In this installment of the "NFL 101" series at Bleacher Report, former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen breaks down the basics of the nickel run game to give you a better understanding of the scheme and its execution at the pro level.
Click here for the previous "NFL 101" breakdown: 2-Man.
As NFL offenses continue progressing to spread looks out of Posse/11 (3WR-1TE-1RB) and Houston/20 (3WR-2RB) personnel groupings, the nickel run game has become a major part of Sunday game plans.
Think about the base zone and power schemes we talked about earlier this offseason versus sub-package shells that give the offense an opportunity to expose "light" run fronts (six/seven-man boxes).
This puts an enormous amount of stress on opposing defenses from a game-prep perspective as they work to limit the vertical route tree in their nickel coverages (put a tent on top of the secondary) while also showing the ability to fit up and support the run game.
Using the All-22 coaches tape (with GIFs to see the schemes play out on the field), here are the nickel runs that we will break down today:
- One-Back Power
- Inside Zone
- Split Zone
- Inside Trap
- Buck Sweep
- Lead Draw
Very similar to the two-back Power O (fullback kick-out, guard pull) that we see out of Regular/21 personnel (2WR-1TE-2RB) with the 49ers, Panthers, Seahawks and Patriots, the one-back power is designed to expose nickel fronts.
In this scheme, the tight end kicks out the edge support while the open-side guard pulls to lead up through the hole versus the second-level linebacker.
Using an example from the Packers-Cowboys matchup, let's take a look at how Green Bay created a running lane off the power scheme versus a six-man box.
With the Cowboys showing a two-high safety look—and walking the nickel out over the No. 2 receiver—the defense only has six players inside of the run box.
This creates a favorable blocking matchup for the Packers, with running back Eddie Lacy offset in a shotgun alignment to the open side of the formation.
At the point of attack, the Packers kick out the edge defender with the tight end, block down on the 3-technique defensive tackle and pull the open-side guard.
This allows the guard to "track" the Mike 'backer and lead through the hole with Lacy coming downhill off the handoff.
With the tight end sealing the edge and the guard fitting up on the Mike 'backer in the hole, Lacy finds running room off the inside down blocks.
That forces the safeties (deep off the ball) to file with an inside-out angle and make a tackle versus Lacy.
This results in an easy first down for the Packers because of the blocking scheme that took advantage of a "light" run box with Posse/11 personnel on the field.
The zone/stretch series out of Posse/11 personnel allows the offense to use zone blocking up front (zone step = block an area) to counter multiple defensive alignments while giving the running back the opportunity to press the edge of the formation or to find cutback lanes.
And based off the number of defenders in the box, offenses can gash two-deep looks when they remove linebackers/defensive backs from the core of the formation.
Using an example from the Patriots-Broncos matchup in the AFC Championship Game, let's take a look at how a pre-snap check from Peyton Manning allowed Denver to expose 2-Man coverage with the zone scheme.
With the Broncos aligned in a Doubles Slot "Orange" formation (3x1 spread) and the Patriots playing 2-Man in the secondary (two-deep, man-under), this is only a five-man box for New England.
And because of the pre-snap alignment of the linebacker to the open side of the formation (coverage versus running back), Manning can check to the closed-side zone (strong) to take advantage of the numbers up front with the second-level defenders removed.
Look at the running lane the Broncos create because of the zone-blocking scheme up front and the lack of second-level defenders.
This now forces the two deep-half safeties to react downhill and make a tackle versus running back Knowshon Moreno in the open field. And when you miss a tackle in the secondary, the result is an explosive gain.
The split zone is run with the same zone-blocking technique we just talked about on the inside zone scheme. The offensive lineman will take a "zone step" and allow the running back to press the ball to the edge of the formation or look for "daylight" on the cutback based on the linebacker flow.
However, instead of leaving the backside edge defender unblocked (responsible for cutback/boot), the offense will pull an off-the-ball tight end or H-back to the opposite side of the formation to dig out/cut the defensive end/outside linebacker.
Using an example from the Patriots-Bills matchup, let's discuss the blocking technique in the split-zone scheme.
With Posse/11 personnel on the field, the Bills offense is working versus a six-man front from the Patriots.
As you can see, the Bills use zone blocking to the closed side of the formation.
