Cleveland Browns: Potential of Big Nickel defense

May 24, 2017; Berea, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams talks to the defense during organized team activities at the Cleveland Browns training facility. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
May 24, 2017; Berea, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams talks to the defense during organized team activities at the Cleveland Browns training facility. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports /

The Cleveland Browns acquisition of Calvin Pryor has bought up more of a discussion for the team to employ a big nickel defensive look.

When the Cleveland Browns traded linebacker Demario Davis to the New York Jets for safety Calvin Pryor, one of the discussions that immediately came up was using Pryor would be utilized like a linebacker the way Mark Barron was with the Los Angeles Rams when Gregg Williams was there. Pryor, a disappointing former first-round pick from the 2014 class has some similarities to Barron, who the Rams acquired after he was a first-round pick with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

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Yes, Pryor could be utilized as a linebacker type role with the Browns. It would not be the same role as Barron played with the Rams because Barron played the weakside backer spot for them and the Browns just locked up Christian Kirksey for that spot. Nevertheless, Pryor could be in the mix for a slot position in what is termed a big nickel look.

A traditional nickel defense in the NFL is a 4-2-5 defense with four defensive linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs; three corners and two safeties. In a big nickel look, the difference is that instead of having three corners, the team uses three safeties and the change is made the nickel spot.

Conceivably, Pryor could be utilized in that type of role. It has a little more size and ability to defend the run, but the tradeoff is a slight loss in speed and agility. The player that may be more attractive in that role and particularly Gregg Williams is first round pick Jabrill Peppers.

Peppers played outside linebacker for the Michigan Wolverines in his junior season, so playing that spot in the NFL wouldn’t be a huge adjustment in terms of where he lines up on the field. His role and his responsibility, however, would change pretty dramatically.

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Beyond learning a new set of skills to play that position, the Browns want Peppers to play traditional strong safety. Perhaps in the longterm, the Browns will want Peppers to play a traditional strong safety in any situation where they use two safeties but if they do opt to go to a third, he can slide down to that nickel spot.

The risk with having him do all of that as a rookie is overloading him and thereby reducing his effectiveness overall. If he’s thinking about what he’s doing instead of reacting, it will make him play much slower. It may be more prudent to have Peppers focus on one role and allow him to get comfortable doing that.

That spot would likely be a traditional strong safety because that’s where he’d get the most reps and therefore potentially make the most impact. He didn’t get to showcase it much in college, but Peppers does have excellent rage, so for situations when the Browns want to divide the field in half, Peppers could develop into a nice threat to help over the top and potentially make plays on the ball down the field.

In the event that Peppers is understandably not able to master all of that as a rookie, Pryor may have a shot to land the role of that nickel safety if Williams wants to use that package on a regular basis. Peppers vs. Pryor isn’t the only dynamic that becomes interesting for the defense in this case. It also provides an interesting situation at linebacker and the safety position.

Traditionally, the linebackers align to the strength of the formation based on the players in the box. If there’s a tight end, that becomes the strong side. If not, trip receivers to one side or how backs are lined up in the backfield will determine the call.

The secondary makes their own strength call based on the strength of the receivers. The Browns might run it differently, given the potential complexity of their defense, but this would mean that the six players in the box line up independently to the five defensive backs, which can create a couple different looks.

In this example, the offense is lined up in a basic trey formation out of shotgun. Both the linebackers and safeties are calling the strength on the same side; to the defense’s right. The names aren’t terribly important (a few spots clearly up for grabs), but it just gives an idea of what it could look like, regardless of who is in there. The linebackers align to the strength, so Jamie Collins plays to the stronger side of the formation with Kirksey naturally playing weak side.

Here the nickel currently played by Peppers is also to the right to correspond to the two receivers on that side. So if that nickel safety position is viewed as a hybrid linebacker position in what people think of as the “Barron role”, Peppers becomes the strong side linebacker.

The difference between what he did at Michigan and what he will be likely asked to do for the Browns in the event he performs this role will be substantially different. At Michigan, the reason Peppers was utilized as an outside linebacker was due to an overall lack of team speed in the box. Opponents could simply run wide on the Wolverines and they would get gashed before defenders could corral and tackle the ball carrier.

