What’s Next – The Nickel?
By Luke Sims
As the lockout and offseason have gone on, I’ve been contemplating what the Jags can hope to do on defense. Initially the main concern for the Jags was the secondary, particularly the safety spots, but as I look at the defense now, all I can think about is the linebackers. How in the world can the Jags survive without a solid linebacker corps? By shifting defensive sets, that’s how.
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For the Jaguars the only legitimate starting caliber linebacker that is for sure returning is Daryl Smith (97 tackles, 3.5 sacks). Thank the Lord! The man is a juggernaut. A tackling machine. The kind of guy that just dominates in high school, college, and then hits the NFL and discovers that he can still dominate. But besides him we have……? Yeah, it’s that thin. To be entirely honest, I’m hoping that Kirk Morrison comes back. He plays very solid in the middle of the defense, and he puts on a tackling clinic (89 in 2010) almost every game. Speaking of clinics, how many games has he missed? Oh yeah, none. He’s notoriously solid and healthy. It’s looking more and more like Kirk Morrison will probably come back due to the limited options in free agency, and the ability to learn a new playbook is severely shortened due to the lockout. I know GM Gene has said he’s going to sign two more linebackers. I know that there are some pretty exciting options out there. But what if they don’t pan out? What if they don’t learn the system fast enough? What if it starts to fall apart?
I think the Jaguars would be just fine.
Given the current personnel available to the Jags, I think it’s altogether possible that running two different nickel packages on a fairly regular basis could help the defense (if the linebackers do indeed fail). While the secondary has appeared…flimsy recently, I think that the group will have developed since last season and become a more cohesive team that will play quite well together. It’s widely recognized that Courtney Greene will be given the starting strong safety job in the coming season. Greene is a gifted athlete and hard hitter. His skill set allows him to play decent coverage, but could be more of an asset by pressing the box and helping in the run game. If the Jags are using Greene in this way they can worry less about having a weak link in their three linebackers and can rely on Greene to play the run well and to cover when needed. The third “corner” can then be addressed.
Here I think we have three options with the current roster (please sign a solid free safety, Gene!)
- 1) Don Carey takes the nickel spot and Chris Prosinski plays at Free Safety. Carey was a corner before transitioning to safety during 2010 and while his play was below average, I am confident that he has learned more about the position and developed his game. At the same time, he still has the skill set to be a decent corner. This would enable the Jags to be flexible in showing coverage but still use Greene in the box and rely on Carey and Chris Prosinski to play solid coverage (probably over the top. So Carey had better learn to tackle better). This allows the Jags to use three safeties. It also ensures the use of Greene’s physical style of play.
- 2) Don Carey and Courtney Greene remain at their safety positions and the nickel corner is played by Rod Issac. Issac has been called by GM Gene to be the most physical corner in the draft. It’s anticipated that he’ll immediately challenge for the nickel spot and could have the potential to start at some point for the team. What does this tell us? That he can play the run with his physical play and that he can cover, or has the potential to cover, very well. This setup would allow the Jags to keep a strong and free safety while still being able to rely on a solid tackling presence near the line that will also fulfill pass coverage well.
- 3) Keeping Greene and Carey in the backfield and allowing Middleton/Jones/Wheatley/Brackenridge to play the nickel spot. While I think Issac will outplay the quad of players above for the nickel spot, if he doesn’t show good enough coverage skills, this package may provide the more “traditional” nickel look to protect more against the pass.
Either way, the point is, I’m optimistic and think that even if my dreamed up packages aren’t utilized, the Jaguars will be fine with a subpar linebacking corps. But either way, I think we’ll see the Jags using a lot of nickel in 2011. Look for the players and try to key in on how they play the run or the pass. These guys are the future of the Jaguars (some of them), I’m pretty stoked.
– Luke N. Sims