Nickel Defense in Football Explained

Ray Lewis against the Denver Broncos

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The nickel defense is a basic defensive formation that is designed to stop a pass play. The alignment features four down lineman, two linebackers, and five defensive backs. It can also be referred to as a nickel play, nickel package or nickel alignment. Also, it is known as a 4–2–5 or 3–3–5 defense.

In general, it is the goal of the defensive team to prevent the offensive side from gaining yards and scoring points, and with this play, prevent the offense from passing the ball beyond the line of scrimmage.

Nickel Defense Explained

A nickel defense is when one of the three linebackers, usually the strong side linebacker comes out of the game, and the defense employs a fifth defensive back. Just like a nickel is worth 5 cents, the name comes from the fact that you have five defensive backs in the game, five players, in this case, two safeties, two cornerbacks and the nickel back, instead of the standard four. 

Adding a Nickel Back to the Formation

Boosting the pass defense is needed at particular times and sometimes entire games. A nickel back goes in when there is a likely pass threat. A likely scenario, a nickel back may enter the game on third down, or any other game situation where the opposing team is known to pass. A team might be inclined to use a nickel package heavily in a game where the team they are playing is a dominant passing team.

In other cases, a nickel back may be sent in to cover a specific wide receiver or stellar tight end that a linebacker is not as suited to cover. The strongside linebacker, also known as a Sam linebacker, normally covers the tight end but is usually more suited to stopping running plays. Replacing a linebacker with a nickel back can lessen the pass threat to the tight end. 

Disadvantages of Using a Nickel Defense

A potential disadvantage to using a nickel defense is an increased risk of a running play on the nickel backside. A nickel back's strength is providing good cover on a fast player. Nickel backs are not usually the best at stopping the run. If the offense knows its opponent is using a nickel defense, it may plan to capitalize on that potential weakness and run towards the nickel back. 

Nickel Versus Dime

Similar to the nickel defense, the dime defense is a basic defensive formation that is designed to stop a pass play. The alignment generally features four down lineman, one linebacker and six defensive backs or three down lineman, two linebackers and six defensive backs. The play's name is an upgrade from a nickel defense, it adds another defensive back. Instead of five defensive backs, there are now six.

History of the Play

The nickel defense is said to have its origins from Philadelphia Eagles defensive coach Jerry Williams in 1960 as a measure to defend against stellar tight end Mike Ditka of the Chicago Bears. The nickel defense was later used by the Chicago Bears assistant George Allen, who came up with the name "nickel" and later marketed the idea as his own.

The nickel defense became popular in the 1970s when it was adopted by head coach Don Shula and defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger of the Miami Dolphins. Back then as in now, the nickel play is commonly employed in obvious passing situations or against a team that frequently uses three wide receivers on offense.