Thursday, January 19, 2012

Linebacker Play in the 46 Nickel

Well here's the next installment of our 46 Nickel posts!  Linebacker play in this defense is probably unlike any other you've seen.  Basing out of nickle personnel, usually means the 3-3 or 4-2 as your base defense.  I chose the 3-3, since a lot of 3-4 teams find shifting to the 46 simpler than the 4 man line.  Main reason is in the 4 man scheme, all 4 of your defensive linemen (DL) are taught block down step down (BDSD), and when kicked into the 46, the weak defensive end (DE) must now learn to play force.  Not rocket science, but it is another skill that this player must learn.  So I chose the 3-3 as my base, utilizing three linebackers, the Sam (strong side outside linebacker), Mike (middle linebacker), and Rush (weakside outside linebacker).  Now, so far, I've never been the 3-3, but it's in my playbook.  I purposely developed this defense to attack teams that are on our schedule which includes the following:

  1. Appalachian State Spread
  2. Rich Rodriguez Spread
  3. Multi-formation (Pro I as a base)
  4. Run and Shoot Spread
  5. 1 Back Under Center Zone (Wisconsin-style run game)
  6. Urban Meyer Spread
So as you can see, I needed something to defend the spread!  Now I know a lot of you are going "The 46...really?".  Well go here to learn more on how I found out about this defense.

Anyhow, let's look at our base alignment in the 46 Nickel.  As you can see, there is only one of our three LB's that align off the LOS.  I know...odd, but hear me out.  I needed guys that can play in space, cover and rush the passer, so I utilized LB types at what many would consider DE's.  Yes, the OLB's job is simple, play force, contain the passer and on certain blitzes and zone coverages they will drop.  Let's look at the type of player needed to play LB in the 46 Nickel.


The Sam is the LB I always set to the field.  He's the quickest, and most athletic of the three LB's.  There's a variety of techniques this player can use, however he is not BDSD.  He keeps outside shoulder free at all times.  I teach for both the Sam and Rush to rush the near shoulder of the near back.  This gives them a clear and concise aiming point.  I do teach them to key the near hip of the near offensive lineman as well.  The Sam will be involved in some coverage as a peel rusher on certain blitzes.  The Sam is also the LB that drops to the strong hook zone in cover three.  So, as you can see he must be very versatile. 

The Rush is not much different than the Sam, however he can be a stand up DE if need be.  He rarely drops to cover and does have limited coverage duties as a peel rusher.  He does not need to be the most athletic player, however if you ranked them, he'd be the second best athlete of all the LB's.  His main duty is to force on run plays to the boundary, play boot, reverse, cutback (BRC) on runs away.  The Rush's keys are the same as the Sam, so the teaching is universal.  If the Rush has one quality that might be better than the Sam's is that he's a good pass rusher.  This will be his job, 90 percent of the time, so think pass rusher when you go looking for a weakside LB.

The Mike LB is a pure plugger type of LB.  Size is good, but not a must, however the absolute love to hit is a "must".  The Mike must also be somewhat of a "headsy" ball player.  He must know where to align, and what adjustments to make as he calls all the front checks as well as the formation strength.  The Mike is involved in man coverage, and depending how you run your man free (Cover 1) he may even be required to cover receivers outside the box.  At my level, I do not ask my Mike to leave the box, and he covers running backs (RB's) and tight ends (TE's) only.  This is your choice, and is the benefit of man free coverage, which is the heart and soul of the 46 Nickel.


The Sam and Rush are interchangeable in their alignments.  They will align two yards wider than the widest offensive player attached to the formation.  This puts them in a position to force, and play BRC, as well as put the offensive tackle (OT) on an island when involved in pass protection.

The Mike's alignment is dependant on the offensive personnel that the defense is facing.  Against two or three backs, the Mike aligns in a strong 40 technique.  Against one back sets, the Mike will align over the single back.  This helps him in man to man coverage, as he's aligned over his run key, and over the man he's covering.  For me, against the empty backfield, the Mike aligns over the QB.  If you're not a cover 0 guy, then your Mike would align over the #3 receiver to the strong side. 

Vs. 1 back 2x2

46 Nickel Alignment vs Empty
The Sam and Rush will key the near hip of the EMOL to their side.  If that key moves upfield or at them, they squeeze and look to force the ball back inside.  If the hip moves down inside, they squeeze and look for a trap or kickout block coming from the inside.  Again, these are force players, so they keep the outside arm free.  A "Jet" call tells them to wrong arm these kickout blocks, which now puts the Mike LB and the Whip safety as the force players.  The Jet call is used sparingly, however is very effective when teams are trap blocking your OLB's.  When they Sam or Rush gets a "high hat" read, they are rushing at the near shoulder of the near back, looking to collapse the pocket as they rush the QB.  They are also looking for the QB to flush their way, or they are looking to contain the bootleg.  If they read a quick drop, the OLB's settle their feet and look to get their hands up in an attempt to knock the pass down. 