However, check out the tight end off the ball. At the snap, he will pull to the open side of the formation to block (wham/trap) the edge defender with the right tackle working up to the linebacker.
This will give running back Fred Jackson the opportunity to press this ball to the edge of the formation or cut back if he finds a running lane off the play-side flow.
With the tight end using a cut block to chop down the backside edge defender—and the right tackle fitting up on the linebacker at the second level—the Bills have created an inside running lane for Jackson.
Jackson makes one cut, squares his pads and gets up the field with the safety now forced to make the tackle.
In the deep red zone, the inside trap is a quickly developing play that utilizes the "wham" block to create a vertical running lane versus nickel fronts.
A "down, down, around" technique (two down blocks plus a pull) that is run on almost every level of the game, this scheme allows the offense to create angles on the down blocks while the guard pulls to trap the defensive tackle.
Using an example from Marc Trestman's offense in Chicago, let's break down the trap scheme versus the Washington defense.
Facing a seven-man box (Cover 1 versus Posse/11), the Bears can target the interior of the defensive front with the center and closed side guard blocking down on the nose tackle and the open-side linebacker.
This allows the open-side offensive guard Kyle Long to pull and "wham" the 3-technique defensive tackle while creating that inside running lane for Matt Forte.
Here, we can see Forte attack the inside crease off the trap action with the Bears sealing the open side of the formation on the down blocks, and Long utilizing the "wham" block versus the 3-technique tackle.
And with Forte through the hole, the Bears running back can drop his pad level versus the free safety to get this ball in the end zone for six points.
The Buck Sweep is run from the shotgun, Pistol and a one-back alignment with two offensive linemen pulling to the edge of the formation to account for the force defender and second-level linebacker.
A scheme that shows up often in the Eagles' packaged plays, the Buck Sweep can expose nickel fronts when the linebacker is late to scrape to the ball, and the force (contain) defender fails to squeeze or restrict the edge.
Using an example from the Bears-Eagles matchup, here's a breakdown of Chip Kelly's Buck Sweep (packaged play) with pre-snap wide receiver "ghost motion."
With the Bears playing Cover 1 (strong safety walked down over the tight end), the cornerback has to "travel" (match to his coverage) versus the pre-snap motion from DeSean Jackson (runs the bubble screen to the open side of the formation).
Up front, the Eagles block down on the defensive end and the 3-technique defensive tackle while pulling both the closed-side guard and center to the edge of the formation.
This allows the Eagles to kick out the strong safety and lead up on linebacker Lance Briggs while running back LeSean McCoy presses this ball to the edge.
With the strong safety failing to squeeze versus the pulling guard (widens the edge) and the center fitting up on Briggs, the Eagles have created a running lane for McCoy to get vertically up the field.
And because of the pre-snap "ghost" motion from Jackson (removes the cornerback in coverage), the free safety in the deep middle of the field now has to come downhill, create an angle to the ball and make a tackle versus McCoy after an explosive gain.
The lead draw is run from a two-back look out of Houston/20 or Posse/11 personnel (shift tight end to "F" alignment) with the fullback/tight end leading up on the linebacker off draw action in the backfield.
With the offensive tackles taking draw sets at the snap (forces the defensive end/outside linebacker to rush up the field), this turns into an "ISO" play (fullback versus Mike 'backer) at the second level.
Using an example from the Packers-Vikings matchup, let's break down how Green Bay exposed Cover 2 out of Houston/20 personnel with the lead draw scheme.
Given that the Vikings are in a two-deep shell (six-man front), the Packers can man-block this scheme. To the open side of the formation, the left tackle shows a draw set to invite the defensive end up the field.
And with the 3-technique defensive tackle slanting inside at the snap, the Packers have the one-on-one matchup of fullback John Kuhn versus the Mike 'backer in an "ISO" situation.
Lacy utilizes the slide step (draw action) and attacks downhill to cut off of Kuhn's block at the second level.
Check out the hole created by the defensive end rushing up the field and Kuhn fitting up on the Mike 'backer. Lacy can make one cut and push this ball into the secondary.
And because of the two-deep, nickel alignment from the Vikings, this turns into a first down for the Packers with the safeties now forced to make the tackle.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.