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“Buffalo Soldiers”: How the Big Nickel’s Importance Will Impact Bills Roster

Being a Bills fan means getting used to new coaches, new GMs, new quarterbacks, new schemes and new questions. With each passing year, that task becomes a little more frustrating to deal with – and hopefully this staff can turn the tide and bring a winner to Buffalo. In an effort to get a feel for the McDermott hire and what it means for free agency and the draft I decided to delve into McDermott’s prior stops and figure out what he likes to do. While his stint in Philadelphia is helpful, his time in Carolina is invaluable for an information junkie like myself.

Why? Because of the nugget Vic Carucci quoted in his article on McDermott and, in particular what his former head coach said about his charge:

“When he first got to Charlotte, he had the opportunity to build his own defense,” Rivera said. “He inherited one when Jim Johnson passed in Philadelphia. So we got together, we talked about the things that he should do and he went out and did it.”

In six seasons under McDermott, the Panthers’ defense ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in yards allowed four times. In 2015, when the Panthers went 15-1 on the way to the Super Bowl, the Carolina D finished first in takeaways and sixth in yards and points allowed.

With his head coach giving him that much control over the defense, I was more than intrigued – I became a little obsessed with how the Panthers were constructed. Some of the differences are simple – 1 gap linemen vs the 2 gap that Rex Ryan preferred for instance. Additionally, where the pass rush was generated from – the front four starters bringing the main rush (80% roughly), with the wave players being responsible for 20% as a collective. In years where his more notorious players were out (cough cough Hardy cough), the line would account for the player missed among themselves stat wise, with Greg Hardy and his idiocy the most notable example. I’ll have a few players to look for as targets later today, but for now I want to talk about one of the most important positions in the McDermott scheme – the Buffalo Nickel.

Shaq Thompson lined up prior to covering FB in flat.

The position of Buffalo Nickel is a Swiss army knife spot. Essentially, the Buffalo will be a player that can cover a back one week, a receiver or tight end the next, while also being a good player versus the run. Typically called a big nickel or 3 safety formation, in Carolina, this player could cover Rob Gronkowski, Julio Jones or Darren Sproles in the last two years, while also being able to walk back into the line of scrimmage and bang with the linemen en route to the running back or the QB. As the NFL transitions to a primarily shotgun-based, 3 WR or 2 TE set league, that means the need for such a position is more important than ever. This player will be essential in a match up based NFL, particularly in the AFC East, as long as the Patriots under Bill Belicheck utilize tight ends and running backs as effective as he does their wide receiving corps.

In terms of traits, the Buffalo position has no height/weight requirements. Shaq Thompson is six foot and 228 pounds, but Tyrann Mathieu is in a similar role in Arizona at five foot nine, 174 pounds. The skill is more important that the tale of the tape with only one exception: speed. The position requires 4.55 or so and under speed in order for the player to adequately handle the duties he’ll be assigned. While there are some positions you can “cheat” and allow a player that is foot speed/agility deficient, this ain’t that as my dad would say.

It’s very ironic that the Bills will require the position, given their prior coaching staff, as the Buffalo Nickel was a staple in the Buddy Ryan 46 defense, and was one of the key pieces that Rex never quite got right with regard to his big nickel lineup.

Copy of a Buddy Ryan 85 Bears playbook. The ‘N’ position is the Buffalo nickel

For a young player, that’s a lot to put on their plate, so Ron Rivera and Sean McDermott wanted to ensure they took it easy in terms of not overloading then rookie, now second year player Shaq Thompson with too many responsibilities. Rivera said that decision was about workload, and that sending Thompson in would mean he would have to rotate between three positions – buffalo, weak side linebacker and nickel linebacker – in one game.

“I feel like, sometimes it’s a challenge to play three positions in one game,” he said. “In Shaq’s case, he’s already playing two positions for us. … It’s a challenge to play two positions, let alone three.”

Last year, current Carolina Panthers Buffalo Nickel and weak side linebacker Shaq Thompson was in on 50% of the Carolina defensive snaps, per Pro Football Outsiders. Not only can Thompson play the Will linebacker spot, but his versatility in coverage allows for confusion from an offense as to who is covering, who is blitzing and what responsibilities can be flipped between the Panther linebackers. In Buffalo, currently there are no players that can play that spot adequately. While Preston Brown and Reggie Ragland can be trusted with limited drops, there is neither an available pure “Will” nor a “Buffalo” nickel on the roster.

Shaq Thompson, far right, is flanked by LB Thomas Davis

As the Bills get ready for the draft and free agency, they need to be confident in getting pieces that fit what their head coach’s vision for his team – regardless of what anyone outside the building thinks. While potentially departing free agent Zach Brown can fill the weakside position, getting someone that can handle the expectations of the position will allow the first year Bills coach to go about shaping the defense in his (and coach Frazier’s) image.