I think we all knew coming out of the 2012 season that the Seahawks needed to address the nickel corner -- or, slot cornerback position -- for use against against three-wide sets or obvious passing schemes. There is no doubt that Marcus Trufant struggled at times that year, and that fans often tore their hair out on 3rd and long when the slot guy would eventually work free from coverage. I even admit that I was one leading the cheers for this change at the time.
So in explaining why we were all a bit myopic in our view of Trufant at the time, I hope to help us all better understand the demands that are in store for Jeremy Lane.
The basic idea of a three-receiver slot formation is to weaken your opponent by forcing them to put an extra defensive back on the field. When I asked Fieldgulls fans on twitter for a fundamental weakness of the nickel package last week, Patrick (@pk_sea) responded: "One less linebacker?"
Seems simple right? Well, it sounds that way but now you're asking a corner to pick up double duty as a run defender and needing him to be a catalyst to fighting off screens. As a slot corner you have to be aware of so much more than just the route of your man and the biggest key to your success in nickel is how physical this guy can play. What I'm saying is, Deion Sanders would not necessarily be considered nickel material.
When Marcus earned the job as the nickel corner at the time, Seattle had few options -- Walter Thurmond was hurt again and Byron Maxwell at the time lacked that natural quickness to play in the slot. Trufant was a selection of necessity, but he also had a track record that Lane couldn't boast about and so with that being his only competition, he held the job for his physical presence despite obvious weaknesses.
Teams like Denver this last season and the Patriots in the early dynasty days utilized three-receiver sets nearly exclusively to help them run the ball better and isolate a more one dimensional player. There aren't a ton of good corners in this league, let alone perfect packaged players that can handle everything in the nickel situation, and most players give up something, either deeper pass defense or run defense (screens are counted as runs because they involve defeating blockers.)
Below are two diagrams of nickel versus this personnel grouping -- thanks to Danny Kelly for the help!
1) This is a basic three-wide set that features a tight end.
In decades past this set might feature a fullback instead of a tight end. This was actually a pretty common formation with Mack Strong and Shaun Alexander during Seattle's early-mid-2000's run or with Curt Warner and John L. Williams, way back in the day. However, with the rise of more athletic physical and speedy tight ends, teams have opted to use fullbacks less and less.
2) This is a split back formation.
This is harder to defend for aggressive linebackers who want to attack quickly, because now flare passes to the back (passes that are thrown laterally into flat patterns) become a threat. This makes it tough for them to try and hang or defend passes in the mid range over the middle of the field. Without a nickel, who can fight off a block, those flare passes can turn into long gains because both the safeties and the linebackers will need time to close the distance. A great nickle makes the difference here.
This was actually the play used at least twice a game on key third downs by the Patriots in their first Super Bowl seasons. Halfback Kevin Faulk built a career out of catching these passes and forcing the nickel corner to come up and make a play. Usually they couldn't. The only team ever to truly take down this look were the Miami Dolphins, who could play tough man coverage at every corner spot and because of this, they were the only team that ever consistently roughed up those Pats teams.
So, we've got the basic needs, expectations and weaknesses laid out. I was originally going to just try to tackle how Jeremy Lane fits into the departed Walter Thurmond role, but unfortunately Pete Carroll and Dan Quinn had other plans and schemes for me in mind.
From the first defensive play of the Week 13 Saints game, it was clear that it would only be "true nickel" on obvious passing downs, where Jeremy Lane could focus strictly on coverage and not fighting off blocks necessarily.
All the other downs with three New Orleans receivers featured either Bruce Irvin in nickle ( slot role) or in a 4-3 under scheme against bunch formations. Though Bruce's day was pretty quiet, he was the key to Seattle's 34-7 victory. Let me show you what I mean.
[First Quarter 15:00 1st and 10 Run to the right loss of four tackle made by Brandon Mebane on Pierre Thomas]
Right from the get-go, the Saints use their three-man formation with Marques Colston in the slot. What you'll notice here is twofold.
1) Bruce Irvin is in a 4-3 Under look and 2) The Seahawks expect run with this look, so Chancellor is singled up with Colston in a single high formation.
The whole reason this works is because Kam can play dominant physical football and Colston is the ideal matchup for him here. Colston won't beat you deep even if somehow he shakes loose from Kam, and it's a pass.
[First Quarter 5:41 3rd and 9 Pass to Darren Sproles tackled by KJ Wright. Gain of 2]
This is the first play where Jeremy Lane sees the ball come at him. The previous two plays he played some soft zone underneath against the spread formations.
One thing to note during the execution of this play, Sherman actually re-sets the position of Lane and K.J. Wright before the snap, putting them in a more ideal matchup. Sherman's awareness here actually makes the perfect angle for Wright.
[First Quarter 1:55 1st and 10 Pass to Pierre Thomas gain of nine. Tackled by Bobby Wagner]
I make note of this play for a couple of reasons: first, the Saints are clearly trying to challenge press coverage with bunch formations. In this case, they want to cause a traffic jam, and hopefully shake someone loose. Fortunately for them, the play pushes both KJ and Bruce out of the middle of the field and gives Pierre Thomas space to work with to get open against Wagner.
