2021 Defensive Personnel: Cowboys and Payments Abandon the Base


NFL Offseason – After trying on the offensive aspect of the ball earlier this week, it is time to flip issues round and have a look at probably the most generally used personnel groupings on protection. And, like we are saying yearly, which means we get to speak about how the league has nickel and dimed “base” protection out of existence. We noticed a brand new high-water mark for nickel protection in 2021, with defenses popping out with 5 defensive backs on 61.4% of all snaps. Base defenses at the moment are used on lower than 1 / 4 of all performs, making the identify extra deceptive than ever earlier than.

It is a pure response to the rising variety of three-wide units we see across the league, and it is simply the newest step in a course of that has been occurring for over a century. The large query of the 2020s is take care of a lot pace on the sector, making your protection extra cell to take care of the elevated energy of the passing sport. That was as true within the Nineteen Twenties as it’s within the 2020s, because the historical past of defensive soccer is a reasonably straight line pulling increasingly more our bodies out of the field and into extra versatile areas deeper on the sector. The query now we have now’s the place does this cease? Nickel defensive utilization had plateaued a bit over the previous couple seasons, hovering slightly below 60%, however now it appears to have began ahead momentum once more. How a lot nickel can a workforce realistically run? And who’re the few groups pushing again towards the nickelization of the NFL? Let’s dive in.

Total Numbers

Defensive Personnel Groupings, 2021
Personnel 2020 Pct 2021 Pct Distinction 2021 DVOA
Nickel 59.7% 61.4% +1.7% 1.0%
Base 23.8% 23.4% -0.4% -2.7%
Dime+ 14.9% 13.9% -1.0% 2.2%
Purpose line 0.9% 0.7% -0.2% -7.4%
Large 0.7% 0.6% -0.1% -27.1%

A couple of fast notes earlier than we proceed:

  • For the file, 57% of base snaps had been in 3-4 and 40% had been in 4-3. A lot of the relaxation had been 2-5s, used sometimes by the Chiefs, Cardinals, and Falcons. The lead between 3-4 and 4-3 tends to bounce backwards and forwards from 12 months to 12 months as coordinators shift.
  • There was much less front-mixing in 2021 than we had seen in earlier seasons. Twenty-two groups had been in both 4-3 or 3-4 on at the least 75% of their base snaps. That is up from 14 in 2020, and I’ve no rationalization for why there was such a dramatic shift. It reverses a development now we have seen over the previous few seasons, dropping from 25 to 22 to 14 since 2018. Maybe 2020 was only a unusual, COVID-fueled outlier.
  • “Dime+” contains any bundle with greater than 5 defensive backs. That features all of your dime packages, in addition to the 128 snaps in quarter and 12 snaps with eight defensive backs on the sector. We even had one play with 9 defensive backs (gold greenback protection?) with the Titans taking part in an uber-prevent towards the Seahawks close to the top of regulation in a tie sport in Week 2. Russell Wilson was capable of scramble for 12 yards and a primary down, but it surely ate up almost the remainder of the clock and nonetheless saved Seattle out of vary for even a Hail Mary try, so all’s nicely that ends nicely.
  • All defenses with fewer than 4 defensive backs are both “Large” or “Purpose Line.” “Large” contains something with three defensive backs and fewer than 4 defensive linemen (principally 4-4-3 and 3-5-3), whereas “Purpose Line” is every little thing else. Regardless of its identify, there is not any requirement for goal-line defenses to really be performed on the aim line; Arizona had 5 snaps of 4-5 on the opposite aspect of the 50 in Weeks 1 and a couple of. Lining up in 4-5 towards journeys on first-and-10 is a daring choice, compelled by accidents, however each the Vikings and Titans bumped into the 4-5 on all 5 performs.

A 1.7% bump in nickel price is just not precisely a paradigm-shifting change. We’re speaking one or two additional snaps of nickel per workforce per sport; not one thing to be writing dwelling about. However that is the second 12 months in a row the place nickel has gone up whereas each base and dime have gone down. Nickel utilization went up in each cut up—towards 11, 12 and 21 personnel; towards the cross and towards the run; you identify it. Nickel is the Swiss military knife of defenses, and exhibits no signal of stopping anytime quickly. The league did not set the file for many defensive backs per play, dropping from 4.89 to 4.88 as dime+ packages pale barely, however that is a rounding error of a distinction. Nickel is in every single place.

