A few days ago Kyle Rodriguez published an excellent article detailing how defensive lineman are used in the Colts' base 3-4 defense. Mostly due to my own insatiable football curiosity, I decided to examine how the Colts use defensive linemen in their most commonly used sub-package: the nickel defense.
I touched on how they use their outside linebackers in my article for Football Outsiders last year, so I went back to the film this year to look at the guys doing the dirty work inside. Since the Colts have three different labels for their interior linemen (Nose Tackle, Defensive Tackle, and Defensive End), I was curious to see how they line up in nickel situations, and more specifically, who they line up.
I looked at highlights from every Colts game in the 2012 regular season (just the free ones on NFL.com, but maybe someday in the distant future some charitable blog will pay for me to get an All-22 subscription) and found 52 clips where the Colts lined up with five defensive backs. The new regime mixes it up a lot with both personnel and scheme; it's far less predictable for opposing offenses and, to be honest, far more exciting to watch as a football fan.
Chuck Pagano has given his defense the moniker "hybrid", and it is the nickel package (utilizing five defensive backs) that makes it such. The defense does not simply switch between a 3-4 and a 4-3 at random; the Colts use their base defense in run situations and they sub out at least one defensive lineman in passing situations, frequently resulting in a familiar four man front. However, unlike the days of the Dungy cover-2, anything can happen after the snap.
The Colts' most common nickel alignment, and the most conservative, is one down-lineman in an A-gap and another in a B-gap:
The Colts can play the 2 gap style explained in other-Kyle's article out of this formation, and they often use this alignment in situations where the offense could execute a running play but probably won't (2nd and long, 3rd and short). The Colts used a sub-package to match up with "11 personnel" (one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers) the 5th least of any team in 2012, but this alignment is effective when matching up with multiple reciever sets on what would normally be running downs.
The Colts were in this alignment on half of the 52 plays I reviewed, and this is probably their go-to alignment when they are facing hurry up situations.
When Pagano thinks the offense is going to pass, the defensive linemen will shoot the gaps in true Tampa-2 style. The Colts often use a wider interior defensive alignment and pair this technique with aggressive blitzes or stunts. In the picture below, both linemen are aligned in a B-gap:
In this aligment, the Colts usually blitz the A gaps with one or both middle linebackers or feign such a blitz before dropping the linebacker(s) into coverage. Similarly, the Colts will line up a DT or NT directly over the center (0 technique) and a DE in the C gap and then use a stunt to generate interior pass rush or a blitz from the opposite side.
When the opposing offense is in a situation where it is completely imperative for them to pass, the Colts can get creative and exotic. On five out of the 52 plays I reviewed, the Colts used only one defensive lineman (DE Cory Redding on four of the five plays) and brought in an extra pass rushing linebacker (usually the now departed OLB Jerry Hughes). This is sort of a Hybrid 3-4 version of the New York Giants' NASCAR package:
The defensive lineman plays 0 technique (as above) or even moves around in a 2-pt stance, and any number of blitzers can join in the fun. The Colts will also use the same alignment but then drop all but three pass rushers into coverage. The coaches have alluded to putting new acquisitions Eric Walden and rookie Bjoern Werner on the field at the same time, and this is one formation that allows both to provide a pass rush alongside Robert Mathis.
With all the new faces on the defensive line, I was hoping my research would divulge the exact positions or players that the Colts use in nickel sub-packages. Whether it was based on matchups, injuries, player rotation, or tactical method, the Colts seemed willing to use any combination of NTs, DTs, and DEs in nickel situations. The most frequent combination, used in 18 out of the 52 plays, was one DE and one DT. Two DEs were used simultaneously 10 out 52 times, and NTs were on the field for 14 of the nickel lineups.
The player who appeared most frequently was DE Cory Redding, who showed up in 33 of the 52 alignments despite missing two games and leaving early with injury in at least two others. According to Football Outsiders, Redding was on the field for 55% of all defensive snaps last year, the most of any defensive lineman even though he missed time. Part of the reason he played so frequently is his versatility; he lined up anywhere along the defensive front from 0 Technique to C gaps.
The Colts have a lot more options on the defensive line heading into next season, and I expect to see a variety of line combinations when the lights turn on. Although DT Ricky Jean Francois is one of the lighter lineman on the roster, listed at 297 lbs, he has been touted for his versatility and his ability to play multiple positions along the defensive front; pairing him with Cory Redding on passing downs could make for some dynamic action in 2013.