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Where 'big' nickel fits in Rams' defensive plans

3/19/2015

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- By the end of the 2014 NFL season, seeing the St. Louis Rams' defense line up with three safeties on the field became something of a common occurrence. Sometimes it was matchup based, sometimes it wasn't, but using Mark Barron, T.J. McDonald and Rodney McLeod at the same time was a basic tenet.

The package, which defensive coordinator Gregg Williams commonly referred to as the "big" nickel essentially deployed Barron as a de facto third linebacker, spending most of his time near the line of scrimmage with normal strong side linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar on the sideline. Williams, as he often does, tinkered with the looks and occasionally brought McDonald up in the run box while allowing Barron to work in coverage.

There's nothing Williams likes more than having versatile, movable pieces on the field together. It creates a sense of chaos for the offense and makes blitz recognition a difficult proposition. It's exactly what he envisioned when the Rams traded fourth- and sixth-round picks to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for Barron before the trade deadline.

It's also a defense that could become even more of a staple for the Rams in 2015.

"Yeah, we were just getting started looking at it but very, very impressed with what [Barron] did," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "Sacks and tackles and all the things that he does well. So yeah, there's a chance to expand some things with him.

"He's not much smaller than most linebackers and he's pretty talented and great to coach."

Barron played eight games on defense for the Rams (and one more on special teams), appearing in 174 snaps with 19 tackles, three sacks and a pass breakup. Much of that time was spent playing the run or rushing the passer, save for the week 13 matchup against the Oakland Raiders when the Rams got up big early and held off the Raiders as they tried to pass their way back into the game.

According to Pro Football Focus, Barron played 89 snaps either in run defense or rushing the passer and 85 snaps in coverage (though 34 of those came in the game against Oakland). Still, Barron almost always lined up near the line of scrimmage and offered Williams the flexibility to use him how he saw fit. Williams was also able to exercise similar versatility with McDonald.

"We had some creative ideas in how we thought we would use him," general manager Les Snead said. "And that's really from Coach Fish[er], and Coach Williams, and the staff saying, 'Hey, this is how we would use him in a hybrid role.' Because we had two starting safeties, so we never wanted to put those two on the bench. We wanted to take Mark Barron and utilize him in ways that will make us a better defense. I think we did that. And I think over the second half of the season -- not saying it's all Mark Barron -- but I think the last eight games our defense really started playing. I think as we go into the offseason, there's even a better thought process on how we're gonna use him."

At one point, it seemed possible that the big nickel could become the Rams' new normal. Barron has the size to be considered a linebacker but enough ability in coverage to help in other areas. Now that the Rams have added Akeem Ayers, Williams has another chess piece at his disposal so it will be interesting to see how both are used and if Williams can find effective ways to use them in tandem (the answer here is probably yes).

One way or another, the Rams' defense fully intends to keep offenses guessing in 2015 and it's probably a safe bet that the big nickel will again figure prominently in those plans.