The Nickel defense took on more importance as the NFL shifted from a running back driven league to a passing league. The Jets currently have 5 starters who can play DL if you include Coples. How can you best maximize this group including using the big four 1st rounders Wilk/Sheldon/Williams/Coples on the field at once? One way that has been floated is moving to a nickel defense as the base defense, but would this cause more headaches than a 3-4?
Let's talk about what the nickel needs and what the Jets have.
There are many ways to play a nickel defense. The standard is a 4-2-5 setup. Rex Ryan loved the other version of the nickel which is the 2-4-5 defense. (This fit the personnel the Jets trotted out last year.) There's also the possibility of using a big nickel package, which is a variant of the 4-2-5. We'll talk about what that entails. There is the 3-3-5 defense, but it doesn't solve the Jets problems of getting the big 4 on the field at once. It also makes things a lot worse because of the need for speedy linebackers.
I've already covered the 2-4-5 nickel packages in an older chalkboard (linked here), so let's talk about the 4-2-5 for a second. Looking over the roster, the Jets have 2 guys who could play just about any DL spot including 4-3 DT and the 3-4 DT or 3-4 DE roles. Sheldon and Mo are the two best interior lineman, and their versatility is a big reason they are so valuable in a 3-4 or 4-3. But in a nickel you need more 4-3 personnel because you rely on the front four for pressure, not just to eat lineman up and make the occasional play. The problem is the nickel defense, whether it is a 2-4-5 or 4-2-5, requires either a 3-4 OLB or 4-3 end for the outside lineman positions.
Both men excel playing a traditional 3-4 DE but 4-3 DE plays a much different role because that position requires players that are more suited for speed than pure strength. They must be quick pass rushers and experts at setting the edge and containing the run. Currently, both men are tasked with being more straight ahead players rather than attempting to set the edge.
There is also a difference between the 4-2-5 DE and the 2-4-5 OLB. In a 2-4-5, the ends are also called upon to drop into coverage as well. Generally speaking, the 2-4-5 DE plays more like a 3-4 OLB than a 4-2-5. It's mainly because the 2-4-5 uses the 3-4 OLB instead of 4-3 DE's and thus it's more likely that the 2-4-5 would have two outside guys who are used to covering. Looking over the Jets roster and optimizing for the players there, it's more likely we see four down lineman rushing the QB, than one DE dropping back. Thus, it's little more than semantics of 2-4-5 vs 4-2-5.
The other positions are largely similar between a 2-4-5 and 4-2-5 nickel package. Safety play in each is very similar. Ditto that for corners. The only difference really is the front 6 between the two nickel packages.
Although the personnel has changed a lot in two years since that last chalkboard, I'm still thinking the Jets have something to work with here with the 2-4-5 and 4-2-5 at least up front. The simple fact is the Jets have two stud interior DL, the new rookie who looks to slot inside, a run stuffer but lackluster pass rusher in Snacks, and the misplaced Coples.
Should they or could they switch to the base nickel? Let's run it down what you need to run these defenses and do a quick brief on personnel who could play these positions:
2 Big DL's on the inside: Obviously the Jets could line up Snacks, WIlk, Sheldon, or Williams inside and be ok. This is truly the position of least concern. You can line up just about anyone inside from your group and be good to go.. Coples may be the only person who would play inside and be out of his element. That's where the Jets depth inside becomes key.
The 4-2-5DE/2-4-5 OLB role: The 2-4-5 and 4-2-5 both feature more speedy exterior defensive lineman. A 4-3 end as well as 3-4 OLB slot into these roles pretty easily, but do the Jets have the right guys to fill them? The answer is murky.
Coples, you have your position back. This fits you to a tee. As for the other side, who do you want outside? Can Wilkerson/Sheldon handle the outside and set the edge? Do you want them dropping back in coverage or standing up instead of a 3 point stance? Or do you take the two best inside guys and shoehorn them as the outside DL forgoing the impact players they are on the inside? Or does Pace or Mauldin scare you?
2 agile ILB: In either the 2-4-5 or 4-2-5, the inside linebackers become paramount to the success. Remember, in the nickel package the ILB's must play like they are in a 4-3 because you have removed one of them for an extra secondary member.
