One of the most consistent themes of CampTour'12 has been the frequency with which we can expect NFC North teams to abandon their base defenses and shift into nickel or dime formations. It's based on an assumption that a majority of our teams will use extensive three-plus receiver sets, and in many cases it mitigates or helps explain roster holes that we've probably spent too much time obsessing about.
"It seems like everyone is in three or four wide receivers in this league nowadays," Minnesota Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield said. "Especially in this division, you need to look at [the nickel as your starting defense.] Look at Detroit, Green Bay and Chicago. They're going to throw it all over the field."
The chart shows how often each NFC North team spent with at least five defensive backs on the field last season. The only defensive coaching change occurred with the Vikings, who hired Alan Williams to assist coach Leslie Frazier in maintaining his Tampa-2 structure, so in general there have been no scheme changes for the 2012 season.
Only the Detroit Lions ranked in the lower half of the NFL for using extra defensive backs in 2011, a schematic philosophy based largely on faith in their dominant defensive line as well as their athletic set of linebackers. Otherwise, the rest of our division actually used five defensive backs more frequently than they played their base defense in 2011, and the Packers used it more than any other team in the NFL.
That's why the "shift" of Charles Woodson to safety in the Packers' base defense isn't as dramatic as it might sound. If the Packers come close to last season's percentage, Woodson will be a true safety on perhaps 10 plays in a 70-play game. On the rest, he'll be a slot cornerback, where he's played extensively for several years now.
Plans to use the nickel help explain why the Bears loaded up at cornerback this offseason, signing Kelvin Hayden to compete with Tim Jennings for a starting job while maintaining D.J. Moore as the nickel. It also helps us understand why the Bears didn't prioritize linebacker deptn; in their nickel defense, linebacker Nick Roach comes off the field. That means the player in Roach's strong-side spot would play less than half of the Bears' plays this season. In terms of playing time, he's a part-time player.
The same is likely true for Vikings middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, who has replaced E.J. Henderson amid much hand-wringing and concern about his skills in pass coverage. Brinkley will be forced to defend the pass at some point, but if the Vikings implement their nickel the way they have in recent years, Brinkley is likely to come off the field for more than half of the Vikings' plays. Their two full-time linebackers likely will be Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson.
We can't predict if the NFC North will debut any new wrinkles to defend the pass this season, but there aren't too many options. We can keep track, and we will, and the guess here is that the division's true base defense will be the nickel.