Last season, football fans who listened to Coach Ron Rivera talk about the Washington Football Team would have noticed him discussing a term that they may not have heard before in relation to football: "Buffalo nickel". When coach Rivera used it, he was referring to a specific defensive player grouping for nickel coverage, which is just a term that means putting 5 defensive backs on the field instead of 4, usually on expected passing downs or against pass-heavy offenses. Since, in regular nickel coverage, a linebacker comes off the field in favor of a smaller, faster cornerback, the defense is better able to defend against the pass, but is usually more susceptible to the run.
The Buffalo nickel package uses the same alignment, but instead of putting a cornerback in as the 5th DB, a safety is put on the field. He is still usually smaller than the linebacker and more skilled in coverage, but is typically a better tackler than the CB, which makes him stronger in run support, and a bit more able to handle larger and more physical receivers like tight ends. The safety who lines up as the slot defender in this package, then, is the Buffalo nickel -- in the Washington defense, that's his position designation.
This offseason, we've heard even more discussion about the Buffalo nickel position. That's because early in the year, some bloggers and sports writers began to question what should happen at the safety position with Kam Curl, who, stepping up to replace the injured Landon Collins last year, seemed to outplay the veteran. Because Collins is more skilled as a 'box' safety, playing at the 2nd level, closer to the line of scrimmage in run support, and relatively weaker in defending against the pass game, it was suggested by some writers that Landon Collins should change position to linebacker, strengthening the team's weakest defensive position, and allowing Kam Curl to fill the role of starting strong safety.
Head coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio have, over the course of several media sessions this offseason, explained that such a position change for Collins is unnecessary since Washington already uses safeties to replace linebackers in the Buffalo nickel scheme. Regardless of who shifts alignment and responsibility on the field, the coaches have said repeatedly that there would be no difficulty getting both Collins and Curl on the field together.
Film analyst Mark Bullock recently wrote an extended article about the Buffalo nickel position. If you are interested in a deeper dive, I strongly recommend it. The article is detailed, clear, not overly long, uses live video of plays, and is specifically focused on the Washington Football Team. I've relied on his article for the much shorter summary that follows.
When offenses take the field in their base offense with two tight ends and running back, Washington will likely match up with its base defense. However, this allows teams to use two tight end sets to generate favorable matchups against the 4-3 alignment.
Early last season, lots of teams tried to get Washington into base personnel and spread them out with empty formations, resulting in a wide receiver being defended by a linebacker. You can see this in the photo below that shows LB Kevin Pierre-Louis lined up in coverage against a slot receiver. This is a mismatch that favors the offense.
As mentioned earlier, the defense can switch to nickel coverage, taking a linebacker off the field, and effectively changing the defensive alignment from 4-3-4 to 4-2-5 (4 down linemen, 2 linebackers, 5 defensive backs). The drawback to this is that smaller slot corners like Washington's Jimmy Moreland can often be bullied by big receiving tight ends, and in the run game those slot corners often get bulldozed by tight ends and bigger receivers.
Because of this, a lot of teams in recent years have been converting safeties into linebackers. Washington, however, has solved the issue in a different way, which is the Buffalo nickel.
Instead of substituting a slot corner for the linebacker in nickel coverage, Washington substitutes a bigger DB -- safety Kam Curl, who is listed at 6-foot-2, 198 pounds, in contrast to slot corner Jimmy Moreland, who is listed at 5-foot-11, 182 pounds. Curl also played corner before switching to the safety position in college, so has good coverage skills for a strong safety.
This photo shows the Buffalo nickel alignment. You can clearly see the 4 defensive linemen and 2 linebackers between the 20 and 25 yard lines, and 5 DBs arrayed across the field, with 4 in coverage, roughly on the 20-yard line, and a single deep safety lined up at the 10. Kamren Curl is the Buffalo nickel -- a safety lined up as the slot defender.
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.
Obviously, coverage ability is a key skill that Curl needs in this scheme, but he also needs to be a capable run defender to make up for the fact that a linebacker has gone to the sidelines in this alignment. Kamren Curl was the perfect player with the right athleticism, skills and mindset to fill both the coverage and run aspects of the Buffalo nickel role.
This week, head coach Ron Rivera gave an exclusive interview to Ben Standig of The Athletic. During that interview, coach Rivera talked about the Buffalo nickel role and how it came about.
I think as offenses continue to grow and change and evolve, you’re playing more three-receiver sets, then you are one tight end, two running backs or two tight ends, one back. [That calls] for more of the hybrid defensive position, ‘buffalo nickel.’ Two big bruising tight ends is not as prevalent, either, so now you have a tight end that can run and you’re trying to create this mismatch by having a tight end that can run matched up against a linebacker who can’t.
This game of cat and mouse has gone on between NFL offenses and defenses for decades. If offenses are running ball with big maulers, the defense responds with its own big maulers. A creative offensive mind puts together a smaller, faster team, spreads out the field, and just runs away from the defensive maulers. Defensive coordinators build faster defenses to keep up, and the offenses respond with big pass receiving tight ends who can't be covered by the player assigned to the job. Time for another defensive adjustment, and on it goes.
Now you’re talking about bringing in a safety-type player. You may have guys that are going to have to be able to play in the safety position, playing to half, the quarter, the post, or being able to come down and play the slot or even having to come in and play at the box. And that guy is going to play 65 to 75 percent of your snaps in the very near, near future. This is happening. It’s the evolution of football. Football is cyclical. Football changes, adapts to what’s going on, and (defense) typically is the one that has to change and adapt.
These comments from Ron Rivera, made recently, illustrate why Rivera and his staff emphasize building a roster of players with positional flexibility. Safeties Kamren Curl and Bobby McCain are both converted corners with coverage skills. Boundary cornerback Kendall Fuller started his career in Washington as the team's primary slot corner, and has played hundreds of snaps at the safety position in his 5-year career.
While Washington's linebacking group has not been known previously for its flexibility, with the drafting of Jamin Davis in the first round, the team added a big, fast linebacker capable of playing every position at the second level of the defense.
But in talking about the Buffalo nickel position this past week and its "65 to 75 percent of [the] snaps", Ron Rivera mentioned another player -- a linebacker as opposed to a safety -- who can play the position. He wasn't talking about Jamin Davis. Instead, Rivera mentioned second-year linebacker Khaleke Hudson as a potential “buffalo nickel” option.
Indeed, at 6'0" and 220 pounds and running a 4.56 40, Hudson has the size and athletic profile to fit the bill. It's hard to assess Hudson's abilities to cover and defend against the run, as he played only 51 defensive snaps last year as an NFL rookie; Hudson, instead, played mostly special teams (381 snaps) in 2020. However, as a college player at Michigan, Hudson played a similar hybrid safety-linebacker role. The fact that Rivera singled him out for such an important role in Washington's defense probably bodes well for Hudson's chances of making the regular roster again this season and establishing himself as a core member of the defense going forward.
Offensive and defensive coordinators will continue to play their ongoing game of chess, making moves and counter-moves in a never-ending effort to gain the upper-hand on the field of play. For now, in Washington, the Buffalo nickel is an important part of the defensive scheme that opposing offensive coordinators need to contend with, and it puts a premium on scheme versatile players who can be used to implement it.