It's clear through this quarter that Seattle is not going to get suckered into putting more coverage players on the field as New Orleans lacks the team speed to for that to be necessary. So far, it's been about Bruce Irvin and Kam Chancellor being too physical for the motion, rub or pick gimmicks the Saints like.
[2nd Quarter 12:27 3rd and 4 Pass to Marques Colston complete tackle made by Kam Chancellor first down]
This is the perfect example of how Lane has been utilized here. The Saints use a bunch formation again, but watch what Seattle does in response: Maxwell bails deep, Chancellor comes down, and Lane works his guy to the sideline with good legal contact in the 5-yard window.
(You have to qualify that now as many fans forget there is five yards to go to work for a corner) Chancellor is a little late responding to Colston's hook at the sticks, but again, Seattle isn't putting Lane in position to have to work in traffic.
[3rd Quarter 12:31 1st and 18 following penalty. Blitz; pass incomplete, intended for Marques Colston.]
The Seahawks are faced with Jimmy Graham in the slot, and stay in a base formation. Irvin shows pressure here. I bring this play up because fans have repeatedly asked me and others if Bruce Irvin would return to being the LEO rusher with the exit of Chris Clemons.
This play and others are a great illustration of why I think he is perfectly suited to play linebacker and won't return to the LEO position unless it's a spot duty in a specialty package (that's what Dan Quinn has indicated his role will be.)
As you'll note above, with Jimmy split out in the slot, Clemons and Irvin are standing at the edges of the New Orleans line. With 1st and 18 being the nature of the task, Seattle guesses right on a pass and sends both Wagner and Irvin on the blitz. Note that this is also done next to Red Bryant, who forces a double team with his size and this gives Irvin and Wagner favorable matchups on their rushes.
Irvin eats Jed Collins' attempt at a block here and Wagner nearly pops free. This forces Drew Brees to try and cut it loose, but the ideal matchup with Graham doesn't appear because K.J. Wright takes him on perfectly. The next chance is Colston but by then Brees is under heavy pressure and has to dump the ball to the turf in an attempt to try and lead his receiver open.
[3rd Quarter 11:57 2nd and 23 Pass incomplete broken up by Sherman intended for Colston.]
The first honest to God nickel defense since the second quarter. Jeremy Lane takes on Lance Moore, gets perfect coverage, and Robert Meechum is covered by Byron Maxwell.
This looks to me like an all go kind of play where Brees is looking to something up the sideline. Nothing appears and they should have gotten OPI on the end of this play with Sherman. The spotlight is Lane though, I love how he plays his coverage -- he's careful to turn his contact loose once he's in position The "hip pocket of his guy." It's technical excellence and though he's had minimal opportunities he's playing very much in the game every time he's on the field. No lack of concentration here.
Side note: I'm sure by now you're asking why Seattle does this and other teams would put a corner on guys like Graham in the slot. Well, Seattle just has a unique set of players.
Many linebackers just can't play in straight-up space. This means that either their mental ability to assess and deal with plays in space is bad or they just physically have one speed; the stopping, starting and drifting in coverage causes a problem for them.
There aren't a lot of K.J.'s or Irvins out there, so teams will often try to make due in two fashions: One, they will find a slightly bigger corner, someone near six-feet, 200 pounds, who can play in that space, or they can sometimes have a specialty linebacker who can line up in that position more like a DB. He's a bit lighter, but his coverage skills outweigh his run defense. Think of former Seahawks linebacker Will Herring.
Another way that is a little less common but sometimes utilized is using a backup safety as your nickel player. The ability to play both the pass and the run makes them fit, but it's rare that they have the starting speed (off the snap) to hang with quicker inside receivers.
The truth here also is that Seattle knows the team speed of the Saints. It was clear from their play selection that they did not view the Saints as a team that required exotic coverages or other gimmicks and so they had very specific duties for Lane.
This applied the next week against the 49ers and even against Arizona. They really didn't use Lane all that much, and played even more single high safety than normal.
So what do they do this year?
The Packers alone are a dangerous threat with team speed and will force Jeremy Lane onto the field out of need. They won't be able to scheme around him, and despite where I said I thought they hid him, I still think his natural instincts for coverage and finding the ball in the air make him the ideal choice to win the Nickel corner job.
The only other teams that may force Seattle to match up more in nickel are the Rams, Cowboys and Eagles. The rest of the team's corps of receivers don't really force the issue there, maybe the Broncos.
Seattle played about 42% of their defensive snaps in nickel formations last year and I would expect that number to jump with teams looking to eliminate one of the Seahawks' linebackers from the equation. This doesn't mean you'll force them to do it. It'll be entirely the Seahawks' coaching staff's choice as to how and when Jeremy Lane takes the field.
Walter Thurmond was a guy they weren't afraid to just put out there last year, in even obvious run schemes. He was big, physical, and long, and could get off blocks on quick screens the way Lane with his slightly smaller build can't.
It'll be interesting to see how they approach the nickel package this year because as I said it'll be even more necessary with the high powered passing attacks coming the Seahawks' way.