On football

Change for a nickel makes sense

By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / August 26, 2008
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FOXBOROUGH - A nickel is a nickel any way it's rung up at the cash register. No matter if it's shiny or a bit tarnished, the coin yields a 5-cent return each time, meaning quite a few are needed for a big payoff.

This is in sharp contrast to the football-style nickel. Just one of those can be especially valuable, paying significant long-term dividends.

The Patriots have spent some time over the last week polishing up their nickel, and players seem to be buoyed by the early results, mainly from last Friday's exhibition game against the Eagles.

"Nickel" is the standard name for the formation when defenses add one defensive back and subtract someone who plays closer to the line (usually a defensive lineman). It is a common package used in passing situations because it adds more speed, allowing a defense to keep pace with an offense featuring three or more receivers. Because the nickel often is used on third down - with a chance to turn the ball back over to its offense - its importance is heightened.

The Patriots experimented with an unusual type of nickel Friday night. They kept four linemen on the field, which is one or two more than their norm. Behind those four were two linebackers, Tedy Bruschi and Jerod Mayo.

Safety John Lynch lined up a few yards behind Bruschi and Mayo, positioned in a way that made it appear as if he were the tip of a triangle of three players - in a hybrid linebacker/safety type role.

The rest of the defensive backs - cornerbacks Ellis Hobbs and Fernando Bryant and safeties James Sanders and Rodney Harrison/Antwain Spann - were in their standard spots.

"It's something we've been working at, and it was a test for us to put it in a game situation and see how it went," Sanders explained. "We still have areas we have to improve on, but it went pretty well the first time out."

Coach Bill Belichick often mentions that the preseason is a chance to work on specific situations, plays, and personnel packages, and this seemed to be an example. The Patriots called on the nickel at the start of the Eagles' third drive, even though Philadelphia wasn't in an obvious passing situation (first and 10).

On the first play, the Eagles did what most offenses will do when they see an extra defensive back on first down - they tried to run over it, with a personnel group that included a tight end and lead fullback.

Philadelphia called seven straight runs against the nickel, but the Patriots proved to be pretty sturdy - limiting the Eagles to gains of 6, 3, 2, 3, 5, 4, and 1 yard. The Patriots switched out of the nickel soon after that, and the Eagles ended up scoring a touchdown later on the drive against the team's 3-4 alignment.

If the Patriots can employ a nickel package that limits the running game and is effective against the pass (the results weren't as strong in that area), it could be a weapon in the future.

"That's just another aspect of our defense that we can take and hopefully use against certain opponents and put us in successful situations to make plays," Sanders said. "It gives us more versatility. You're in a Bill Belichick scheme, you have to have versatile parts, especially on the defensive side of the ball."

The Patriots experimented with other nickel looks Friday, one of which had outside linebacker Mike Vrabel playing more of a defensive end-type role. Defensive end Jarvis Green drew a holding penalty out of that package, and the Patriots ultimately forced a first-quarter punt.

"We have a lot of guys on this team who can do a lot of different things," Green said. "We have all the packages that we run already with this defense, and this is part of it. It expands some of the things we can do."

Earlier in the exhibition season, the Patriots were experimenting with safety Tank Williams in a linebacker-type role, which would have been another wrinkle to their nickel package. But Williams suffered a season-ending knee injury in the preseason opener, so the club has gone back to the drawing board.

"It was a test for us to put it in a game situation and see how it went," Sanders said. "You can always get better, but it seemed to go pretty well the first time out."

Mike Reiss can be reached at

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