In this the era of big buck football, the Washington Redskins keep insisting that a measly nickel will go a long way toward assuring the club's status as a playoff contender this or any other season.
The Redskins are still relying on that old George Allen stand-bye the nickel defense as a major weapon to harass, confuse, fluster and frustrate opposing quarterbacks. Although the Redskins are currently ranked 13th among 14 NFC teams in pass defense, the nickel, they insist, is still sound.
The Redskin nickel brings in a defensive back, Eddie Brown, to replace middle linebacker Harold McLinton when the opposition is in an obvious passing situation.
The defense is used most often in third-and-long situations, and the Redskins also utilize it as their primary prevent defense to protect a lead late in the first half or near the end of a game.
Allen has used the defense since his days as an asistant coach with the Chicago Bears, and a number of teams have copied it.
"Basically, you're putting in a quicker and faster athlete to replace the middle linebacker," said secondary coach Ralph Hawkins. "You can do a lot more with your pass coverages."
Allen said yesterday the defense was first put together by Clark Shaughnessy, the genius credited with renovating the old T formation so well that the Chicago Bears stomped all over the Redskins, 73-0, in that historic 1940 championship game.
"We started using it (in Chicago) because we wanted a defense for situations where you didn't have to worry about the run and you could be stronger against the pass," Allen said. "When I was in Chicago, we used it in the 1963 championship game and it helped beat the Giants. Rich Petibon intercepted one of Y.A. Tittle's passes in the end zone when we were in the nickel, and it saved the game.
"It's been a great defense for us in both sacks and interceptions. And when it fails, it's not the fault of the defense, it's just not being played properly. Guys are helping out somewhere else when they shouldn't be, that type of thing.
"It's been about 40 percent of our defense over the years. Now a lot of other teams are going to it. Dallas used to dread facing it, now they're using it. So is St. Louis. We're still ahead of most people because we've got so many more coverages, dogs and stunts off it."
In 1976, Redskins opponents completed only 33 per cent of their passes against the nickel defense, and the percentage of first-down pick-ups was about 30 per cent. The Redskins used the nickel 140 times in 15 games.
Though the Redskins say they do not have the precise figures for the first three games of 1977, Hawkins estimates the percentages are slightly higher because Atlanta had better-than-average success against the nickel.
The Redskins were in the nickel only a half-dozen times against the Giants, mostly because New York rarely got into passing situations on third down. Each of the last two weeks they have been in the nickel 15 times. "We did a lot better with it against St. Louis," said Hawkins, "and we'll get better every week."
The Redskin nickel gets more sophisticated every season, mostly because opposing teams come up with new weapons to combat it.
"A few years ago when Ken Stone was playing the position for us," Hawkins recalled, "his basic job was to jam the receiver (hold him up at the line) and play in a short zone."
But last year, the Redskins could go to any one of 27 different defensive coverages with the nickel, and the total is probably even higher now.
The Redskins usually put the back on the weak side, away from the tight end, although Brown says, "I've lined up all over the field, it depends who you're playing and what the situation is."
There's a zillion and one things I can do," he said. "I can line up in the middle of the field. I can cover the wide receiver, or I can jam him and play the front zone.
"I can play the deep zone, I can have the back or the right end man-to-man. And I can dog and go after the quarterback. The big thing is you try and keep them guessing as to what we're going to do and where I'm going to go."
Says Hawkins: "I've always been a believer in the theory that if you're a pitcher in baseball and all you do is throw fast balls, eventually they'll knock it out of the park. It's the same thing with defenses. You need a slider or a change-up, so that's what we do with the nickel."
The nickel, just like any other pass defense, also relies heavily on a strong pass rush from the front four. The more pressure put on the quarterback, the less time he has to wait for his receivers to get open and the better chance the defense has of breaking up the play or intercepting.
This season, the Redskins are replacing Dave Butz with Bill Brundige at defensive tackle in the nickel because Brundige is considered a better pass rusher.
Hawkins and Brown say there is no one answer to solving the nickel.
The Giants ran several successful draws and sweeps against it and, with the increasing trend toward more running in professional football. Hawkins anticipates many teams will attempt similar tactics.
"It's something you don't want to see," said Brown. "Obviously with the middle linebacker out, you don't want a defensive back taking on guards and tackles on a running play. But now that people are trying to run the ball, we're also more conscious of it, and we can still do the job. St. Louis tried running on us a couple of times, and they weren't successful."
Brown, in fact, recovered a fumble at the end of the first half of Sunday's game against the Cardinals when Jerry Latin popped through the line on the final play. The nickel was being used as a prevent defense in that situation, and, although Latin ran 17 yards, the Redskins still had the football.
According to Hawkins, Brown is ideally suited for the role of nickel back. "He's got to be a versatile type of guy," he said, "and Eddie does everything well. He does a good job of jamming and covering people one-on-one and he dogs very well.
"Let's face it. In this league, with all the great athletes out there, the offense is going to complete some passes. The big thing is not to let that receiver become a runner. That's when you get hurt.
"That's why the nickel's been so successful for us. They might complete that pass, but if we're playing it right, they're not going to get many first downs off it. And that's the name of the game."
Cornerback Pat Fischer left the field halfway through practice yesterday with what was later described as a slight aggravation of the piched nerve in his back. He is expected to be available against Tampa Bay, as is Butz, who missed yesterday's session because of a sprained ankle . . . Mike Thomas, who was stiff and sore after Sunday's game, was on the practice field but did not work out . . . Ed (Double O) Boynton, the team's security missed his first Redskin practice in memory. He has a leg injury and was hospitalized after Sunday's victory over the Cardinals. Allen said Boynton is "probable" for sideline action against Tampa Bay.