The Big Nickle. Every team has one, and the New England Patriots are why.
Thanks to the Patriots innovation and forward thinking, more and more teams are turning to the athletic and speedy tight end combinations that present a whole boatload of match up problems for a defense, particularly since this new breed of tight end are equally effective in the passing game and as an in-line blocker in the running game - and teams have to be prepared to defend both.
Hence, the Big Nickle or, if you prefer, the nickle Safety.
This is the guy that runs like a cornerback, has the instincts of a safety and hits like a linebacker – and he must be proficient at all three…
…and since their primary task is to wear athletic tight ends like Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez like impromptu underwear – to limit their effectiveness while lending a shoulder in run support, it’s safe to say that the position has a few more rungs yet to go on the evolutionary ladder.
Linebackers are generally too slow to keep up with the likes of Gronk, certainly too slow for Hernandez, and corners are too small…but a big physical safety with speed, angle awareness, strength and a nasty streak fits just right.
The Patriots drafted Tavon Wilson in the 2nd round this season to fill that role, but it has become clear that while Wilson looks like a nickle safety and has all the tools of a nickle safety he doesn’t have the natural instincts – so as with many in his position in the evolutionary process, he’s going to take time and work.
There are the exceptions, the ones who are naturals – but they are few and far between. The Ravens have Bernard Pollard, the Jets’ LaRon Landry, and the Steelers have Troy Polamalu, when he can stay healthy…and since moving from cornerback to safety in 2010, Houston’s Glover Quin is on the fast track to possessing that kind of effectiveness.
Not one looking to deliver the big hit, the 4th round selection out of New Mexico in 2009 focuses more on technique, on defending the pass and on wrapping up and taking down his prey if the ball does get there. In run support he fills the box well as an extra linebacker and will blitz if his key stays in to block.
The 26 year old Safety is second only to, yes, J.J. Watt in tackles for the Texans, totaling 64 solo stops on the season and 14 passes defended, again, second to Watt in that category. But while Watt gets his thrills at the line of scrimmage, Quin is all over the place registering a sack and two interceptions and forced fumbles each.
Quin has decent size, and it remains to be seen where he matches up against the Patriots. His 4.5 speed matches that of Hernandez, but none of Texans defenders had luck covering the Rainmaker on December 10th when he caught all seven balls thrown his direction.
Gronkowski didn’t play in that beat down when the teams last met, so there’s not a body of work from which to gauge him on in that respect, but the week 12 Defensive Player of the Week was an active presence with 7 solos and 2 helpers plus a pass defended.
The Texans most definitely have bigger names in Watt, Cody and Reed on the line, linebackers Barwin, Ruud, James and Mercilus, corners Joseph and Jackson and even fellow safety Danieal Manning, but his role against the Patriots may be the most vital.
And if he can somehow disrupt the Patriots lethal Tight End combination, he won’t be playing in anonymity much longer.