Thursday, April 9, 2020

Nickelback and Other Canadian Defenses

By John Turney

 Willie Daniel, one of the NFL's first dedicated nickelback
In football, it's hard to ever say someone was the 'first' of something because so little film exists in the NFL's early days. So, someone could have done something in the 1950s that was written about and credited as 'the first' of something but perhaps it had been done twenty years earlier.

At Pro Football Journal like to use the standard "in earnest" on such things. The first time is just too hard of a standard to prove. One example is the 4-3 defense. TJ Troup and the rest of us have seen 4-3 schemes in the 1940s on occasion but was it a 'thing', was it being used 'in earnest'? That is why Troup has declared that the first true middle linebacker is Chuck Drazenovich in 1954 and not players like Sam Huff or Joe Schmidt of Bill George.

To Troup the first team the use a 4-3 defense in a season, start to finish, was the 1954 Washington Redskins. Teams, including Washington, used it before that but as one of several schemes they may have used.

The same principle applies to nickelbacks. Troup has seen films of teams using five defensive backs in the 1950s but it wasn't really a common thing. Some teams may have used it just a handful of plays in the season, while others may have used it a handful of times a game. The most common was teams pulling a defensive linemen and adding a defensive back at the end of a half or game, going with a 3-3-5 look.

One common name for that defense was called "halftime". It, perhaps, had other names as well but it was a late-in-the-half or a late-in-the-game defense to preserve a lead.

 Another nickel defense was sometimes (perhaps often) called the "40" defense.  It was a 4 defensive lineman defense with two linebackers and two corners (halfbacks) and three safeties. The 40 denoted the removal of the middle linebacker, though it could be any of the linebackers, leaving the two best coverage 'backers in the game.
There were watershed moments in the history of the deployment of the nickel. One was in November of 1955 when Clark Shaughnessy, the Bears defensive coach used the nickel quite often in a key win over the Lions.

In 1957 due to some injuries, the Baltimore Colts used a 3-2-6 scheme, again the question is was it 10% of the time, 15%? Not enough films exist to know for sure, but it was a "thing" if you will. Enough to be seen in games that are available on film/

Another "moment" would be in 1958 during the Championship game. The Giants pulled poor cover-coverage linebacker Harland Svare on the final drive (Unitas beat that scheme anyway).
In the early 1960s, teams would also use five defensive backs when they had a lead against a dominant passer. Sonny Jurgensen faced it with the Browns in 1961 and in 1963 YA Tittle faced in early in the season against the Steelers.

"Clark Shaughnessy taught George Allen and then throw in Don Shula, they are the godfathers of the nickel" according to Troup. "In the early 60s everyone used it, but the teams that used it the most were the Colts and the Bears" adds Troup.

Roger Staubach once told NFL Films that his line of demarcation in football was "about 1973"  meaning that is when he thought there began to be substitution football in meaningful percentages. We'd agree, it's when you start to see multiple teams using nickel backs regularly on third downs as well as designated pass rushers.

To be sure, there were early adopters, the 1970 49ers we the first to use a nickel rusher most of the time, a few years prior George Allen was deploying a nickel back as a major component of his long-yardage pass defense.

We are going to explore the players who were the pioneers of the position like we did for designated pass rushers two years ago. While comprehensive it does not include everyone we try and remark on the notables from the beginning of the trend through 1989. We will pick up from 1990 in a subsequent post. So, we will likely miss someone here and there, but we are confident we will cover the movers and shakers of the "sub" defensive back position—the ones to hit benchmarks from season to season.

So, with the background we've outlined we will add one major watershed moment. It was in 1966 when George Allen traded for a nickel back. Allen inherited Clancy Williams at left corner (what Allen called LOU) and he traded for Irv Cross to man the right corner (ROSE)  spot. Eddie Meador was entrenched as the free safety of "JILL" as was Chuck Lamson at strong safety or "SAM".

Those were the starters and in 1966, Allen's first year as the Rams coach used Claude Crabb as the nickel. But Allen wanted an upgrade at nickel. So "Trader George" acquired Willie Daniel who was a six-year starter in Pittsburgh. Daniel battled injuries and was available when Allen came calling. Daniel was the Rams full-time nickel in 1967 and off and on (when healthy after that).

