What is the Buffalo nickel position?
Breaking down the popular Buffalo nickel role in Washington’s defense
The “Buffalo nickel” role in Washington’s defense is something we’ve seen Head Coach Ron Rivera talk a lot about this offseason. Last year Kam Curl played it before Landon Collins got hurt and Curl had to take over at strong safety. This year, Rivera has mentioned some linebackers playing it, with Cole Holcomb and Khaleke Hudson the latest to be linked to the role. But what exactly is the Buffalo nickel role and when does Washington use it? Let’s take a closer look.
To explain the Buffalo nickel role, first we must look at the base defense. Washington runs a 4-3 base defense with four down lineman and three linebackers. When offenses use either their base offense with a tight end, fullback and running back, or a 12 personnel with two tight ends, Washington will likely try and match up with its base defense. However, at the start of last season, teams found that they could use two tight end sets to generate favorable matchups against Washington.
Here, the Eagles use a two tight end set, aligning both to the left side of the formation. To balance the formation, both wide receivers align to the right side, with the X receiver outside and the Z receiver in the slot. Man coverage teams would have the corner follow the Z receiver into the slot, but Washington played a lot of zone, especially at the start of the year. This means that the Will, or weak side, linebacker had to walk out over the slot.
There’s two negative impacts of that type of look. Most obviously, a linebacker aligned over a wide receiver is a bad matchup for the defense. Even though the defense can play zone coverage, the first zone the receiver will enter is the linebackers, which is a win for the offense. On top of that, the linebacker is out of the box for the run game. The defense has to replace him with a safety or the corner on the other side. The offense would much prefer to block safeties and corners than linebackers.
On this occasion, it works out for Washington as the blitz sent gets to the quarterback quickly. But you can see from the clip the first place the quarterback looks is to the receiver in the slot against the linebacker.
When opposing offenses spot this matchup issue, they will look to exploit it. Early in the season, lots of teams tried to get Washington into a base personnel and spread them out with empty formations. This allowed them to work wide receivers on linebackers.
These two clips show the Cardinals and the Browns working out of empty sets. On the first play, the Cardinals get receiver Larry Fitzgerald matched up on linebacker Jon Bostic for a conversion on fourth and five, while the second clip shows the Browns finding Jarvis Landry on a slant against linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis. Now, sometimes these situations are unavoidable. Sometimes teams have good weapons and in today's NFL, the linebackers have to be able to cover. That’s why Washington just spent a first-round pick on Jamin Davis, because he’s athletic and has good coverage ability.
Against teams with good weapons, a lot of defenses will just switch to a nickel personnel, substituting a linebacker for the slot corner and asking that corner to defender receivers in the slot or tight ends in two tight end sets. This can work in coverage, but has its drawbacks too. The big receiving tight ends are often hard for smaller slot corners to cover physically, and in the run game those slot corners can often get bulldozed by tight ends and bigger receivers.
So to help with this, a lot of teams in recent years have taken some safeties and converted them into linebackers to help with this. This isn’t always easy as the linebacker spot can be more physical than the safety position, but there have been successful cases. Shaq Thompson in Carolina is probably the most successful example, having played safety in college but then drafted by Rivera and Marty Hurney to convert to linebacker in the NFL.
Washington has another solution, which is the Buffalo nickel. Instead of substituting a linebacker for a slot corner, Washington substituted a linebacker for a bigger defensive back, safety Kam Curl. Curl fills this role well because he’s bigger than the typical slot corner. Curl is listed at 6-foot-2, 198 pounds, a stark contrast from slot corner Jimmy Moreland who is listed at 5-foot-11, 182 pounds, but looks smaller. Curl is also a former cornerback that converted to safety in his last few years in college, so has some translatable corner coverage skills as well as safety ability.
By having a player like Curl in the Buffalo nickel role, Washington can put Curl over receivers in the slot and allow the linebackers to stay in the box to defend the run. The play is somewhat irrelevant here, but if you focus on the quarterback, you can see the difference in mentality with Curl over the slot instead of a linebacker. When Kevin Pierre-Louis was out there, the quarterback looked straight to the receiver in the slot. With Curl over the slot receiver, he hardly glanced that way while focusing on other targets.
Curl has the athletic ability to cover while also having the size to match up with athletic receiving tight ends, which makes him perfectly suited to this role.
Here against the Cardinals, Curl is on the field as the Buffalo nickel. He aligns in the box as a third linebacker, but works over tight end Dan Arnold. Arnold was a big 6-foot-5, 220 pound receiver in college that the Saints converted to tight end in the early years of his NFL career. He offers great athleticism from the tight end position with his size and speed. That would be a tough matchup for a typical linebacker to cover, but Curl does a great job. He gets his hands on Arnold early to jam him and force him off his path and then runs stride for stride with Arnold up the seam. The route is well covered and the quarterback ends up throwing the ball away under pressure.
The ability to run and cover is a huge part of the Buffalo nickel role, but the run game is also a significant part of it. The hope of having a safety in a linebacker position is to gain the coverage ability of a defensive back without losing so much of the physical run defense from not having an extra linebacker. With Curl last year, Washington found a player with the right frame and mindset to fill both the coverage and run aspects of the Buffalo nickel role.
Here we can see two clips of Curl against the run from the Buffalo nickel spot. On the first play of the clip, the Cardinals use a two tight end set, but from an interesting formation. The tight ends split to either side of the formation while both receivers align tight to the left, forming a bunch set with one tight end. The two receivers, DeAndre Hopkins and Larry Fitzgerald are both big, physical receivers that can block too. The Cardinals attempt a crack toss scheme, with Fitzgerald cracking down on the edge player while the tight end and left tackle pull to the edge as lead blockers. However, Curl blows up this play completely. He starts aligned over Fitzgerald and almost instantly bursts outside to try and establish the edge, like he knew what was coming. His speed to the edge gets him there before either the tight end or tackle can pull outside. That allows Curl to take out both blockers in one move and force the run to cut back inside to free defenders.
On the second play, the Browns task receiver Jarvis Landry, a receiver known for his physicality and blocking ability, to pick up Curl on this run. But Curl reads the run too quickly for Landry and triggers into his gap as soon as the ball is snapped. Curl beats Landry to the spot and makes the tackle on the running back before Landry can pick up the block.
This type of diagnostics, quick processing and willingness to be physically involved in the run game is what made Curl so successful in the Buffalo nickel role last season. It’s probably why Washington is relaxed about the return of Landon Collins to the strong safety position, because while Curl was excellent there last season, he was also their best Buffalo nickel player and will likely still see the field plenty from that package.
Rivera has talked about other players playing the Buffalo nickel role this season too, which suggests Curl could still have other roles on this defense too. Khaleke Hudson is the one that intrigues me most as he was essentially a Buffalo nickel in college. At Michigan, Hudson played a hybrid safety-linebacker role known as the viper in Michigan’s defense. Hudson is slightly smaller than Curl at 6-foot, but does have more bulk, weighing in at 220 pounds. He might not quite offer the same coverage ability to Curl, but likely more than the average linebacker, while having the frame to withstand more punishment from playing in the box as a run defender than a smaller defensive back.