The front 7 of an NFL team doesn’t matter as much as people think, for one simply reason: the front 6 is what matters most. I’m surprise that, to this day, teams are referred to as using a “3-4″ and”4-3″ defense, when, even though that may be their base defense, it’s not their most commonly used defense. This is a passing league. A majority of the most widely used offensive formations in the NFL feature 3 wide receivers. For that reason, a majority of the most widely used defenses feature three cornerbacks. Most teams use a nickel defense in most of their defensive plays. The most common lineup is not what a team looks like in its 4-3/3-4 base defense. It’s what they look like in the nickel.
I’ve been noticing this trend for a while. Teams have been using more and more nickel defenses. What surprises me, though, is that the nickelback is still treated like a scrub. Like he isn’t a starter. I decided to use snap count data from Pro Football Focus to confirm my suspicions about the increased use of nickel defenses. You can click here for the results. All of the data includes playoff games.
A couple things to mention about the data: you would think that the sum of a teams snap totals of each individual player would be divisible by 11, but that’s not always the case. I found while gathering this data that Pro Football Focus is fairly meticulous about getting the snap count numbers perfect. I was confused when the numbers didn’t add up to a number divisible by 11 each time, but I realized when looking in individual game by game snap count summaries that PFF actually took note of when a penalty was called for having 12 men on the field, and, in such case, the data wouldn’t add up correctly. When the data didn’t work, I even confirmed via ESPN play by plays that 12 men on the field penalties were called. Conversely, every once and a while, a team accidentally lines up with 10 men on the field (this is actually a lot more common than having 12 men on the field). PFF noticed this too. The data is actually perfect. Also, for teams that run a “3-4,” I included the percentage of times they had their outside linebackers blitz to make sure fans realize that, for example, the Packers don’t usually line up in a 2-4 front when going to their nickel package. That’s somewhat ridiculous. One or both of the outside linebackers put their hands in the dirt and basically play defensive end. It’s not actually a 2-4-5 front.
Here’s the summary of the most relevant data:
36690 defensive snaps in the NFL last season
169936 snaps for defensive backs, 4.6317 per play
109433 snaps for linebackers, 2.9826 per play
124198 snaps for defensive linemen, 3.3851 per play
The important number there is 4.6317 defensive backs per play. That implies without question that 6 man fronts are more common than 7 man fronts. How much more? Well, let’s assume that the number of dime packages are used at roughly the same frequency as goal line packages with 3 or fewer defensive backs on the field (admittedly, that’s probably not true, but the difference is basically negligible). If that’s the case, the ratio of nickel to 4-3 and 3-4 fronts is approximately 1.715 to 1, roughly equivalent to a 12 to 7 ratio. Draft day needs should be based on weaknesses in the front 6, not 7. Is Jerel Worthy really a starter for the Green Bay Packers defense? I’d say no. With 467 snaps under his belt, I’d say he definitely had an impact on the team’s success, but he wasn’t really a starter. Was Casey Hayward a starter? He may have been 3rd on the depth chart behind Sam Shields and Tramon Williams, but, having been on the field for 769 plays last season, he was a pretty important piece of the puzzle for Green Bay last season.
The main point I am trying to make is that coaches spend a bit too much time on their front 7 and not enough on the front 6. When you are practicing for a game, NFL coach should use it’s nickel defense as its base defense. Because that’s what’s most commonly used.