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What Could The Falcons' Nickel Defense Look Like?

How Atlanta defends the pass could ultimately define the season.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When the Falcons hired Dan Quinn this winter, there was no secret about what they were after: In Quinn's two seasons as defensive coordinator, the Seahawks fielded the NFL's best passing defense, and Arthur Blank & Co. wanted to see if that excellence would translate in Atlanta.

Now, we don't have exact numbers on how often the Falcons lined up in any version of their nickel defense last year. But based on snap counts provided by Pro Football Focus (642 for Robert McClain, 458 for Josh Wilson) and the eye test, I think it's safe to say that they relied on the nickel quite a bit last year -- to little effect, of course.

The Seahawks seemed to run their base defense more last year, though that almost certainly has to do with the personnel at Quinn's disposal -- a shutdown cornerback, two excellent safeties and a pair of sound coverage linebackers in K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner. And more or less, they got the job done relying on Cover 3 or man-to-man.

But the Falcons do not have that type of talent on hand, meaning more creativity will be required in getting this team to field a palatable pass defense in 2015 -- both in terms of pass rush and having the right combination of players to consistently run Cover 3. It should mean a higher frequency of nickel plays than Quinn ran last season. And how those player combinations fare could ultimately define this team's pass defense and, by extension, the season.

So, let's break down what the Falcons' nickel defense could look like by position group. Away we go.

Defensive Line

Our jumping off point will be an excerpt from DLed's depth chart blog post from earlier this morning.

Quinn and defensive coordinator Richard Smith played a dazzling array of combinations along the defensive front this offseason, but this nickel package that lined on June 16 stood out.

LDE – Vic Beasley

LDT – Jonathan Babineaux

RDT – Adrian Clayborn

RDE – Kroy Biermann (Malliciah Goodman was out with an injury, but has a shot to earn this spot.)

Paul Soliai is of course not a three-down player, and Tyson Jackson really shouldn't be thrust into that role, either. Neither have the rush skills to necessitate being played in passing situations. Moving Clayborn inside and using him to take on the required double teams as a pass rusher, then, could be an interesting way for Quinn to manufacture a little more pressure on third downs.

Also exciting are the players sitting behind Clayborn and Babineaux: Ra'Shede Hageman, who could steal snaps at the 1-technique spot as he continues to develop, and Grady Jarrett, who has already been linked to a 3-technique nickel role by Quinn.

On the edges, Beasley is a no-brainer, and Biermann is essentially the default option on the opposite side. O'Brien Schofield's role last year was backup LEO. So we have a nickel D-line that could look something like:

SDE: Biermann // Goodman

NT: Clayborn // Hageman

DT: Babineaux // Jarrett

LEO: Beasley // Schofield

Again, Hageman and Jarrett are intriguing players with upside that I'd love to see play more, but they've also got to earn trust before they get those opportunities.


In Quinn's defense, the SAM linebacker is typically the player that gets subbed out for the extra defensive back in nickel. However, given the versatility of Brooks Reed, I'd imagine that we see something more like this:

Base: Justin Durant (WILL), Paul Worrilow (MIKE), Reed (SAM)

Nickel: Durant (WILL), Reed (MIKE)

You'll remember that WILL and MIKE essentially line up and function as 3-4 inside linebackers. Limiting Worrilow's snaps in passing situations would be a prudent move, and the team certainly didn't sign Reed (listed at about 25 pounds heavier than Worrilow) to a long-term deal if it didn't envision a significant role for him.

So I think it's conceivable the Falcons could occasionally slide Reed inside to Worrilow's spot on passing downs. After all, Quinn's SAM linebacker last year (Bruce Irvin) was called upon to play coverage at times.

However, there will always be wrinkles, and DLed spotlighted another alignment of linebackers Quinn could utilize in the nickel:

LB – O’Brien Schofield and Allen Bradford

To leave Schofield back in pass coverage would seem highly unlikely -- Quinn only dropped him into coverage six times out of his 341 snaps last season. Rather, this looks like another way to generate extra pressure; Schofield would be a primary candidate to blitz the A or B gaps, while Bradford likely drops into coverage.

Bradford will be an important player to watch going through training camp, given that he's basically an unknown quantity. How much playing time the former practice-squader can earn this year will be interesting, for sure, and I'm curious to see for myself how he fares in coverage.


Following Ricardo Allen's well-documented move to free safety, we basically already know what the primary version of this unit will look like:

LCB - Desmond Trufant

FS - Allen // Godfrey

SS - Moore // Ishmael

RCB - Alford // Collins

NCB - Adams // Alford

Jalen Collins has tremendous upside and the team clearly feels strongly about his skills, but whether he can solidify himself as a Day 1 starter (especially coming off a foot injury) remains to be seen. Veteran Phillip Adams likely has the inside edge at the moment. Later on in the season, however, it's entirely possible that Collins asserts himself and allows the Falcons to bump Alford to the slot in nickel situations.

The other interesting spot will be strong safety. William Moore is of course the starter, and he should thrive as an in-the-box player while Quinn hits the Cover 3 button over and over. In obvious passing situations, however, we could also see something like:

SS – Kemal Ishmael (in William Moore’s spot)

Having a third starting-caliber safety gives the Falcons a whole host of options. Obviously, you have to think Moore's snaps will still outweigh Ishmael's, but the speed and range of a player like Ishmael could provide the Falcons with better coverage in passing situations. He is also a prime candidate to be subbed in for a linebacker when the team rolls out its dime package.

And there's even more worth discussing about this defense that I won't delve into today. While it's true that Quinn's defense fundamentally relies on simple play-calling, that does not mean the array of players and formations the Falcons use will be predictable.

How this all shakes out once training camp kicks off next month will be exciting to follow, for sure. What do you envision for the Falcons' nickel defense?