In 1968, when Daniel was nicked Allen used Kelton Winston as a nickel in a key game against the Browns and it got a write-up in the Los Angeles Times, complete with a diagram:
At the same time, the Raiders were using a nickel back quite a lot—in 1967 Warren Powers despite only starting two games picked off six passes returning them for 154 yards and two went for touchdowns and none of his picks came in the two games he filled in as a starter at safety.

In Chicago, in 1968, the "Dooley Defense" named after the Bears defensive coach Jim Dooley incorporated five defensive backs with star cornerback Bennie McRae playing linebacker/slot corner much of the time with rookie Joe Taylor being the defensive back who came into the game (McCrae was a usual starter in their base 4-3-4 defense). Dooley may have been the first to use the nickel a good deal of the time in a season (we cannot say the majority, but likely more than most others in that era, at least for that season of 1968)

Meanwhile, on the other coast, Don Shula was using a tall corner as a nickel back in 1967 and 1968, Charlie Stukes who became a solid starter in cover-3 zones for the Colts and Rams from 1969-74 and was especially good from 1970-73. He didn't have good speed but had long arms and smarts and could drop into zones and disrupt passing lanes.

Rookie Viking Bobby Bryant had 12 tackles, 8 passes defended, 2 picks as the Vikings fifth defensive back. Bryant went on to a fine career as a starter for the Vikings.

In 1970 the Rams nickel role was filled by Jim Nettles who had 10 tackles three interceptions and 8 passes defensed. (Nettles also filled the role some in 1969 as well but also started some when others were injured). In 1971 he was the Rams starting left corner and in 1972 he was a starting free safety for the Rams and, poof, he was out of the NFL.

Jimmy Warren was the Raiders sub-back in 1970 and picked off a pair of passes in ten games (no starts). Johnny Fuller was the 49ers nickel back (when they used it—confirmed by Mike Giddings who was the linebackers coach at the time) and he picked off a pass in addition to being a special teams ace and helping the 49ers win the Western Division crown. The Vikings Dale Hackbart didn't pick off any passes but did defense 8 and had 10 tackles in his sub role in Bud Grant's defense.

In 1971 Jimmy Warren again picked off a pair of passes, returning both for touchdowns. He'd be our mythical "All-Pro" for that season totaled 21 tackles and 10 passes defensed (Warren had already had a fine career with the Chargers and Dolphins before going to the Raiders). Speedy Duncan (another former Charger) would be behind him, playing that role for George Allen's Over-the-Hill' Gang in Washington.
Lloyd Mumphord is the clear top choice in 1972 for the No Name Defense. No starts played in all 14 games and picked off four passes, returning one for a touchdown, playing much of the time in the 53 Defense which people forget was almost always a third-down defense and often employed five defensive backs. Nate Wright for the Vikings was their extra guy.

In 1973 Skip Thomas was the Raiders nickel back and he made 25 tackles and defended 11 passes and picked off two passes, though he did fill in for three starts due to injuries. Charlie Babb got the most playing time in 1973 with the Dolphins defense with 36 tackles since Mumphord missed three games but was solid when healthy.

In 1974 Ken Stone intercepted 5 passes with no starts and would be our de facto All-Pro. Jimmy Warren once again stood out. As did the Vikings Terry Brown, the Bears Bill Knox did, as well.

In 1975 there were changes in the Raiders secondary and Charles Phillips, though starting just one game stole six enemy passes. And dime back Neal Colzie (19 tackles 12 passes defensed) picked off four. Rick Volk, formerly a Colts All-Pro played the sub back with the Giants in 1975 and stood out (30 tackles) as did Brig Owens in Washington. In Dallas, Randy Hughes would play safety in sub defenses and Cliff Harris would play slot corner. 

