Offseason Xs & Os: Nickel defense

In catching up on a few episodes of ESPN's "NFL Live" the last few days, one statistic caught the eye.

On Thursday, analysts Tedy Bruschi and Herm Edwards were dissecting the nickel defense and they cited some "ESPN Next Level" stats on the usage of nickel packages in the NFL. The stats broke down this way:

2008: 43.4 percent

2009: 44.9 percent

2010: 48.5 percent

Edwards went up to the board and then explained how it worked in "Football 101" style, erasing the strongside linebacker and inserting a defensive back. He talked about how one of the first things that defensive backs had to have was good tackling skills, because he was replacing a bigger player.

These numbers highlight how more offenses are spreading the field, leading defenses to insert an extra defensive back into games. Closer to home, the Patriots had one or more extra defensive backs on the field for 57 percent of their snaps in 2010.

One of the interesting questions for the team this year will be how its nickel package takes shape. In some 2010 games, the Patriots utilized Patrick Chung in the "star" position in the slot, while other games had cornerback Darius Butler in that role.

Much of that figures to be game-plan related, but the Patriots have plenty of options.