Reloaded: The Bandit and the Big Nickel

ST. LOUIS - OCTOBER 03: Sam Bradford #8 of the St. Louis Rams is hit by Lawyer Milloy #36 of the Seattle Seahawks during the first half on October 3 2010 at Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis Missouri. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

I originally published this article on May 1st, but thought it was applicable to reload now to complement my column from this morning on defensive sub-packages in the NFL as spread offenses become more prevalent. Below, I break down the Bandit package and the use of Atari Bigby last season in the "big nickel" role.

-- "The later you go in the draft the more holes, limitations, flaws a player has. Success becomes a function of how he's utilized. In era of sub-packages a lot of players contribute, even if they play 12-15 snaps per game. Often the key is finding/defining a role."

These comments by Greg Cosell, combined with the so-called "Atari Bigby" role that the Seahawks apparently envision for recent draftee Winston Guy, who is another in a long line of defensive back prospects taken by this front office, piqued my interest. I went back and looked into old articles and personnel group tracking pieces by Chad Davis and Brian McIntyre to give myself a better idea of why the Seahawks have drafted so many defensive backs over the last three seasons and though I have no conclusion for you, I can offer some theories. In most basic terms, teams run more defensive sub-packages with an extra safety(ies) or corner(s) to combat the increased usage of spread offense principles. There are some teams out there that feature 3+ WRs a majority of the time.

Specifically pertaining to the Seahawks though - is this the only reason they've made such a major investment in defensive backs? Is the 'bandit' formation (seven defensive backs) coming back? Is this just normal churn to improve the roster?

In 2010, the Seahawks broke out the "bandit" package (essentially a 3-1-7) in Pete Carroll's first year as head coach and had some pretty decent success with it. With athletic and versatile defensive backs in Lawyer Milloy, Jordan Babineaux, Roy Lewis, and a burgeoning Kam Chancellor, the Hawks used those four pieces - plus two corners (Marcus Trufant, Kelly Jennings/Walter Thurmond) and Earl Thomas - as interchangeable parts. Milloy, Babs, Lewis and Kam were all good in run support, adequate in pass coverage, and adept at blitzing. This formation was usually used on third downs, where the opposing team was likely going to pass and was/is effective because you can disguise your intentions, move people around, and attack the quarterback from different angles. In simple terms, it's a creative way to get a pass rush while maintaining an ability to cover receivers, tight ends, and running backs.

Basically - the Hawks would set up with three down linemen - typically Craig Terrill in the middle, and flanked on either side by Raheem Brock and Chris Clemons. They'd have Lofa Tatupu in the middle and the corners on the outside, then show variable looks from the remaining seven defensive backs.

Here's one example, from Week 7 in 2010 against the Cardinals at home. The Cardinals ran a nice screen play on this and grabbed a first down.

2010_pt_2_large

In the following look, the Seahawks mainly dropped back into coverage and Roy Lewis had a ball go right through his hands for a near-interception.

2010_pt_1_large

Said Carroll at the time:

"If you feel okay about your guys rushing, which some teams don't, then they can rush, they can drop, they can cover 'backs. A guy who's on the line of scrimmage can end up being a deep defender and so you just give yourself a variety of things that you can do and interchange some parts and stuff and try to make it difficult."

"It's a fun package for the guys to play, because a lot of guys get to do things," Carroll said. "We're utilizing Lawyer in ways and Babineaux in ways that they give us unique stuff. It's nice also to get Kam Chancellor on the field in the package so that he can play some, there are just some things that he does well. Earl has some stuff that he does that's kind of unique, so that's all part of it. We're just trying to be very multiple in that because of the availability of the movement."

Lawyer Milloy explained it back then, noting:

"When you have six, seven guys out there as (defensive backs) that are pretty interchangeable, it makes it really tough for a team to know where you're coming from."

He elaborated - "(The offensive linemen) don't know where to go. They point out the protection and once you get that little small mix-up, then someone is coming scott free," Lewis said. "It's giving the offense a lot of problems and we look forward to having those packages on the field because we've got guys that can cover, pass rush and make tackles."

Craig Terrill - "Obviously there are three men up front. But then you've got a mixture of Lawyer and Lofa and the other guys out there who can come from any direction. We can rush three, and flood the field with coverage players; or we can rush as many as we like. It's a good pass defense."

The key for this package was that Milloy, Lofa Tatupu, Roy Lewis, and Big Play Babs were all good blitzers. They were all capable run defenders - which is very important to Pete Carroll, and could all play the pass. This defense, along with even more frequent nickel and dime packages that pushed the sub-package snap count numbers upwards of 40-50% of the total that year (just perusing Brian McIntyre's personnel tracking) - was all but abandoned in 2011 with the departure of Tats, Milloy, Babineaux, and Lewis for the first six games on the PUP.

Draftee Byron Maxwell was hurt for a good part of the year and Mark Legree didn't make the final roster to start the season. Kelly Jennings was traded and Walter Thurmond was the team's primary nickelback until he got hurt. Depth was tested when Trufant was placed on the IR.

