Of all the things I have been over-fascinated with during my four years of following Missouri football...well...we all know that #TightEndPassGame takes an easy first place.
But the Missouri defense’s use of the nickelback — an extra defensive back at the second level of the defense rather than another linebacker — takes second.
Hiring Brian Odom as an outside linebackers coach makes you think that maybe — just maybe — the Tigers are looking to put more emphasis on linebacker play and send the nickelback in the direction of the dodo for 2017.
But then you see T.J. Warren and Tavon Ross move to linebacker on the roster and think that maybe — just maybe — there's a spot yet for lithe, athletic safety/linebacker hybrids in the Tigers’ defense.
So what are the pluses and minuses? And how well suited is Missouri’s roster this year to field extra defensive backs in Nickel and Dime situations on a semi-regular basis?
Let’s find out, shall we?
Why the Nickel?
Mostly, because it’s good against the pass.
If you’ve got an extra defensive back in the game, chances are it’s going to improve your pass defense because the most talented coverage linebacker is still probably not as good tailing slot receivers, pass-catching tight ends or backs slipping out of the backfield as the most average defensive back.
Think Donavin Newsom — a very solid SEC linebacker and one of the best players on last year’s defense — struggling in pass coverage against West Virginia.
Plus, if you don’t have to worry as much about shredded cheese on the back end, it opens up the defensive line to rush the passer with reckless abandon.
That, as we have seen, is a preferred strategy for Missouri’s defense.
Here's a look at the past four years of the Tigers against the pass, both with an extra defensive back (Nickel, Dime, 3-front) and with base personnel in the game (4-3, 3-4):
When the Tigers played extra defensive backs predominantly (2013-14), they allowed a worse completion percentage than base personnel (61.5 versus 63.3), worse yards per attempt (6.37 versus 6.71) and a worse TD:INT ratio (27:28 to 8:2) for opposing offenses.
When they used it as a boutique look (2015-16), base personnel worked better against the pass.
Across all four years, though, Missouri was able to get to the quarterback more often with extra defensive backs on the field. More than twice as frequently, actually.
So, when Missouri has the personnel to commit to the nickelback, it’s a disruptive defense on the back end that can still get to the quarterback on the front end.
What’s the down side?
Why not the Nickel?
What you sacrifice on the run.
Because — to redeem Newsom a bit here — even the best run-stopping extra defensive back isn’t going to be as effective shedding blocks and taking down running backs as Newsom...or even a linebacker that is below his caliber.
Let’s repeat the previous study of the past four years, but this time against the run (minus sack yardage):
Over the past four years, teams have averaged 12 percent fewer yards per carry against the base personnel than they have against extra defensive backs. The Tigers have also given up as many touchdowns with extra defensive backs on the field as they did with base personnel, but in about 200 fewer carries.
Building into the “nothing worked last year” narrative, though, the base personnel rush numbers were actually worse than the extra DB numbers.
So what’s going to work this year?
How well is MU suited to lean on Nickelbacks?
In 2013, Ian Simon and Duron Singleton made up the bulk of the nickelback snaps. Both safeties, both around 6-0, 6-1 and 200 pounds. Extra defensive back sets made up 69 percent of the Tigers’ snaps.
In 2014, it was Singleton and Thomas Wilson. Both safeties, although Wilson was a little under the prototypical size. The Tigers, again, played extra defensive backs on about 69 percent of their snaps.
In 2015, it was Aarion Penton and Wilson when the Tigers played an extra defensive back — 20 percent of the time. Both are smaller than the prototypical nickel linebacker.
In 2016, when the Tigers went extra DB about 30 percent of the time, it was Warren taking most of the snaps and DeMarkus Acy, Greg Taylor, Cam Hilton, Wilson, Penton and Logan Cheadle splitting about 115 total snaps.
Most of these guys are pretty typical nickel linebackers. The ones who aren’t (Wilson, Penton, Cheadle) can play bigger than their size in the box against the run.
So who among this group becomes the nickelback? With Ronnell Perkins, Hilton, Acy and Christian Holmes listed as the starting defensive backs -- and Anthony Sherrils not really suited for the role — Cheadle and Wilson could get another look. With Warren and Ross moving to linebacker, it almost seems like their cross training with the purpose of being one of these hybrid players. Kaleb Prewett, with his major-college safety experience at Kansas State, is also an intriguing option if he doesn’t work his way into cracking the starting lineup at safety.
But how much will the Tigers prefer defensive backs over linebackers this year?
In 2015, when Missouri largely abandoned the nickelback, it was because Kentrell Brothers, Michael Scherer and Newsom were super reliable. Last year, the Tigers only started going heavier Nickel after Scherer got hurt.
So, if Missouri has three reliable starting linebackers, the tendency will probably be to use the extra defensive back as seasoning rather than spotlight.
But who are those three reliable starting linebackers? Brandon Lee? Terez Hall? Eric Beisel? Cale Garrett? Joey Burkett? All had flashes but none really cemented a spot last year.
Most of the offenses Missouri is set to face this season are trending back toward the more traditional, run-and-play-action-pass mode, so that would seem to lend itself to more 4-3 and 3-4 looks.
But this will definitely be something interesting to track as the months go by. Is the fifth defensive back proving to be a more reliable option than the third linebacker?