Donnie Shell often would play near the line of scrimmage in 1976, as a safety playing linebacker in the nickel packages. For the Rams, Pat Thomas was the nickelback and would play outside and usually starting cornerback Monte Jackson would play safety. Randy Hughes was again solid as a nickel safety with 'Captain Crash' Cliff Harris going to slot corner (this happened in 1977 and 1978 as well). Charles Phillips (21 tackles, 13 passes defensed) and Neal Colzie had the same roles in 1976 as they did in 1975 but picked off a combined one pass as opposed to ten the previous season.

The Colts Nelson Munsey was the nickel back in Maxie Baughan's defense (a George Allen disciple) and made 33 tackles, picked off a pass and forced a pair of fumbles. 

In 1977 Tony Dungy would be the top dog with three picks (no starts) in Bud Carson's final season as the Steelers defensive coordinator. Lester Hayes picked off just one pass but defensed 14 passes and had 28 tackles, though he did start a pair of games
Dungy picked off six passes in 1978 and would be our All-Pro nickel. He would be followed by Nolan Cromwell of the Rams (30 tackles 6 passes defensed, 1 pick, 1 FF for the NFL's top defense). Randy Hughes, Neal Colzie, Estus Hood of the Packers (he was stellar—10 tackles, 3 picks, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble in Dick LeBeau's secondary), J.C. Wilson of the Oilers, and John Sciarra of the Eagles all were excellent.

In 1979, due to some injuries to usual starters, some of the sub-package guys got some starts but the top performers were Jeff Nixon (6 INTs), Eddie Brown, Rams, Charles Phillips, Raiders (again)
Rick Sanford, Patriots (28 tackles, 1 pick), and John Sciarra, Eagles, deserve mention. 

Next, we will cover the 1980s when there are far more names to cover and far more roles extra defensive backs played, more as a linebacker, for example.

In 1980 Roy Green, who later moved to wide receiver was a dynamic nickel with 38 tackles, a sack, a pick, a forced fumble and 9 passes defensed. The Patriots Roland James picked off 4 passes deflected 6 more and made 44 tackles in his sub role. Jeris White, a former starter with the Bucs was a top nickel for Washington. Mike Fuller would enter the game as a safety and Edwards would play slot for the Chargers.

Jack Tatum, though, was the top nickel back in 1980. He'd come in and play the hybrid safety/linebacker role and he intercepted seven passes in that role, which was his final season.

Len Walterscheid for the Bears, in 2 starts, picked off four passes. Odis McKinney was the extra back for the Super Bowl Champion Raiders, though they had a lot of changes during the season. Rookie LeRoy Irvon did a fine job in a fine secondary for the Rams.

The following year, 1981, The Bills top sub defensive back played linebacker in the nickel—it was Rod Kush who made 37 tackles, had 5½ sacks, recovered three fumbles and picked off a pass. Jeff Nixon would also come in as a deep safety but also would blitz (15 tackles and two sacks).

Roy Green again played well 15 tackles, 11 passes defensed and 11 passes defended for St. Louis. 

The Jets Johnny Lynn had 20 tackles picked off three passes and had 5 passes defensed on a much-improved defense led by the New York sack exchange.

The Bears played Todd Bell as a linebacker (32 tackles, 2 FF. 5 PDs) in the 46 and Jeff Fisher as a corner (21 tackles 2 picks, 5 PDs, 1 FF) in the nickel.

For the Super Bowl-winning 49ers Lynn Thomas was usually their nickel back who made 26 tackles. Carter Hartwig picked off three passes and made 17 tackles as the Oilers nickel. Estus Hood picked off three passes (zero starts) for the Pack and Anthony Washington stole three enemy passes (1 start) for the Steelers. 

In 1982 Jeff Fisher and Fulton Walker had the best seasons, both picked off three passes. Fish had 29 tackles and 5 passes defensed. 
In 1983 there was a milestone reached for nickel backs. NFL Films named one to its All-Pro team, the first time any nickel was named to any post-season team. It was Ron Fellows of Dallas. He had 24 tackles, picked off 5 passes and defensed 12 passes. Our mythical second-team pick would be rookie Chief Albert Lewis who had 36 tackles and 4 picks and 12 passes defensed.