That left the Seahawks playing out of their base personnel in what seemed to be a vast majority of the time. Towards the end of the season, Roy Lewis was off the PUP and back to full speed and he saw major snaps in the nickel looks for the Hawks and Atari Bigby, while his first role was as Chancellor's backup, came in sparingly as well in certain packages.

Overall, though, I could probably count on two hands the number of times the Hawks employed the Bandit, and the dime was used sparingly as well. It's been talked about a lot here, but one possible reason for this is that it's tough to gameplan in a 6- or 7-DB package when you're running low on quality players at that position. The Hawks, I assume, just didn't feel comfortable with guys like Kennard Cox, Phillip Adams, or even a hobbled Byron Maxwell getting significant time.

Now, it's tough to put a precise description on the "Atari Bigby" role even though that phrase has been used a few times here and by different beat writers (and the front office), because his 'role' wasn't super specific. If I have one memory of him though that carries over from the season - note he was used rather sparingly - four to six snaps per game toward the end of the year - it was that of Bigby behind the line of scrimmage blowing up a run play or putting pressure on the quarterback on a lot of his snaps. From memory - he was a 'big nickel' that was best against the run and at applying pressure to the QB that was typically brought in to counter two tight end sets. He was more physical than his size would indicate and he made the most of the small amount of time he got on the field.

In the look below, Week 16 vs the Niners, you can see Kam Chancellor up on the line filling in for K.J. Wright in marking Vernon Davis, and behind him Atari Bigby looks to be in man-coverage of TE Delanie Walker.

Screen_shot_2012-05-01_at_9

The Niners show an end around and Gore is meant to run up the middle. The pile closes up quickly so Gore looks to bounce it outside. Bigby shows nice closing speed and tracks down the run play from the opposite side.

Screen_shot_2012-05-01_at_9Screen_shot_2012-05-01_at_9

That's just one example, but if memory serves correctly, Bigby was in on some nice plays and did a good job in his limited role.

In addition to the occasional nickel package usage, Bigby got a lot of his snaps in the 5-2-4 goal line looks because of his toughness and physicality, ability to sneak through holes in the line to blow up plays, but also his ability to see and play the pass. He's an in-the-box safety but some ability to run in coverage - something the Hawks have been churning for over the last two seasons.

....

For now, the question remains - will the Bandit make a comeback this year or was it just a short-term patch to create some pressure on the opposing quarterbacks? In 2010, the Seahawks weren't exactly flush in pass rushing defensive linemen so they used the defensive backs they had at the time, a strength roster-wise, to compensate. It's a hallmark of Carroll's tenure here - adapt players and their unique traits to fit the defense and visa versa. Now that the team has acquired some players that could likely provide a little bit better pass rush - namely Bruce Irvin and Jason Jones, the 3-1-7 looks might be unnecessary. Still, this attention to the position makes you wonder. Two more defensive back picks this year after three in 2011 and two in 2010. Maybe Carroll just loves his DBs.

My guess would be that you could see the Bandit now and again going forward - if healthy the Hawks have built up some nice depth at the position and Carroll does like to get his young guys on the field early. More than the Bandit though, you'll probably simply see an increased usage of nickel and dime packages. The Hawks have very interesting personnel on defense as a whole, and the bottom line of this post is that it's pretty tough to predict what types of schemes Gus Bradley and Pete Carroll will favor in 2012. That's kind of the beauty of it though.

Jason Jones and Jaye Howard provide a boost as interior pass rushers and Carroll/Schneider were apparently very excited to grab Greg Scruggs late in the draft as a raw, physical freak 3-tech defensive tackle [note: Schneider recently said Scruggs will primarily start as a 5-tech prospect]. This should, in theory, improve the interior pass rush capability and some or all of these guys should see usage in the defensive line rotation.

Bruce Irvin will play the Raheem Brock role and will get a nice amount of snaps. I expect that the Hawks may try and get some snaps for Dexter Davis (assuming he makes the roster) and he brings a nice pass rushing ability to the table. I'm not banking on it, but if Davis flames out, I'm still intrigued with Jameson Konz' ability to get some snaps, and knowing how high the Hawks are on 6'3, 245 lb Bruce Irvin and his speed, the 6'3, 235 lb (probably up now) Konz has comparable speed (4.4 40) and explosiveness (46" vert), and played Sam linebacker in college for three years as well.

The Hawks' new linebacker corps is much faster and better in coverage so with Bobby Wagner and Korey Toomer's versatility it will be interesting to find out how they're used. Malcolm Smith, Mike Morgan, Matt McCoy, Barrett Ruud - where do these guys fit in?

[Note: Per Sander Philipse of BucsNation via Thomas Beekers, the Buccaneers had Barrett Ruud match up in one-on-one against the likes of Reggie Bush while Ruud was in Tampa Bay, so he makes a likely candidate for a nickelback role, perhaps in the similar vein of a Will Herring.]

Cosell - "In era of sub-packages a lot of players contribute, even if they play 12-15 snaps per game. Often the key is finding/defining a role." These roles will be carved out in training camp and the preseason, and will be fun to watch.

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