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Sean McDermott’s “Buffalo Nickel” defense explained

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Who can we expect to play the hybrid spot in McDermott’s version of the “big nickel”?

In what was perhaps a bit of accidental foreshadowing, Sean McDermott ran a formation while coaching the Carolina Panthers that he called the “Buffalo nickel.” This formation involved leaving a coverage linebacker, in this case Shaq Thompson, on the field in the place of a traditional nickel player from the defensive secondary (who is most often a corner). Attempting to determine whether or not there is a linebacker on the Buffalo Bills’ roster who is capable of handling those duties will be something to watch during training camp and the preseason.

One major point regarding McDermott’s big nickel is how it differs from former Buffalo head coach Rex Ryan’s version. Ryan preferred to play a third safety over a third corner, although snap count data from his time with the Bills suggests that he abandoned that strategy fairly regularly over the last two seasons.

We looked at McDermott’s defense fairly extensively upon his hiring in January. The base looks will be something like this:

At this point, it’s anyone’s guess as to who will start where among Buffalo’s linebackers. I’d imagine that Lorenzo Alexander will have the upper hand in a 4-3 under look, as it puts him in a familiar position close to the line of scrimmage. Preston Brown, Reggie Ragland, Ramon Humber, and Gerald Hodges will fight it out for the other two starting spots in Buffalo’s “base.”

The 2016 Panthers stayed in their base look more often than not, with their top-eleven players appearing on at least 50% of the defensive snaps. Linebacker Shaq Thompson, the key to McDermott’s “big nickel,” was the eleventh man, playing on 49.9% of snaps last season. He was replaced by nickel corner Leonard Johnson in standard 4-2-5 nickel looks; Johnson is now a member of the Bills.

McDermott’s use of the big nickel seemed to increase last season, and a quick look at the snap count data from 2015 gives a solid indication as to why that was. In 2015, Carolina’s most-used defensive personnel grouping included corners Josh Norman, Charles Tillman, and slot corner Bene Benwikere. After losing the veteran Tillman to retirement and Norman to a free agent deal with the Washington Redskins, the secondary looked decidedly different.

McDermott’s secondary in 2016 only included one starter (safety Kurt Coleman) from the prior season; even strong safety Roman Harper moved on at that point. James Bradberry and Daryl Worley started at corner, and the aforementioned Leonard Johnson served as the nickel corner once Benwikere was waived after pulling a move similar to Billy Joe Hobert (except this had nothing to do with the mental side of the game; Benwikere admitted his conditioning was not up to par after being torched for 300 yards by Julio Jones).

McDermott’s use of the big nickel last season, it seems, was borne more out of necessity than preference. When he had a dominant secondary, he used them; similarly, when his secondary players were weaker than his linebackers, he played the ‘backers rather than go to the backups at another position. Which lineup will he opt to use on passing downs with the Bills? It will probably depend on trust and production.

I foresee the nickel defenses looking something like this:

Jay Skurski of The Buffalo News noted that Micah Hyde may be the best fit at the “Buffalo Nickel” spot for the Bills, but he also notes that it would be nearly impossible to replace him as a safety with the current lack of talent at that position on the roster. Given that, I’m proposing that Matt Milano, Buffalo’s fifth round draft choice, is more likely to play that spot on passing downs than Hyde.

I’m not the first person to make this leap (Cover 1 posted a solid video breakdown of Milano’s strengths back in May), but it does appear that his skill set is the one that best compares to that of Shaq Thompson in Carolina. Both are similar athletes, with Milano coming out ahead in nearly all of the NFL Combine tests in which they both participated. Milano was a touch behind in the 40-yard dash (4.67 to Thompson’s 4.64), but he beat Thompson in the 20- (2.72 to 2.75) and 10-yard (1.65 to 1.69) runs, the broad jump (10’5” to 9’9”), and the vertical jump (35” to 33.5”).

If Milano can show that he’s capable of making the jump from Boston College to the NFL, it seems likely that he will earn a role as a passing-down linebacker for the Bills. Even if the team employs a more traditional nickel by bringing on a third corner like Johnson or Kevon Seymour, I still anticipate that the first of Buffalo’s fifth-round picks will see some quality snaps in third down situations.

McDermott’s personnel usage changed a great deal due to player turnover over his final two years with the Panthers. This shows that he isn’t afraid to change the way he deploys his players based on what he perceives to be the strongest unit.

In short, McDermott’s “big nickel” is essentially a base look, except one of the linebackers must be able to stick with tight ends, running backs, and slot receivers in space. If one assumes that Lorenzo Alexander will be one of Buffalo’s starting linebackers, he is the most likely candidate to be replaced by the nickel ‘backer.