Are the Falcons Using Too Much Nickel?

Through the first two weeks of the season, I was astounded by the amount of nickel defense the Falcons played. Their base defense which featured all three linebackers was only used on about a dozen plays out of about 150 combined plays.

While it seemed to be paying dividends with their successful pass defense, it seemed detrimental against the run. Through two weeks the Falcons pass defense was one of the best in the league, but the run defense was near the bottom of the league. Against San Diego, the Falcons used more of their base package, and it seemed to pay some dividends against the run with some improvement.

Here are the numbers from that game, which exclude kneel downs and scrambles on passing plays. SR stands for success rate, which I think is a more accurate reflection of rushing success than yards per attempt, which can be heavily skewed by a single run e.g. Jackie Battle’s 52-yard run. If you’re unfamiliar with what success rate is, here is a pretty straight-forward explanation.


NYPA = Net Yards Per Attempt, which factors in yards lost due to sacks.


While there is clear evidence that the Falcons run defense improved when they were in their base package, it was clear that their nickel subpackage was highly effective against Philip Rivers.

Now here are the numbers against Carolina. Note these do not include plays where Cam Newton scrambled after dropping back to pass, but do include his designed runs.



I think it’s too close as far as rushing to really lean one way or not. When you factor in that 32 of the 75 yards against the nickel came on a designed run by Newton at the outset of the game, then the nickel run defense probably gets a slight edge in terms of its overall effectiveness.

But in the passing game, Newton had some success throwing against the nickel largely because they were able to generate a few big pass plays. What is concerning is that three of the Panthers four 20+ yard plays did come against the nickel defense. After the game, Mike Smith was critical of the team’s ability to contain the big plays.

If there is a conclusion off this small two-game sample size, is that that there is a risk/reward for playing nickel. While the Falcons have done a good job generating turnovers in their nickel defense over the course of the first four games, they have also given up a number big plays, both on the ground and in the air. The base defense does seem to improve the run defense, but not by a huge degree. They still are lackluster there, but perhaps with more reps, players like Akeem Dent will improve over the course of the season.

The Falcons have primarily played in their base package on first down. Against San Diego, of the 25 first downs that the Chargers had, 15 of them were in the base package, with 10 in the nickel. Against Carolina, the base package was utilized on 20 of Carolina’s 29 first down snaps. But the Falcons did mix it in more on second down, particularly in the second half. In the first half of that game, they were in their base package on 8 of 14 first downs, and only 2 of 10 second downs. In the second half, that increased to 12 of 15 first downs, and 7 of 15 second downs.

If that’s a continued to trend, then you might begin to see the Falcons try to use their base package more traditionally, such as playing with it on first and second down, and then moving to the nickel on third downs and other obvious passing downs. Mike Nolan is going to continue to adjust to his opponent. The increase in base package plays against San Diego and Carolina had a lot to do with the offenses they run vs. that of Kansas City and Denver. But it does seem like he’s slowly trying to get Akeem Dent more reps as the season wears on and slowly build up his confidence.

It’s still early in the season, and it’s only two games that we’re really judging. But it is certainly something to keep your eyes on in future games, and it’s something that I’m looking forward to looking back at in two weeks when the Falcons are off during their bye to see what if/any progress is made.

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Aaron Freeman
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