Defenses In opposition to High Personnel Teams

Defensive Personnel DVOA Breakdown, 2021
Protection Base Nickel Dime+
Break up % Used DVOA % Used DVOA % Used DVOA
11 personnel 2.8% -8.1% 77.3% 2.9% 19.9% 3.4%
12 personnel 49.9% -5.3% 45.8% -4.4% 3.6% 2.7%
21 personnel 65.7% -0.2% 29.7% -8.4% 2.9% -23.1%
All cross 15.0% 24.9% 63.7% 6.2% 20.6% 1.1%
All run 36.9% -11.8% 57.7% -6.9% 3.2% 11.0%
Total 23.4% -2.7% 61.4% 1.0% 13.9% 2.2%

Whereas base protection continues to have a greater defensive DVOA than nickel, that is principally due to play choice. Base is getting used increasingly more in apparent working conditions, and since dashing is much less environment friendly then passing, base protection seems higher and higher as extra of its pattern is taken up by run performs. So sure, when you’re certain the opposing workforce goes to run, it is higher to have an additional lineman or linebacker within the field. In apparent dashing conditions (say, third or fourth down with 3 or fewer yards to go), base outperforms nickel towards the run, -3.8% to six.2%. The issue is that you simply’re a lot, way more susceptible in these conditions if the offense decides to air it out anyway. In those self same conditions, when the offense decides to throw a cross, base protection DVOA soars to 18.5%, whereas nickel rises to three.4%. Briefly, when you’re guessing run, you’d higher not be mistaken.

Final 12 months, we posited groups may need to attempt 12 and 21 personnel extra often, making the most of groups going lighter in nickel by bringing in a second tight finish or fullback, as a result of base defenses had superior DVOAs towards each of these personnel groupings. That sample has held for the previous few years, however did not final season, when two-back personnel struggled towards nickel. I’ll blame that on the groups accountable for making an attempt it slightly than the personnel packages, nevertheless. The Falcons led the league with 107 snaps of 21 towards nickel, and any stat the place the 2021 Falcons are the most important a part of your pattern dimension is just not going to end up nicely. Groups akin to Indianapolis, Cleveland, and San Francisco nonetheless had loads of success working 12 towards nickel, so maybe the technique needs to be amended to “get greater when you even have high quality gamers to make use of.”

Solely three groups (Seattle, Pittsburgh, and Arizona) even hit 50 snaps of base-against-11 as that technique continues to die out. Placing a linebacker on a slot receiver is a good way to surrender tons of passing yards! It needs to be famous that whereas the Steelers and Cardinals struggled in these conditions, Seattle truly had a strong -15.9% defensive DVOA in base versus nickel, which strikes us fairly properly into our team-specific tables.

Workforce By Workforce Frequencies

The Seahawks led the league by utilizing base 38% of the time. That is a brand new low-water mark for the NFL, though solely simply—the Jaguars had been at 39% in 2020. It labored for Seattle—they’d a greater DVOA in base than in nickel, each towards the run (-23.6% to 0.0%) and the cross (15.9% to twenty.4%).

Eight groups had been higher in base than nickel towards each the run and the cross, which does not stand out as notably attention-grabbing. What is attention-grabbing is that every one eight groups had been within the NFC, together with all 4 groups within the NFC West—the Cardinals, Rams, 49ers, and Seahawks had been joined by the Vikings, Saints, Giants, and Soccer Workforce. Base defenses had a -8.7% DVOA towards NFC West groups, the very best within the league. They had been at -3.9% towards the NFC as a complete, in comparison with -1.6% within the AFC, and all 4 NFC divisions had been within the detrimental.

The convention scenario is generally a “splits occur” state of affairs, I believe, however offenses within the NFC West particularly being unhealthy towards base defenses is complicated. It needs to be famous that we’re noting two separate however associated issues right here — the 4 NFC West groups are each good when in base defenses, and unhealthy when taking part in towards base defenses. There’s an 11.7% DVOA hole between NFC West offenses towards base and nickel; the NFC East at 7.5% is the one different division above 5%. Loads of that is the Rams, particularly, struggling towards base, placing up a -42.4% offensive DVOA towards base defenses, however all 4 groups had been down when opposing groups loaded the field towards them. Defensively, the Rams and 49ers had been main the best way in base with defensive DVOAs within the -20% vary, however the Seahawks and Cardinals had been above common there, as nicely.  I’ve no rationalization for this in anyway; there’s not any actual similarities between the offenses or defenses within the West particularly that would appear to result in this consequence. Vince Verhei means that because the secondaries of all 4 groups had been subpar final season that eradicating a nickel nook for a entrance seven participant was a pure improve for all 4 groups. I suppose that is a chance, however one thing about that does not fairly ring proper for me. I haven’t got a greater rationalization, so a few of that is simply “have a look at the bizarre stat!” protection, however man, unusual issues are unusual.