Against the option, the Sam and Rush are the pitch players and will "feather" the QB as they are being attacked.  It is very important that these players keep their shoulders square to the LOS and break down while keeping leverage on the pitch back.  This technique is the same whether the offense is running a dive option, or a lead option.  The only time it changes is with a Jet call.  When the Jet call is given, then the OLB becomes the QB player.

The Mike LB uses a pointer system, which is exactly what Rex Ryan teaches.  What this means is that the LB will key the near back, or fullback against a two back set.  The pointer system, tells the LB that if his key is to him, then he looks to the near tackle for his read.  If this window is open, the LB will stack the inside foot of the C gap player and look to spill the ball to the outside.  If the key is away, then the eyes go to the backside guard to see if their is a pull away from action.  If the guard does pull, the LB plants and redirects to stack the inside foot of the C gap player.  If the guards action is the same as the backfield's then this backside LB should scrape across the Nose, and play the run side A gap for the cutback.  The other reaction would be to see the opposite guard "high hat" or pass set.  This alerts the LB that he is seeing a playaction pass, and will now work into his zone drop, or to his man if in man coverage.

Against one back sets, the keys are the same, except the near back is considered the single back.  The Mike LB will mirror the single back wherever he goes.  This does one of two things, first, it allows the Mike to remain in good leverage on the RB, no matter where he aligns.  It also allows the Mike to have the same leverage in the passing game when he's in man to man coverage.  This alignment keeps the reads sound and clear for the Mike LB. 

On a side note, against two back sets, the weak safety or Whip safety, is considered a LB.  The Whip's reads are the same as the Mike's, so long as there is two or three backs in the backfield.  The role of the Whip will be discussed in the secondary article coming soon!

Against the option, the inside LB's are the QB players.  They work to fit inside the load block and play inside half of QB to pitch.  This is the most important player the defense has against the option, as this prevents the dangerous cutback run on option plays by the QB.  A "heavy" call, puts this player outside the load, which is usually the free safety's (FS) job.  Just another way to defend the option from the 46 Nickel.  This is a good change up keeping the option QB on his toes.

Linebackers in Coverage

Since the 46 Nickel is a pressure based defense, man to man coverage is the basic coverage.  Man free is utilitzed in the 46 Nickel, which involves the LB's having to cover man to man in certain situtations.  In normal situations where no blitz has been called, the Sam and Rush have no pass coverage responsibilites.  They read pass, they contain the QB, it's just that simple.  If involved in a blitz, there will be times that the Sam and Rush must be peel rushers, and come off to cover a RB out of the backfield if he attempts to cross their face.  Go here to learn more about these blitzes from the 46 Nickel.

The Mike LB will be locked man to man on the near back to his alignemnt.  This is also true for the Whip safety if the offense is in a two or three back set.  If both backs are algined on the  midline, then there are two types of coverage that must be worked on, split and flow.  Split is if both backs split from the midline to either side of the center to run a pass route.  The rule here is to cover the back that came to your side. 

Flow coverage is where both backs attack the same side.  The rule here is quite simple, the LB to the flow side has the first back out and the LB away from the flow has the first back vertical.  This keeps consistent with both LB's needing to keep leverage on their respective RB's as shown in the diagrams below.

Split Coverage

Flow Coverage
The Read Rush-Setting the 46 Nickel Apart From the Rest

The read rush is a technique that can be found in any 46 scheme.  What this means is that any inside LB that is responsible for covering a RB will rush the QB if their key blocks.  This ensures that the 46 is a pressure based defense.  The fine art of teaching this technique, is that the LB MUST attack their key, they cannot leave their key.  This does two things, it can add up to two rushers to the pass rush, and it completely eliminates the screen game from hurting your pressure packed defense.  Again, the key here is for the LB to attack his key, never losing sight of his key.  Once contact his made, if the back is blocking, then the LB can make a move, but only until the LB is sure there is no screen threat, can he do this.  The read rush is a unique element to 46 defenses that allow them to appear as though everyone is blitzing, when in fact they are not.


Mike LB Pass Reads (Man Free Coverage)

Linebacker play is very important in any defense, and the 46 Nickel is no different than any defenses you've seen.  The DL play helps keep these LB's free and running, and also allows you to play a safety type player at the weakside LB.  Make no mistake though, the LB's make this defense go, their ability to do their job, is key to the success or failure of this defense.

Ok, two down one to go!  I'm also working on a piece on how the 46 Nickel will handle the dreaded flexbone triple option!  Stay tuned!