What Is a Nickel Back?

Leon Hall, of the Cincinnati Bengals, is one of the top nickel backs in the NFL. Getty Images

One defensive back position that is used in certain situations is the nickel back. This player adds extra pass support where needed, and typically comes into the game in the place of the SAM Linebacker. In general, he has the same alignment and assignment as the SAM would. But there are specific reasons that a team will deploy the nickel package.

When Does the Nickel Back Play?

A nickel back goes in when there is a likely pass threat.

A team might use more or less of the nickel package in a game where the team they're playing is a dominant pass team. He might also get in the game on 3rd down or any other game situation where the opposing team is known to pass. He also may be called on to cover a specific wide receiver or tight end that the SAM linebacker isn't as suited to cover.

Who Should Play Nickel Back?

A nickel back has all the skills of a good cornerback. However, he still needs to be a good tackler. In the nickel package, it's a gamble that it's going to be a pass, and you're down a linebacker as part of that gamble. If it turns out that it's a run, the nickel safety will have to step up and take over the run responsibilities of a linebacker.

Rise in Prestige for the Nickel Back

In the NFL, coaches would sometimes put aging cornerbacks in as the nickel back, due to the fact the player may have lost some speed. It was also felt that sometimes nickel backs were not as talented in covering receivers as pure cornerbacks.

Nickle backs were often pulled from special teams.

There may be some truth in that, but since the NFL has become a quarterback-centric, pass-happy league, nickel backs have become extremely valuable. They often will play most of the game, not just on third downs, particularly if the opposing offense has an especially effective receiver in the slot.

Creative Uses of the Nickel Package

The nickel back coverage concept can be used in a variety of creative ways. For example, the nickel back doesn't necessarily have to be a cornerback. In the 1990s, the Green Bay Packers used three safeties in their nickel package, a precursor to many of today's modern defenses.

This scheme - called the "big nickel" - has caught on in today's NFL because of the rise in the offensive spread-formations you see, particularly with those teams using mobile quarterbacks. It's also become popular because of the proliferation of tight ends who are, in essence, big wide receivers.

In fact, this new offensive trend has spawned a "new position" on the field. The "H-back" is usually a larger athlete with receiving talent who lines up in the slot.

The big nickel is also generally more effective against the run since safeties are normally bigger than cornerbacks, and more effective in shedding blockers and making tackles.