Quick reminder: Traditional 4-3 linebackers are faster and quicker and cover more field. 3-4 ILB's play a much more physical game that relies on strength more than speed and quickness and cover a much smaller portion of the field. In the Nickel packages speed becomes more important because of how much more room the two interior linebackers must cover. This is a cause for concern.
Demario Davis and David Harris are your presumed to be starting ILB's. Davis is a solid 3-4 LB but doesn't quite strike me as a solid pass coverage guy. Harris is a run stuffing ILB. Asking him to cover is a tough task even when he was in his prime. Ideally he's more suited for stunting and adding another body to the pass rush. Against an offense that features a good pass catching running back or a team with a good TE the Jets simply don't strike me as a team that have the resources available to run a nickel effectively if reliant on solid ILB play.
Let's take a look at the secondary as well and what you need to run the Nickel.
3 Corners: We have two of the best in the business. The Jets should have enough depth with Milliner and Skrine that you should be able to handle a slot guy as well. This is probably the second least area of concern. This group will have to excel for the Jets to run the nickel effectively, but luckily for us, the right group of guys to do just that iw in place.
Safeties: The Jets will struggle from this position in pass coverage unless Pryor or Gilchrist improve. Calvin Pryor in this role would have to play a lot more deep and away from the line if the Jets were to play it traditionally. Knowing Bowles, he'll play to Pryor's strengths and move him up. That does come with issues we'll highlight later.
Let's talk how the Jets could try to use different packages within the nckel to make it work for them.
Let's assume for the next two examples the secondary stays traditional. Revis/Cro are your primary CB's. Milliner/Skrine is the slot guy (figuring Milliner plays slot once/if he returns). Pryor and Gilchrest are back deep at safety . Let's also assume the Jets play the nickel like a 4-2-5 and not 2-4-5 and don't ask that the ends drop back.
I'll assume that for a few reasons: A) the 2-4-5 uses 3-4 OLB'ers who are used to dropping back and B) the Jets OLB roster favors a 4-2-5 approach that has the ends rushing more than dropping back. From here on in the OLB/DE position in the nickel will be referred to as the DE as it's called in the 4-2-5 playbook.
First up is using Wilk/Sheldon as your interior guys and using Pace/as the other DE. Assume if they are on the line they are rushing the QB. This would be your more traditional and probable lineup if you were to factor in the rookies needing a year of seasoning. It also goes if Wilk/Sheldon can't handle the outside. Here's the diagram of how you'd play it against a 3 WR set with a TE.
The issue with this lineup is simply what happens if the pass rush fails. It's compounded by the lack of any difference maker OLB/DE who could cover instead of relying on Harris and Davis to cover someone. The Jets still do not have a speedy linebacker who can cover a lot of ground if the pass rush fails in my opinion. Coples/Pace/Mauldin and in my opinion Harris are straight ahead players who are not great cover guys. As we discussed. Harris is better off being the 5th guy in the pass rush than dropping back. Ditto for the other DE's. That would leave Davis as the only cover guy against the RB if you rush 5. The ILB play here is suspect at best and can be exploited by running crossing routes with the TE, screens or a pass to the RB.
As a side, you also have to consider the DE opposite of Coples. Pace may be the best fit for this role even if he's so far past his prime. Mauldin does fit into this role, but from what I read on the kid, he seems like the type that may have trouble adjusting to the NFL game and may not be a difference maker. It is a personal opinion, but I see him as a guy that works hard and gets coverage sacks when the QB gets hassled by another player.. That's only my opinion, but at this point Mauldin and Pace don't excite me.
Let's talk about the idea of a big 4, putting Wilk,Sheldon, Williams, and Coples all on the same line. Here's the scheme with the same secondary as before.
The same issues emerge again but with more questions: Davis and Harris again are cover guys. Pace at least could in theory drop back. If they dropped Mo into coverage, instead of rushing him, that negates his value. Plus do you trust Wilk/Richardson to play the 4-2-5 DE like a 4-3 guy would? That means setting edges, getting to the outside, and forcing everything inside. That question is simply unanswerable from where I sit. I'd prefer them both to be straight ahead rushers.
