Earlier in the offseason, I came across a fascinating article on Bill Belichick’s expanded use of dime defenses last year. I struggled a bit with the appropriate time to try to weave it into a relevant story for Washington Football Team fans, but given the nature of last week’s loss against the Chargers, I think it may finally be applicable, or at least a conversation starter.
A “dime” defensive formation, for those who may not know, involves playing 6 defensive backs at a time. It’s often contrasted with a “nickel” formation, which involves the deployment of 5 defensive backs, which teams have historically used in situations where they’re anticipating the offense will be passing.
After the first four games last season, across the league, defenses used a nickel formation a significant majority of the time (60% of snaps). They almost certainly did this to account for the ever-increasing importance of the passing game. In contrast, traditional base defenses (3-4 or 4-3) were only used on a paltry 24% of snaps.
While the heavy reliance, league-wide, on nickel is interesting, the focus of this piece is on where the game’s foremost defensive mastermind sees things heading.
During the first quarter of last season, Bill Belichick and the Patriots played zero snaps in a base defense, and played 62% of snaps – the highest in the league – with 6 or more DBs on the field. They actually played 54 snaps with 7 DBs in those first 4 games.
“Well, a major part of defense is being able to defend and react to what the offenses are doing,” Belichick told CLNS Media. “We’ve played teams that have had a certain style of play on the schedule, have had certain personnel groups and skills within those groups. So, we’ve defended them the way that we feel is best and the way we match up best as a football team.”
“What group that is and so forth, we’ll just have to see how that goes week by week. But, we’ve always been that type of a defensive team. Certainly, things that we do are reflective of what they’re doing.”
This last statement seems particularly relevant, given that going into last week’s game against the Chargers, the expectation was that Justin Herbert was going to be heavily reliant on the short passing game to circumvent our pass rush and take advantage of our relatively weak/inexperienced linebacking corps.
Instead of confounding Herbert with a flurry of DBs, however, Washington sat arguably its best safety, Kam Curl, on over half of the defensive snaps against the Chargers. Subsequently, the team gave up 334 yards in a game where Herbert passed an astonishing 47 times.
But What About the Run?
In order for a defensive back-heavy scheme to succeed against everything an offense can throw at it, it needs a defensive line that consume the opposing team’s blocks. Are our front four, Young, Allen, Payne, and Sweat well-positioned to do that? I can’t say, though I suspect bracing for run stopping is probably considerably less enjoyable than rushing the passer.
The players behind the line have to have a mindset that embraces physicality as well. Adrian Phillips, the Patriots “box safety” was deployed routinely at linebacker by the Patriots last year, and had a fairly successful year, collecting the 8th most solo tackles in the league:
“I guess the first thing would just be having a mentality that you can control the box. You’ve just got to use the tools that you’re given,” Phillips told CLNS Media. “I’m not 250 pounds or whatever, but I’m a lot faster than those guys, and I can deliver a blow. So it’s just basically creating that separation — how can I create that? Can I create a way with speed, or do I have to go speed-to-power? It’s just utilizing the assets that I have.”
Coincidentally, Washington also has a guy who was once considered one of the best box safeties in the league, but who has generally eschewed the notion of playing linebacker since coming over from the Giants:
[Landon Collins’] real value though, and the real value of any linebacker, shines through in the passing game. There’s a vast difference in responsibility between underneath and deep zones. The latter is where Collins admittedly struggled throughout his career, as his angles and lack of top-end speed got exposed down the field. In fact, all six of his pass-breakups this year came either underneath or guarding the slot. His instincts as an underneath zone defender are exceptional.
Show Me the Results
Earlier this summer, Diante Lee with Pro Football Focus posed the question, “Why don’t we see more dime defense in the NFL?” Examining the relative performance of nickel and dime coverages versus 11 personnel – 4 receivers (3 WRs & 1 TE) on the line with a RB in the backfield – Lee found that, for the past 3 years, dime has resulted in a lower passer rating, lower yards per pass attempt, a higher QB pressure rate, and fewer “expected points added” by the offense. Nickel, unsurprisingly, performed better against the run, though overall, the impact of dime against the pass was more significant, given the heavy reliance on the pass in the NFL.
Meanwhile, the dime heavy Patriots, even in a year where they had serious talent issues as a result of COVID, finished with the 7th best “passer rating against” position in the league. They did end up being oddly susceptible to explosive passes, however.
As for playing small ball in the NFL: As long as a team has the players, it leads to a better chance of eliminating explosive passes by playing better coverage and further entices an offense to run the ball, which is inherently less explosive. If offenses continue to use 11 personnel to pass as they have, expect a growing trend of dime personnel.
While playing more dime isn’t a silver bullet, there does appear good reason to explore utilizing it more broadly, particularly with the versatility of Washington’s linebacking and defensive back groupings.
Somewhat ironically, a team like this week’s rival, the Giants, with a power back, an injured tight end, and limited offensive weapons might not be the best opponent to roll a dime-based defense out against. On the other hand, they might be just the sort of opponent we should feel safe trying creative looks out on. There aren’t many more of those on the schedule.