The way Michigan decided to deal with this problem was to put Peppers to the strong side of the formation, play with outside leverage in an attempt to force opposing ball carriers back inside, back into his teammates in the box. This was extremely effective in defending the run. In the passing game, the concept still worked, but it made Peppers look awful in coverage.

Because Peppers was tasked with making sure nothing went outside of him, he was dropping into short zone and giving opponents a free release to the inside. Naturally, he was a step or couple behind them and was tasked with tackling the pass and trying to reduce the damage as opposed to being aggressive in coverage to make plays on the ball.

The Browns don’t have a speed problem in the box with Kirksey and Collins, not to mention their defensive linemen. So if Peppers is playing in the slot, he will be able to play on the man across from him. Peppers only played man coverage about 10 times his entire junior year for the Wolverines. He might play some zone, blitz and do some other things, but he’ll play significantly more man coverage for Williams, aggressively trying to take away the receiver he’s covering.

Dec 11, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns outside linebacker Jamie Collins (51) during the first half against the Cincinnati Bengals at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Bengals won 23-10. Mandatory Credit: Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 11, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns outside linebacker Jamie Collins (51) during the first half against the Cincinnati Bengals at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Bengals won 23-10. Mandatory Credit: Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports /

The other advantage this package would have with Peppers in that spot is he has safety size with corner speed. That is potentially a significant tactical advantage for the Browns as they would have a more credible run presence that can deal with a tight end if needed while having corner athleticism.

As shown in the first example, if Peppers is up in the slot, someone like Derrick Kindred might have some increased viability for this team. Kindred had a pretty decent rookie year that ended with a mysterious ankle injury during his bye week, but if the Browns like him, this is a way to get him on the field.

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There are a lot of choices that have to be made when it comes to running this package. Whether they want the strong and free safety follow traditional rules or if they always want to have the free safety always following the nickel. The reason for that comes down to how they want to deal with motion.

In the NFL with NFL athletes, it may be simple enough to just have the nickel run with the motion man. If not, they could bump the backers over, though that’s not terribly likely. If the nickel doesn’t follow the motion man, the more likely option is to roll the safeties.

In this situation, the safety on the other side of the formation, likely the strong safety, comes down to pick up the slot. The free safety slides to fill the space vacated by the strong safety and the nickel slot then drops back to replace the free safety. That comes down to personnel and preference of the coaching staff.

So, having looked at how the defense might line up when the strength calls are to the same side, here’s a look at when the backers call the strength to one side and the secondary goes the opposite.

Collins is still the guy the first line of defense for runs to the strong side, which is exactly what Williams wants. If Peppers is thought of as a proxy linebacker, he’s now on the weakside. Kirksey becomes the middle linebacker.

So, if the big nickel package becomes a part of the Browns defensive attack, effectively both Collins and Kirksey are the middle backer. The fact that Kirksey is technically the Will in the defense becomes rather unimportant other than to set his starting point. Both of them are focal points of the defense and doesn’t give opponents a good place to go to get away from them.

These are just a couple basic concepts the Browns could use if they run this defensive package. There are any number of other things they could do. Staying with the second diagram, one example would be having the strong safety roll down to play more of an outside linebacker position and the free safety sliding to the middle, giving the Browns a defense that resembles a 4-4 look. They can play Cover-1 or Cover-3 with the free safety playing the  deep middle, giving them any number of options in terms in blitz packages and an easy way to bracket tight ends.

In the event the Browns want to focus Peppers on strong safety and not overload him, Pryor might be a good candidate to compete for that slot position. Ibraheim Campbell might also be viable in this role (he’s a better athlete than Pryor). Neither is guaranteed to make the roster.

Regardless of how the Browns would want to play with personnel, the concept remains the same. The Browns are going to run a ton of nickel as that’s simply the state of the NFL. It’s important to note that Jamar Taylor was an effective slot corner last year and that really was his best spot last year, so it’s certainly reasonable for the Browns to have Haden and maybe McCourty on the perimeter at corner with Taylor in the slot and Peppers and another safety over the top.

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The big nickel package looks like a viable option if the Browns want to use it, be it a substantial part of their gameplan or simply something they occasionally employ depending on the matchups. In the long run, it gives the Browns different ways to utilize Peppers and hopefully maximize the talents they felt was worth selecting in the first round. Gregg Williams is known for using lot of different defensive packages, so it would hardly be a surprise to see big nickel utilized, but it becomes a question of just how much and if he’s confident in the players they have to run it.