Other notables would be nickel linebackers Bill Bates (4 sacks, 4 passes defensed) and Darryl Talley (5 sacks). Bates, a safety, played near the line of scrimmage in his role, much like Rod Kush did in 1981. The Jets Johnny Lynn had 40 tackles, 12 total passes defensed and picked off three passes 

The Seattle Seahawks secondary was amazing in 1984. Not only did that have the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in strong Safety Ken Easley (10 picks) and Pro Bowler Dave Brown (8 picks) they had extraordinary depth. Nickel Back Terry Taylor picked off three passes (32 tackles) and dime back Terry Jackson picked off four (29 tackles).

Safety Bill Bates had 51 tackles and 5 sacks as a nickel linebacker in Dallas and Ron Fellows took over the starting right cornerback job and Dennis Thurman moved to nickelback. Thurman had 34 tackles, five interceptions and 11 total passes defensed. 

Steve Wilson of the Broncos picked off four passes and had 6 passes defensed and ½ sack and 46 tackles. Jeff Fuller, in 1984 (and 1985) was an excellent nickel linebacker/safety hybrid getting pressure and also showing up in coverage. 
In 1985 Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman chose a nickel back for the first time. He picked Vince Newsome of the Rams (28 tackles, 3 INTS, 7 PDs, 1 sack, 2 FR). Said Dr. Z, "I've never picked a nickelback before for the simple reason that their assignments are so different. Some play a cornerback role, some of them are linebackers or strong safeties. Every time I saw the Rams' Vince Newsome, though, something was always happening around him—bodies were flying, the ball was popping loose." Newsome was a usually a strong safety in his first two seasons in the Rams nickel scheme but in 1985 he played a nickel linebacker role as the Rams used six defensive backs more often than five with Newsome next to Mike Wilcher in those situations. 

Rod Kush, now with the Oilers, once again excelled as a nickel linebacker with 27 tackles and 5½ sacks and a pair of interceptions. Bill Bates played the same spot but this season he only had one sack but did pick off four passes. Odd. 

In 1986 Jeff Fuller had an interesting year again a hybrid safety/nickel linebacker played in only six games but had 2½ sacks and 4 picks—a lot of production for just six games. 

Milton Mack was the top Saints sub back in 1987 totaling 25 tackles and 4 picks. Mel Jenkins of Seattle had 3 picks in a non-starting role as well.
In 1988 Terry Hoage was the first non-starting defensive back to make a major post-season team,. he was Second-team All-NFC by UPI being recognized for his eight interceptions in Buddy Ryan's defense (31 tackles, 12 PDs). He's come in and play deep while Wes Hopkins would play nickel linebacker. William Frizzell had three picks. 
Keith Taylor of the Colts takes top honor in 1989 with 7 picks for 225 yards (no starts, 22 tackles, 12 PS, 1 FF). The Browns Anthony Blaylock was effective in the slot with 4 sacks on blitzes and 35 tackles, 12 PDs and 2 FF though no picks. 

William Frizzell was also effective in 1989 he had 26 tackles, 1½ sacks, 4 INTs, 7 PFs, 1 FF and a FR. Eric Everett was the slot corner in the Eagles defense and picked off four passes. Cris Dishman was very solid for the Oilers with four picks and 37 tackles.

As mentioned we will cover the 1990s to the present in a future post. The position developed even further with Fritz Shurmur's "Big Nickel" defense he developed in the 1980s but used a lot in the 1990s and then we'' cover the 2010s when the nickel defense was used more than base defenses. 


  1. Great article guys ... a lot of unsung work by players that came in and did their jobs on various sub packages.

    People think of Bill Bates as just a special teams player but he contributed a lot to the Cowboys defences.

    You would think with QBs like Namath, Lamonica and Hadl the AFL would have experimented with nickel and dime packages more frequently than the NFL but who knows ?

    Thats another reason why I believe Warfield was the greatest weapon at receiver ... he probably forced more defensive coaches into different secondary schemes and concepts than anyone.

  2. really think albert lewis is the ultimate nickel man from talent standpoint.