Does this offer an upgrade over the previous idea? It is debatable. If the pass rush fails, with a good RB/TE we could have issues once again.
One thing we haven't talked about a whole lot to this point is the safety position and how this factors in the decision making up front. You already assume the linebackers will be weak link of the group, so what about moving Pryor up in the box? It does favor his strengths and also adds a speed element. There are your pros in a nutshell, but there are also cons.
If you do decide to move him up, that leaves one deep man. Gilchrist was a FA signing who should be an upgrade one Landry, but his coverage skills weren't exactly the greatest last season. Gilchrist will probably be the make or break it guy in the nickel package in either form. If he can cover effectively, taking away the TE or deep man, it opens a ton of things up with Pryor. Pryor would add a whole new dynamic to the front. If Gilchrist struggles and Pryor must stay deep as well, it comes down to the the front 4 to generate pressure and Harris/Davis to cover a back or TE. Pryor and Gilchrest need to take a big step forward, and if they do the defense could add a lot of blitz packages and coverages using Pryor in the box.
That's the more base packages: Let's go to other things the Jets could trot out.
First up is the big nickel.
The big nickel is a concept that replaces the 3rd corner with a safety and has the same front 6 as before. So instead of Milliner or Skrine you replace him with Antonio Allen or Jarrett. I'm using Allen here to keep it simple with Jarrett being the odd man out. The front 6 doesn't change at all, so whether it's Mauldin/Pace or the big four up front, it's not relevant. The big changes are Allen moving to safety with a corner coming out.
Again, an assumption is made here. What everyone has said about Pryor is that he excels up front. Is that true, or would Allen be better off covering someone with Pryor deep? I'm assuming the goal is to get Pryor closer to the line so he moves up in this example, although I wouldn't be completely shocked if Allen and Pryor flip flop from time to time.
The pluses: You add Pryor to the front where he is more comfortable. He'll still flex out but can be closer to the line. Allen is best used as a deep safety as last years failed experiment at CB could attest. This could also take a bit of responsibility from Gilchirst and make it easier on him.
There's a lot of issues with this: One you put Allen at safety which is about the point John B would start throwing things. I'm higher on Allen then a lot, but he's still ok at best. He's going to hurt you more than help you, IMO. Jarrett and him will be battling it out which probably tells you a lot. Additionally, you lose speed with the other corner compared to Pryor plus coverage ability. The only way this works is if Allen or Jarrett can cover and make up for the loss of a corner.
Last example and thought:
The Jets could roll with a variation of the big nickel package. Rather than take out a corner, let's consider moving Pryor to a hybrid LB/S role and taking out a linebacker. You can flex Pryor to the wide man or in the case where the TE is tight, and have him play the hybrid role by being either close to the line or playing off the line a bit on the weak side. From the big nickel, an extra cornerback is put on the field and a linebacker is taken off adding a touch of speed.
Sure it adds some speed, but which linebacker would you replace? The obvious answer is Harris. You can't substitute a safety for Pace/Mauldin because that position plays more for 4-3 ends and not a safety. My guess is you have to get creative with the entire scheme and use Davis almost as the 4-3 ILB, flex Pryor to the outside linebacker and also roll the deep safeties a bit to one side. Here's what I'm thinking it would look like.
I'm not sure whether I like it or hate it. Pryor is the weak side OLB but can play back as shown or play up normally. If you could trust Allen to cover the TE, and Davis/Pryor to keep the running back at bay, this may be something worth investigating. The interesting part of this is that it adds a ton of speed, and assuming the corners due their jobs really allows some creative blitzes and schemes from the defense.
Downsides: You could get a big run if you block the front 4 and Davis gets caught. Pryor could make an error. Plus Allen is on the field.
To sum up this piece, no matter how the Jets line up in a nickel, they have a few holes that can be exploited. More than likely, we'll see a few of these versions of the nickel come Sunday in fall. The big problem spots include the ILB position, DE position and whether or not the safety position improves from last year.
Time will only tell how these all shape up or whether these ideas get shipped out.