Packers preseason football is back in full swing! It sure is a good feeling to see the green and gold taking the field each week. By now, I hope you have found my articles informative and, more importantly, I hope you have learned more about defensive football and the Dom Capers system.
A lot of my fellow Packer fans call me crazy when I speak of my admiration for Dom Capers and his defensive philosophy. Ever since he landed in Green Bay I have been a big fan of his. Coming from a X’s and O’s standpoint, there is no coach I agree with more than Capers. His game planning abilities, in my mind, are the best in the NFL. You will not find a coach with as great of attention to detail as Capers. It seems that he is locked-in on every aspect of his defense. You may look at the numbers and think, like a lot of fans, that Capers needs to go. However, I could not disagree more. I hope that as you have read some of my articles that your perspective of Capers has changed. My biggest hope is that you have come to admire his 3-4 defense as much as I do.
In this article, we will dissect the Dom Capers nickel package. The nickel package is simple; it is nothing more than adding a fifth defensive back on to the field. This is done to counter the multiple receiver sets that we are so used to seeing in today’s brand of football. Philadelphia Eagles coach Jerry Williams is usually credited to inventing the nickel defense. It was revolutionized in the late 1990s and early 2000s by TCU coach Gary Patterson, who made the nickel his base defense, now known as the 4-2-5. It definitely has its advantages, especially at the college level. If you watch much college football, you will see a lot of wide open, spread attack offenses who throw the ball 70 or 80 times a game. If you watch Washington State – led by Coach Mike Leach – you will see a team who can reach almost 90 pass attempts a game, which is incredible. The NFL became a pass-happy league, and defensive coordinators adjusted quickly. Many coordinators have their sub package ready to go on almost every down, and the Packers run their fair share of nickel. Let’s start to break down the nickel package and give you a better understanding of what you will see from Capers defense on game days.
Defending 3X1 Sets
Here is an example of the nickel vs. a trey set, that is; a 3X1 set with an attached tight end. If the tight end is not attached to the formation, it would be a trips formation. One of the most important parts of defensive football is identifying offensive sets and personnel. This would be an example of 11 personnel; that is, 1 back and 1 tight end. Capers uses different names to identify offensive sets. 2 backs, 1 tight end, and 2 receivers is known as a regular set. 1 back, 2 tight ends and 2 receivers is known as an ace set. Here, we have 11 personnel with 3 receivers is known as kings personnel group.
If you look at the above clip, the nickel player is lined up on the #2 receiver with a 2 high safety look. This is an example of cover 2 under. In 2 under, you are playing man for man defense with a 2 high safety look. Both safeties are playing free, helping over the top. In this play, the strong safety helps on the #2 receiver and the #1 receiver runs vertically. The Packers have played a lot of 2 under coverage this past year. The advantage is that it allows the corners, nickel, and inside linebackers to man up but with help over the top. It is a more aggressive coverage that can make throws difficult for the quarterback.
The nickel package is great in this situation because it allows for a more athletic defender to be on a receiver rather than a slower inside linebacker. If the Packers were in a base package (3 down lineman, 4 linebackers, 4 defensive backs) and wanted to play man for man coverage, the strong safety would have to align over the #2 receiver with either the Mac (strongside inside linebacker) or Buc (weakside inside linebacker) aligned on the #3. In that circumstance, the Packers would not have 2 high support, which helps greatly if these receivers run vertical routes.
In the above clip, we see an example of an over front, where the tackle is in a strong side 3 technique (outside shade of the guard). The 3 tech tackle can be set to either the strength or the closed side of the formation, which is the side of the tight end. The strength can either be set the to the multiple receiver side or the closed/open side. In the nickel package – since an extra defensive lineman has been taken out – it is important that players know what gap they are responsible for. In the over front, the 3 technique tackle will be responsible for the B gap. Identifying gaps are simple; the A gap is between the center and guard, B between the guard and tackle, and C between the tackle and tight end. The Packers are a 1 gap defense, that is, each player is responsible for one gap and one gap only.
There are circumstances in which a player must be responsible for two gaps in certain fronts. With the tackle occupying the B gap, the nose is responsible for the backside A gap. The nose is shown here in a shaded 1 technique (outside shade of the center). The one tech is a vital part of the over front. A good nose tackle will be able to demand a double team from both the center and guard, which will free up either the Mac or Buc. The outside linebackers, the Sam (strongside outside linebacker) and the Will (weakside outside linebacker) have probably the most important job in a 4 man front. Both these linebackers are the force players. They are responsible for setting force and “forcing” the ball carrier back inside. They want to funnel the play back inside to the inside linebackers and 1 tech and 3 tech. The force player can change however. If there is a stunt by either one of these linebackers, the strong safety or nickel player would then become the force player. Both these players are in either a 5 technique (outside shade of the tackle) or 9 technique (outside shade of the tight end). Capers really wants to get at least a 4 man rush in this front.
Here is an example of a 22 front. It is named due to the fact that both the tackle and nose are in a 2 technique (head up on the guard). The Sam linebacker here is in a 6 technique (head up on the tight end). This is a front that you will see frequently in the Packers nickel package. I like to quote the great Packers defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur in a lot of my articles. Coach Shurmur believed that there were many advantages in playing his defensive lineman head up. I tend to agree with Coach Shurmur. With both the tackle and nose playing head up, it can allow for them to bull rush the offensive lineman and force them into the face of the quarterback, making vision difficult on the quarterback and can disrupt timing.
In this clip, we see the nickel player coming off the edge, with both 2 techniques and the Sam and Will linebackers slanting inside. This allows for a good 5 man rush and can make it difficult on the offensive line. It is important that each player gets a strong rip inside of the offensive lineman and that the nickel player, Michah Hyde in this case, knows that he is the new force player. This is an example of sky force. He is stunting, yet he must also force the play inside while still getting pressure.
Nickel Pressure Package
Now time for one of my favorite topics; stunts. A lot of people would consider a blitz any play where somebody other than the down 3 or 4 lineman are rushing. I consider a blitz sending more pressure than the offensive line can account for. Here we see an example of a 6 man stunt in which the Buc linebacker – Blake Martinez  – is looping through the B gap, with the Will linebacker and the nickel coming off the edge. The 1 technique is ripping across the face of the center, with the 3 tech and the Sam playing their gap and attempting to collapse the pocket. This can be known as an overload stunt. The defense is “overloading” one side of the formation. This can make life difficult on an offensive line.
Another thing that is great about this look is that a lot of presnap motion can confuse the offensive line. This seems to be the underlying theme in the Capers defense; confuse the front 5 and never let the quarterback set his feet. Jake Ryan  – the Mac linebacker – must push to the side of the #2 or #3 receiver. Man for man coverage is the best thing to run behind a stunt like this. You will also see a lot of 3 deep coverage in 5 or 6 man pressure. Every rusher must have the ability to get a strong punch on the offensive lineman and knock him back into the face of the quarterback. The biggest thing in a stunt, or package, like this is to play assignment football.
The nickel package is vital to the success of any NFL defense, and is no different in Green Bay. This package is important to learn as this is what the Packers will be playing in a majority of the time. I hope that you have found this informative and have learned a little about the Capers nickel package. I hope to have future articles with an even more in depth look at the nickel. You can never study enough defensive football, even in one particular aspect. I’d like to leave you with a tremendous clinic speech from the great Fritz Shurmer, former Packers defensive coordinator and a role model of mine. I know the video is long, but it’s well worth the time!