The Implications of Matt Eberflus’s Proposed Heavy Use of the Nickel Defense

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune addresses take always from the session that Bears head coach Matt Eberflus had with the media at the owners meetings.

“When asked if there is a candidate on the roster to play strong-side linebacker, Eberflus said he wasn’t sure. Ideally, the Sam linebacker would have the ability to slide inside, if needed, as a reserve. He said he doesn’t anticipate the Bears being in their base package too much, saying they could use a nickel cornerback as much as 85% of the time.

“That highlights the need at the position as the Bears are without a clear nickel or starter opposite Jaylon Johnson. They haven’t added a cornerback in free agency, although there wasn’t a particularly deep group of options. Eberflus had one of the top nickels in the NFL in Indianapolis with Kenny Moore, a former undrafted free agent. Moore is one of the many young players who really developed under Eberflus and his defensive staff.”

Thomas Graham Jr., Kindle Vildor and Duke Shelley have experience, but they will almost certainly have to compete against multiple options for playing time.

“Obviously we need to add some pieces there, and we’re excited about doing that,” Eberflus said. “Those guys have been working hard in the offseason. And we’re excited to get our hands on them and see what they could do.

If the Bears are really going to spend 85% of their time in the nickel defense then that’s going to have a lot of implications in terms of the players that they choose to join the team in the off-season. Eberflus went on to talk about what he is looking for in terms of coverage skill level for his cornerbacks. But my first thought was that the Bears are going to have to worry extensively about being able to stop the run in that defensive formation. That leads me to a few thoughts:

  1. As Eberflus pointed out, you need a versatile strong side linebacker. You might think that the Bears will pick up a strong side linebacker that will simply come out in the nickel formation. That is usually what happens because teams usually play the nickel in passing situations and strong side linebackers are typically the worst in coverage of the three positions. But in the Bears case, they may very well want to keep the strong side linebacker on the field for his ability to stop the run. It is entirely possible that, though the Bears are in nickel, on a down where the probability of a run is higher than normal they will want to keep the strong side linebacker in rather than the weak side or middle linebacker for his ability to stop the run.
  2. As Biggs pointed out, the choice of nickel back is going to be critical as well. You’re going to want a nickel who is more than the little quick guy who can cover slot receivers. You’re going to want a guy who can stick his nose in and stop the run. I don’t think the Bears have that guy on the roster right now. So I think that, though wide receiver and cornerback to pair with Johnson has to be among the early priorities in the draft, we can look for the Bears to draft somebody who they feel can play the nickel in the middle rounds. Perhaps even higher than that.
  3. One formation that has become increasingly popular in the NFL over the last 5 to 10 years is the “big nickel”. This is a nickel formation where the extra defensive back is a safety rather than a quarterback. This may very well be what Eberflus has in mind depending upon the down and distance. It would allow the Bears to be effective in stopping the run while keeping the mobility and coverage skills of a defensive back on the field. I don’t have the statistics in terms of frequency but the big nickel is certainly something that Eberflus employed with the Colts.

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