Over the past five years, NBA defenses have fundamentally changed as part of a league-wide reaction to a boom in three point attempts. The average number of threes attempted in an NBA game has skyrocketed from 18.4 per game in the 2011-12 season to 32.0 per game in 2018-19 (a league record).
The Warriors famed “lineup of death”, featuring Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala is the most effective scoring machine ever assembled on a basketball court, in large part because of the fact that it boasts three of the greatest perimeter shooters of all time to space the floor. The effectiveness of that lineup has led to something of a “small ball” revolution as teams have started sacrificing size for shooting in an effort to stretch the defense thin and give their smaller guards a chance to take advantage of one-on-one matchups against bigger, slower forwards and centers.
To counteract this trend, NBA teams have begun to put a premium on players who are “switchable” on defense. Every basketball executive is out hunting for guys who can defend multiple positions — guys who are quick enough to stay in front of lightning quick point guards, but also tall and physical enough to not be overwhelmed by power forwards and centers. The reigning NBA Champion Toronto Raptors — largely considered one of the best defensive teams in the league — were built around a trio of these players in Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, and Pascal Siakam.
NFL defenses are facing a crisis similar to the one NBA teams have seen over the past few years. Offenses are going small and focusing on creating matchups where athletic receivers are pitted against bigger, slower linebackers and safeties. Offenses are also enjoying nearly unprecedented success, finishing last season with the second highest points per game average since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.
The 2018 season saw the highest rate of 11-personnel — one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers — usage in NFL history, building on a steady rise over the last decade. Not only are teams playing more wide receivers, but the types of tight ends and running backs that the league uses today are very different than the lumbering brutes of decades past. Tight ends like Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz move like wide receivers. Pass catching running backs like Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey are walking mismatches.
If NFL and NBA defenses are having similar problems — how to stop a wider usage of smaller, faster, and more skilled players on offense — might the solution be similar as well? Could a smaller, more “switchable” defense be the answer to the increased presence of Air Raid concepts and RPOs?
That seems to be the working theory for the Tennessee Titans under head coach Mike Vrabel and defensive coordinator Dean Pees. During the 2018 season, they dialed up a nickel personnel package on 73% of defensive snaps, ninth most in the NFL according to Football Outsiders and up almost 10% from their 2017 usage. The Titans had at least two games — against the Texans and Eagles early in the season — that saw them stay in nickel for the entirety of the game.
The results were highly effective as the Titans finished third in the NFL in scoring defense and eighth in total defense last year. A glance through the top ten scoring defenses in the league seems to suggest some correlation here. Five defenses that ranked in the top ten in scoring also ranked in the top ten in nickel usage and three of the other five top units ranked in the top ten in dime package deployment. None of the top ten scoring defenses ranked in the top ten in base defense usage rate.
Simply playing more defensive backs isn’t the answer to the riddle of the modern NFL offense though, at least not entirely. If you truly want to succeed you have to have the right personnel to plug into those packages.
That’s where the NFL’s version of NBA “3 and D” guys come in. Whether they’re called “moneybackers”, “rovers”, “monsters”, “stars”, or “spurs”, these players are hybrids who straddle the line between linebacker and safety and they’re absolutely critical to defending modern offenses. These are guys that can cover an athletic tight end or wide receiver and also thump in the box on run plays.
For many NFL fans, the first guy to pop into their head when they here the term moneybacker is Deone Bucannon. A former first round pick out of Washington State, Bucannon had a rep as a hard hitting safety. Despite checking in at “just” 6’-1” and 211 pounds, he was able to play in the box for the Cardinals — he’s now followed his former head coach to Tampa Bay — and provide that defense with the flexibility to remain solid against the run while matching up against spread style offenses.
Since Jon Robinson took over as GM of the Titans, he has gone about adding several of these hybrid, position flexible type players. Old school run thumpers like Avery Williamson were allowed to walk while the team went about adding as many Swiss Army knife type safeties and linebackers as they could find.
Safeties Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro are both big and physical enough to play in the box or blitz while also having the range and cover chops to play deep or man up on athletic tight ends or even wide receivers. The team has doubled down on flexible safeties in the last two drafts, taking Dane Cruikshank in the fifth round last year and Amani Hooker in the fourth round this year. Both Cruikshank and Hooker spent time at both safety and what their coaches called the “star” position in college, essentially playing as a big nickel thanks to their diverse skill sets. All four of the Titans safeties check in between 5’-11” and 6’-1” and between 209 and 214 pounds. Any one of these guys would be capable of playing as a “big nickel” or “big dime” type role.
The Titans regular nickel, Logan Ryan, brings a safety’s skill set to the position. He’s an outstanding tackler and run defender along with being excellent as a blitzer.
When you get to the linebackers, the story is very similar. The Titans feature a set of backers ranging from 5’-11” to 6’-2” and between 225 and 233 pounds. It’s a group that’s built on speed and athleticism over size and power. Jayon Brown is among the game’s best coverage linebackers and makes the Titans defense incredibly flexible when he’s in the game.
Rashaan Evans, the Titans 2018 first round pick, brings a level of flexibility as well. He can be a run-thumping inside linebacker on one play and then an edge rusher the next. Evans is unique as a 232-pound linebacker who plays with the power of a much larger player.
Brown and Wesley Woodyard both offer some value as blitzers and pass rushers as well (Brown finished second on the Titans in sacks in 2018). Kamalei Correa and Sharif Finch both saw some snaps as off ball linebackers last year in addition to their typical work as edge rushers.
It all adds up to one of the most versatile collections of defensive personnel in the league and I’m fascinated to see where Vrabel and Pees take this scheme in 2019. They were extremely creative with their blitz packages last season and are returning 13 of their top 15 defenders based on snap count — retired edge rushers Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan being the only exceptions. It’s an experienced group and with every member of the “back seven” returning intact, they should have the chance to tinker with some unique looks that take advantage of their position flexible personnel.
Adding Amani Hooker — who has already generated some early buzz in offseason workouts and earned a few first team reps in three safety looks — brings the possibility of some “big dime” and “big nickel” packages for the Titans in 2019. Three safety looks have begun popping up in the college game as a possible answer to the Air Raid and other spread style offenses. (I’d highly recommend checking out Mark Schofield’s piece on Iowa State’s “3-3-3” defense and how it could apply in the NFL).
The Patriots have been among the forefront of the NFL in the use of big nickel looks, featuring safeties Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, and Patrick Chung. That approach has worked for New England because of the fact that Harmon, and especially Chung, are capable of effectively performing the function of a linebacker in the run game while offering the coverage skills you’d expect from a defensive back.
The Titans could have some extraordinarily flexible packages to put on the field without sacrificing quality. Here are a couple examples of some three safety looks that we could see this fall.
There are plenty of other variations that the Titans could use off these packages as the team mixes and matches to the offense’s personnel, but the one thing that all these combinations have in common is a bunch of guys that can defend in space and in the modern NFL — like the modern NBA — that matters more than ever.