what is nickel defense in football

Understanding What Is Nickel Defense In Football

Football has evolved over the years, with teams coming with different defensive formations. When offenses make obvious passing plays, defenses sometimes respond by removing the strong-side linebacker and replacing it with a defensive back.

The extra player in football is called a Nickelback. Nowadays, teams have a nickel defense in their plays. So, what’s a nickel defense in football?

A nickel defense features five defensive linemen in its alignment. Most defensive formations have four defensive linemen alignments. A cornerback or safety is usually the extra player that adds to the nickel defense.

A nickel defense is commonly used to stop passing plays. However, on a few occasions, the nickel defense can change variations to stop running plays.

Let’s dig deep and understand a nickel defense.

What Is Nickel Defense In Football

As indicated, a nickel defense is a defense alignment with five defensive backs. Most defenses feature four defensive backs. The extra 5th defensive back is called a nickel.

A cornerback is usually commonly used to make the 5th defensive back. But on a few occasions, safety can be used. However, the term generally describes all formations featuring five defensive backs.

When teams run a nickel defense, the linebacker is the player that’s usually taken off and replaced with a defensive back. The extra defensive back is called a nickel hence the name nickel defense.

Taking a defensive lineman for an extra defensive back usually makes the defense more susceptible to the run game.

Why Is It Called Nickel Defense

How did the nickel defense earn its name? You’ve probably asked yourself the same question.

The name nickel defense comes from the 5th defensive back added to the defensive line. By having 5 defensive backs, the term nickel seems best to show the worthiness of 5 cents bill.

The use of coins to name defenses in football is not new. We also have a dime defense with six defensive backs named after a coin. A further increase if a defender to the defensive formation leads to a coin name with more value.

football game match as seen by the audience

For example, a 5 defensive back is a nickel, a 6 defensive back is a dime, and a 7 defensive back is a quarter.

But you’ll soon realize that the nickel defense is by far the most common and one you can see during games.

The quarter defense is rarely used and can only be seen when the defense wants to pass the ball down in a hurry downfield.

When Should You Use Nickel Defense

A nickel defensive is much more like a 4-3 defense with a strong defensive back coming in for a linebacker. Ideally, the nickel defense can be run at any time by any team at all football levels.

However, teams with more athletic players are best suited to run a nickel defense. You need a big, extra solid defensive back in such situations.

The extra defensive back needs to be athletic to play closer to the line of scrimmage but manage to drop fast and provide coverage.

A nickel defense is well-suited to defend against passing plays. However, some teams can still make a few changes and use the nickel defense to defend again running plays.

If the player taking the nickel position is a normal safety in your team, then it’s quite easy to defend against run plays. This is because the player has a lot of versatility and can run and tackle wide receivers.

Strengths Of Nickel Defense

As you’ve seen, a nickel defense requires strong, big, and faster players. This organization gives the defense a lot of advantages. 

One major strength of a nickel defense is versatility. This is the case for safety near the line of scrimmage. Such players can defend against the run and passing plays making the defense quite versatile.

The defense provides opportunities for a blitz, pressure, and run support.

Additionally, a nickel defense is quite fast. The extra defensive back adds speed to the defense. It’s faster than a 4-3 defense with three linebackers and four defensive ends.

It’s the reason the nickel defense stops passing plays.

Another exciting strength is the confusion it brings. A nickel defense can confuse the offense and disrupt their play. It can run a blitz leaving the quarterback looking to the right and left at all times.

defensive player blocking opponent in football

It also gives running backs in the backfield the extra responsibility of checking the defensive backs for blitzes. It’s never good for the offense to be kept on toes, which can lead to confusion.

Lastly, a nickel back can be quite simple and easy to implement. You can easily run a nickel defense in youth football with ease. It can also be a little complicated, which is good for the defense and bad for the offense.

Teams can get more creative and run different blitz packages.

Weakness Of Nickel Defense

However, a nickel defense isn’t all that perfect and does have some weaknesses. When baldy executed, the nickel defense is susceptible.

First, a nickel defense opens spaces in the field that the offense can exploit. When the offense plays spread formations, it can take advantage of holes in the defense.

A third wide receiver running on the outside will force the nickel closer to the line of scrimmage. This position frees space in the middle for the offense to exploit.

Additionally, the defense leaves more room for offenses to run. In shorter running plays, the defense does give opponents more room to run.

Lastly, a nickel defense does sacrifice a skillful player in the field for a defensive back. At any given time, you want to have your best players on the field.

How To Run The Nickel Defense

You can run a nickel defense through three stages. First, you need to set the defensive line. It’s pretty similar to a 4-3 alignment base formation.

The only difference with a 4-3 defense formation is to have an extra defensive player clog up the middle line taking the linebacker position.

Next, you need linebackers set up. But in this case, the strong-sided linebacker won’t be available. Instead, a 5th defensive back will come in.

The weak-side linebacker is responsible for marking the middle part of the field. The Mike linebacker will mark its traditional area in the defense middle as in the case with a 4-3 defense.

Lastly, you need to employ the defensive backs in the secondary. TWO corners backs will align to the sides facing the wide receivers.

What Is Dime Defense

A dime defense is a defense with a further extra defensive back making it six defensive backs.

american football team in yellow and white jersey getting ready

More NFL teams are now playing a dime defense than a base defense.

What Is Quarter Defense

A quarter defense adds a further defensive back making a seven-man defensive back. However, this formation is rarely used.

What Is The Difference Between Nickel Defense and Dime Defense

The difference between a nickel defense and a dime is the number of defensive backs. A nickel back uses five defensive backs, while a dime uses six defensive backs.

How Do You Beat Nickel Defense

You can beat a nickel defense by running a spread formation or making shorting running plays. The offense takes advantage of spaces that open on the defense.

Nickel Defense FAQ

Why Is It Called A Nickelback In Football

It’s called a nickel defense because of the worthiness of a cent. The term nickel refers to a 5th cent showing the extra value of the extra 5th defensive back.

Who Invented The Nickel Defense

The nickel defense was invented by Jerry Williams in the 1960s while coaching the Philadelphia Eagles. The Chicago Bears would later use the defense.

Is the 4-2-5 Defense a Nickel Defense?

A nickel defense is also known as a 4-2-5 defense. This is because of the five defensive backs, two linebackers, and four down linemen.

Read also: Check out our ultimate guide and learn more about the different football defensive positions and their roles.


The nickel defense in football is quite popular as a base defense, substituting a linebacker with an extra defensive back. A nickel defense is easy to teach and used at all football levels. It was specifically designed to stop a pass play. However, teams can still use it to defend against a run play.

It’s a versatile defense that can adjust and allow the defense to run different formations and blitzes. Without a doubt, a nickel defense is very popular and one that should be in every team’s playbook.

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