the field, and his ability to play deep also gives the Bills some flexibility to move Searcy down into the box in this package.

"Nickel"

This is where things get a bit tricky. Like five-cent nickels, nickel packages were named because they feature an extra, fifth defensive back. That typically requires two linebackers on the field, but the Bills may not always feel comfortable with two unproven coverage linebackers in that package. Hence this nickel alignment, which is actually a dime package with Searcy in the box at linebacker.

With Searcy moving toward the line of scrimmage, Nickell Robey assumes Graham's role in the slot, while Graham moves back into a hybrid safety/corner role - one where he can drop and cover the tight end, or stay deep in zone coverage. Graham's positional flexibility will be as useful to the Bills in their year sans Alonso as Searcy's will, particularly because it will free up Robey to continue to do what he does best.

Rivers is listed in this defense, but Brown (and potentially Nigel Bradham) are candidates, as well; essentially, the Bills need to identify their most reliable coverage linebacker and plan on playing him a lot. It might not be pretty, but that's where they sit today.

Dime

Naturally, offenses are going to spread the field a lot this season, because that's what NFL offenses do. This is when you can expect Jim Schwartz to dial up predominantly zone coverages; the diagram below has a single-high safety with off corners dropping into a Cover 3.

Rivers is still on the field here, and this is where the Bills have another decision to make, depending on offensive personnel. With a running back in the backfield, it might make sense to call this a dime package and leave Rivers on the field. But if it's a tight end, or a scat back that can split out wide, this is where a quarters defense might be the call, and the Bills go without a true linebacker on the field in lieu of a seventh defensive back (perhaps a corner like Ron Brooks or Ross Cockrell, or a safety like Williams or Meeks).

Obviously, these diagrams are specific looks against specific offensive alignments, which makes picturing the structure of several defensive packages - and the substitutions needed to create them - slightly more difficult. There's an easier way to organize the transitions in your mind. This is the checklist:

  • Spikes is a strong bet to come off the field in everything but the base defense (and run-heavy looks, like goal line defenses, of course). He may end up part of the heavy nickel looks, too, if things don't progress well on the Rivers/Brown/Bradham front, but they'll cross that bridge if they come to it.
  • Right now, Bradham has work to do to unseat Rivers and Brown in the coverage department. Rivers and Brown are your (heavy) nickel linebackers for the moment, and the Bills need to figure out who is better among them for the dime defense.
  • Searcy is going to have a role even if he doesn't win the starting safety job because of his experience, playmaking ability, and positional versatility. Right now, he has a leg up to be the starting strong safety, if only because he is far easier to slot into a six-player rotation in the defensive backfield.
  • Regardless of how the starting safety job shakes out, the first two defensive backs onto the field in any coverage packages should be Graham and Robey, and when and where that happens will depend on down and distance.
  • If a seventh defensive back - Brooks, Cockrell, Williams, or Meeks - can prove to be capable of handling a role, they will either become a spot player in the quarters defense, or reduce Searcy's presence on the field significantly. None of those players should factor into the playing time for Graham and Robey, two of the better defensive backs on the team.
  • There's a lot going on defensively, both in transitioning to the Schwartz system and attempting to account for the loss of coverage ability with Byrd and Alonso (temporarily) gone. Pay close attention to who lines up where for the Bills in their coverage sub packages this summer.

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