I would dismiss it as random likelihood … besides the identical factor occurred in 2020, with defenses placing up a -8.1% DVOA towards the NFC West in base. That is way back to it goes, so it could simply be a bizarre cut up occurring two years in a row. However it’s bizarre as heck. Possibly Pete Carroll is on to one thing counting on base protection as a lot as he has.

Off Base

The Cowboys and Payments turn into the sixth and 7 groups in our knowledge set, going again to 2011, to make use of base on fewer than 10% of defensive snaps. Buffalo needs to be even decrease—26 of their 54 snaps in base got here towards the Patriots within the Week 13 climate sport the place New England solely tried three passes; no want for additional cornerbacks in that scenario. After which 18 extra snaps in base got here towards the Patriots in Week 16. That simply leaves 10 snaps the remainder of the season in base protection for Buffalo; it was virtually completely an anti-Invoice Belichick plan. As Mac Jones was held to 139 yards passing within the non-wind-affected sport, I would say the technique labored, but it surely’s very odd to see a workforce change their total defensive philosophy just for one opponent.

As for Dallas? You’ve got one snap of base towards the Buccaneers in Week 1, one towards the Chargers in Week 2, 4 towards the Panthers in Week 4, and 6 towards the Patriots in Week 6. The Cowboys’ true “base” was Dan Quinn’s 4-2, utilizing a bunch of athletic gamers within the secondary for pace. Nevertheless it’s not like Quinn’s groups in Atlanta had been utilizing base this hardly ever, or that Dallas was an outlier for nickel or dime packages earlier than Quinn arrived. This was a big change in fashion from Quinn.

And it labored out for the higher—the Payments and Cowboys had been first and second in defensive DVOA last season, each general and towards the cross. Is that solely from sitting in nickel all day lengthy? No, however there is a 0.52 correlation between base utilization and general defensive DVOA. When you have the horses to play in nickel and dime regularly with out getting completely destroyed on the bottom, it is extra probably than not a good suggestion to at the least give it a shot. Except, apparently, you are taking part in Invoice Belichick or the NFC West.

Adjustments From 2020

The largest change from 2020 to 2021 occurred in Inexperienced Bay, the place the Packers dropped from utilizing dime 50% of the time to simply 24%. The Packers had used dime over half the time in every of the earlier two seasons,they usually ranked first in dime utilization from 2017 to 2020. Joe Barry changing Mike Pettine produced a predictable drop in dime packages, and it did not damage that De’Vondre Campbell made the Packers linebacker corps a constructive for the primary time in ages. And with Inexperienced Bay utilizing a first-round choose on Quay Walker, I’d anticipate the Packers to stay a nickel-focused workforce slightly than a dime-focused one, even when they keep close to the highest of the league in dime proportion.

Dime modifications on the whole had been behind the most important shifts between 2020 and 2021. The Patriots dropped from 47% to 22%, the Panthers from 41% to 16%, and the Texans from 21% to 0%—Houston did not have a single snap in dime final season after taking part in 221 snaps in it in 2020. In all 4 instances, this was principally simply sticking an additional linebacker on the sector so as to add nickel snaps, though Carolina noticed a reasonably important improve in base proportion (5% to 21%) to go together with it. That is nearer to what Carolina used earlier than Matt Rhule and Phil Snow got here in, and I believe it is associated to Jeremy Chinn getting used extra as a real security final season versus a hybrid security/linebacker. Chinn’s function ended up principally changing Tre Boston’s from 2020, and Chinn’s outdated function was stuffed extra by Jermaine Carter, resulting in a rise in base proportion.

Buffalo Nickels

Wrapping round to complete again with Buffalo, the Payments did not simply keep away from base—they averted all non-nickel packages. That they had simply 85 snaps all season exterior of their nickel; each different workforce had at the least 231 snaps in different packages. Buffalo managed 9 total video games with out ever leaving nickel and had been principally compelled out of it by circumstance. We talked about the Patriots-forced base defenses, however Buffalo additionally solely had 26 snaps of dime, all towards the Chiefs when Matt Milano was inactive with a hamstring harm. They had been again in nickel for the playoff sport on all however two snaps; it was extra about Milano than any concern of Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas Metropolis offense.

That is one cause why I am rooting for a Buffalo Payments versus Los Angeles Rams Tremendous Bowl this season. It could tickle me to see the workforce which by no means leaves nickel play towards the workforce that by no means leaves 11, only for the sake of novelty.

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