The “nickel” corner is a frequently misunderstood position, especially in the modern NFL. Blame Madden, blame fantasy, or blame the general idea of “the third-best guy,” but the nickel corner gets a bad rap. Even Mackensie Alexander himself had trouble adjusting to the idea of being a slot corner. But let’s double-check our perceptions. What is the nickel role in a modern defense, and how important is it?
The Minnesota Vikings have placed heavy importance on this role. In two of the last three drafts, they’ve spent picks 30 and 31, respectively, on players who ended up playing in the slot. However, neither Mike Hughes nor Jeff Gladney plays exclusively in the slot as Alexander did, and both were considered starters when healthy last year. Obviously, Hughes’ health casts much doubt on his status, but that doesn’t inform the Vikings’ intentions for him.
Now Alexander has joined the Vikings for just over the veteran minimum, and Minnesota has an embarrassment of riches in the nickel. With Cameron Dantzler and Patrick Peterson playing outside, what’s the point? Gladney may take his share of those outside reps. He increasingly played outside as the season wore on, mostly rotating with players like Kris Boyd and Chris Jones.
Even still, the slot corner can’t be a throwaway position in Minnesota. If Patrick Peterson or Cameron Dantzler get injured (or worse, suck), the Vikings will want a player to turn to. That’s because the nickel, or “star,” as Nick Saban calls it, is a vital position in the coverage schematics Mike Zimmer is looking to use. Discard your perceptions of the “third-best corner” and instead embrace the star as a defensive Swiss army knife.
Until relatively recently, the nickel or five-defensive back package was a subpackage. Most teams used two running backs, two receivers, and a tight end as their go-to personnel. So three linebackers (one for each RB and TE) and two corners were the standard. Now, three wide receiver sets dominate the league, so three corner defenses do as well.
In fact, the very idea of a base defense is fairly outdated. Defenses don’t have the luxury of putting their best players on the field, no matter the position. Saban recently recounted a story about how important it is to match personnel.
So what does the star do? The role is far more expansive than just responsibility for the rotational receiver, as explained by Ted Nguyen. It varies depending on the formation, but Saban will put that star on the passing strength of the formation. In a single-high look, the star and the box safety will take similar roles (blitz notwithstanding), with the star on the strong side. Derrick Ansley, a former Saban apprentice, explains:
The rip/liz safety and star could make an “under call” if the No. 2 receivers run a route under five yards or break inside under five yards, which would essentially convert that side of the defense to a regular cover-2 zone.
Beyond standard inside coverage responsibilities, the star has his hands on a few schematic buttons. Essentially, he has the leeway to abandon his assignment and aggressively jump underneath routes. If he makes that decision, that whole side of the coverage converts into something else to pick up his old man. Here’s Mackensie Alexander utilizing that button in Cincinnati. Watch the other Bengals defenders and how they adjust to what Alexander decides to do.
The last one is a screen, which Alexander had a penchant for disrupting last year.
Alexander led the Bengals in passing-game stops, a PFF category for passing-game tackles that lead to a loss in expected points for the offense. Jeff Gladney led the Vikings in this category as well. It’s an extremely important assignment that can help convert pressures into negative plays and blow up entire swaths of West Coast playbooks.
There is no such thing as impervious coverage. One downside of match coverage comes against trips. Even with four coverage defenders against three, someone has to stay one-on-one. So deep comebacks to the outside can catch a single-coverage corner out of position. Those are difficult throws to make, and many defensive coordinators are happy to let flawed quarterbacks throw into the Gatorade tank. But if you’re up against a quarterback who can make that throw, the star can get involved.
Alexander has the power to make a “skate” adjustment, making himself more useful when there is no underneath assignment. He’ll play inside and under the No. 1 (or outermost) receiver. That allows the corner to play outside and over-top, giving him access to easier techniques.
Here, Ben Roethlisberger tries to put a ball way underneath the cornerback so JuJu Smith-Schuster can utilize more space to create separation. This is something Roethlisberger is very good at, and Alexander is plenty familiar with it. So he dials up the skate adjustment, comes off of his initial assignment, and notches an interception.
“Under” calls and skate adjustments are just two of the possible tools in a slot corner’s toolbox. A slot corner needs to not only be able to keep up with shifty slot receivers but also read the entirety of an offense, not to mention their responsibilities in the run game. In pattern-match principles, the star’s job could often be boiled down to a Get Out of Jail Free card. Figuring out which card to use mid-play every snap is a job for a sixth-year veteran. With a rookie playing most of the reps in that position in 2020, the Vikings didn’t have access to these adjustments.
Gladney made plenty of plays in man coverage, albeit with simpler assignments. Gladney could even make himself more useful as an outside corner, spelling Patrick Peterson as the season wears on. He could rotate in with Alexander, play a mirrored role opposite Alexander, or compete directly for the star job. After all, Alexander is only making the veteran minimum. But when Mike Zimmer complained about his defense being hamstrung by rookies, adjustments like these were on his mind.