In 2014, Teryl Austin was working as the defensive coordinator for the Detroit Lions. And he had a problem.
The rapid evolution of the tight spot has stuck with the team. When offenses deploy double-edged sets, matching personnel becomes an unwinnable conundrum for defenses.
“Think about New England when they had (Rob Gronkowski) and (Aaron) Hernandez,” Austin said.
The solution? A hybrid defense with three safeties on the field at one time – first it was Glover Quinn, James Idigbo and Issa Abdul-Qudus, and later Quinn, Taven Wilson and Raphael Bush. Current Pittsburgh Steeler Myles Killebrew contributed when he joined the team in 2016, especially in passing situations.
The concept was not entirely new. In the year It wasn’t until 1996 that the Green Bay Packers began experimenting with the idea of putting a big-bodied nickel on the field. As more dynamic pass-catching tight ends dominated the game, this concept became an effective counter.
“Now, if you compressed the sets, you had enough bodies to dominate the run game,” Austin said. “If you broke the sets, you had an efficient person to cover. It evolved into different things after that.”
When the Steelers promoted Austin from secondary coach to defensive coordinator before the 2022 season, he quickly implemented the so-called “big nickel” on the field with Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds and Damonta Kazee. He expanded the concept to include a dime defense that featured three safeties, two outside cornerbacks and a traditional nickel corner on the field.
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