NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
Defenses adapt to what their counterparts show them. But with all the creating and countering going on between football minds, team personnel changes are prevalent.
In this era, there’s the 4-3 base alignment, the 3-4 base alignment and hybrid variations of both. Gone are the days of a full-time 5-2 or 4-6 defense where big, burly tacklers roamed the trenches. Those men have been replaced with speedy defensive backs, all because offenses like to pass the football.
And offenses like to pass the football a lot.
Last season, 17,788 passes were attempted in the NFL. Defenses are being forced to spend more time in sub packages with five or more defensive backs as a result.
Nowadays, it takes more than just two cornerbacks and two safeties to make it out of a defensive series alive. With all the three-receiver sets, defenses need someone playing the slot so the safeties can stay over top.
Enter the nickelback.
Just last season, 2,881 pass attempts were targeted towards defenders playing in the slot, according to Pro Football Focus premium statistics. That’s a lot of demand at a position once reserved for a backup cornerback.
The reality is that nickelbacks are no longer backups; they’re full-fledged starters. The New England Patriots are well aware of this. And so is “starting” nickelback Kyle Arrington.
In 2012, the Patriots defense spent 57.4 percent of snaps in the sub package and just 39.4 percent of snaps in the base defense, per Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston. Arrington was a critical component in that five-plus secondary, manning 265 snaps out of the slot.
Operating out of the slot was a welcomed change of scenery for Arrington. The undrafted Hofstra product outside and intercepted seven passes in 2011. That said, he was held responsible for 817 receiving yards and five touchdowns, which put him on the receiving end of criticism.
The 5’10”, 190-pounder had shown a tendency to get turned around by receivers. And more often than not, that tendency led to big gains via catches or penalty flags. That was even the case early last fall, particularly versus the Baltimore Ravens in Week 3.
On a 1st-and-10 in the second quarter, Arrington was lined up as the right cornerback in man against Baltimore’s Torrey Smith.
The 6’0”, 205-pound Smith ran a double-move fade route up the numbers, losing Arrington with his footwork just five yards off the snap as the rest of the defense was stuck in a 4-3 look.
Arrington’s hips stayed square after Smith cut outside, leaving the corner strides behind as a pass from quarterback Joe Flacco sailed in.
Just prior to Smith landing a touchdown, Arrington had his back to the ball and his arms up in the air in a last-ditch effort to disrupt a play that was derailed 20 yards ago.
The start of last season may have gotten off on a bad foot for Arrington. But before long, he was put in a position where he could succeed.
The arrival of Aqib Talib, the emergence of Alfonzo Dennard and the free safety conversion of Devin McCourty all helped release the pressure valve from Arrington. He was moved exclusively inside, barring injuries.
A Pursuer in the Open Field
Arrington’s transition to nickel took him off an island. He was free to help. He was also free to do what he can do best: make stops in the open field.
A former special teamer, Arrington is adept when it comes to hunting the ball-carrier in space. He only missed five tackles all of last season and ranked as the 14th-best NFL cornerback in terms of tackling efficiency.
When the Patriots visited the Buffalo Bills in Week 4, Arrington showed how his presence in the slot can hit the lights on an offensive surge.
With Buffalo in “11” personnel with running back Fred Jackson flanking quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and tight end Scott Chandler in the seam, Arrington went on a nickel blitz.
Arrington swarmed towards Fitzpatrick, who was waiting for Jackson to slip out into the flats on a screen pass.
Fitzpatrick dumped the ball off to Jackson, who ran up the left sideline. Meanwhile, Arrington changed direction and set his sights on Jackson.
After beginning 15 yards away from Jackson’s grab, Arrington accelerated up through the blocks and wrapped up Jackson, preventing a 16-yard gain from being more.
Arrington’s ability to rush the passer, switch field and make a form tackle on a rusher is unheralded. He can do more than maintain an even keel, stalling a runners in their tracks.
He can chase them down as well.
There are a lot of outside corners who don’t have the skillset to be a factor after the catch or after the hand-off. It’s an undervalued trait.
Physical Coverage Underneath
As New England’s nickelback last campaign, Arrington gave up 26 receptions on 42 throws for 424 yards and three touchdowns.
While those numbers do not stand out as particularly great, they are not particularly poor, either. Arrington did allow a lower catch rate than the likes of Talib, Antoine Winfield and Dunta Robinson, as cited by Pro Football Focus.
Comfortable retreating to the ball more than back-shouldering coverage over the top, Arrington is very tough to fend off underneath. He proved that against the New York Jets during Week 12 of last season, lining up down at the goal line versus tight end Dustin Keller.
As Keller got off the line of scrimmage to run a comeback route, Arrington was there to greet him. The DB jammed the 6’2”, 255-pounder out of his intended path, which slowed down the progressions of QB Mark Sanchez.
Keller fought back to the ball, while Arrington continued to distract the pass-catcher’s plans. But as wideouts Stephen Hill and Jeremy Kerley spread up and out, the center of the field was going to be the most open option.
Arrington, however, was facing the passer and had enough reaction time to make a play on the ball. He closed in behind Keller, swung his arm around his side and knocked down what could have been a touchdown.
It was one of 11 pass deflections Arrington recorded in 2012. That output was good for second on the team.
Arrington may not have the straight-line speed to shade the best and the brightest outside targets. He may not have the footwork to compete with shifty double moves of nuanced route-runners. He may turn his back on the ball down the sideline and pay for it, too. But what Arrington can do is close down the open field and make plays back on the ball.
He’s built to be a nickelback.
If the Patriots organization didn’t think he could be one, he wouldn’t have been given a four-year deal with $7.5 million guaranteed this offseason.
Arrington, who has donned Nos. 27 and 24 over the last four years, will be wearing No. 25 this fall. And he’ll be wearing No. 25 in his newfound home: the slot.