Stop the Spread with a 4-2-5 Nickel

By John Rice

Nickel defenses originated, in part, as a countermove to the offensive practice of utilizing three-wide receiver formations that spread the defense. The offense did this either by placing running backs in the slots as receivers, by widening tight ends or by substituting receivers for running backs.

With this strategy, offenses could create mismatches by forcing linebackers to align over slot receivers. The two ways defensive coaches avoided these speed mismatches created by three-wide receiver formations were either to play zone defense or to insert a fifth defensive back and align him over the third receiver.

The nickel back, as the fifth defensive back became known, could replace either a defensive lineman or a linebacker. It gave the defense more flexibility, because now that the defense had a defensive back aligned over a third receiver, man coverage could be played without fear of a third receiver being covered by a linebacker.

The first nickel alignment that was commonly used was a 4-2-5 with four defensive linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs. Soon afterward, offensive strategy evolved, and four- and five-receiver sets began to be utilized. Thereafter, the dime defense was created to counter these offensive sets.

Personnel in the 4-2-5 nickel

The 4-2-5 nickel is a situational defense that is used in passing situations and is characterized by inserting a fifth defensive back for a defensive lineman or a linebacker.

Situational uses:

  • Against teams that throw in the flats (Cover 3 with both flats defended by the strong safety and nickel)
  • Against a team that utilizes a three- or four-receiver formation
  • Against a team that runs balanced passing formations
  • Against a team that, in normal passing situations, shows a tendency to run the ball more than is expected
  • Against a team that motions a back to the weak side of a formation


  • Four-man rush
  • Ability to play zone coverage with five defensive backs
  • Strong flat coverage in two-deep or three-deep zone coverage
  • Strong outside run support to either side of the formation
  • Ability to match speed for speed in a three- or four-receiver set
  • Ability to play man coverage with a free safety
  • Ability to double-cover one or two receivers in man coverage
  • Ability to bring three or four defenders from either side of the formation
  • Ability to zone blitz


  • Three-level flood routes are difficult to defend
  • A six-man front is easier to block than a seven-man front on run plays

Basic premise of the 4-2-5 nickel

The 4-2-5 nickel is characterized by using four down linemen in an even front, two linebackers and five defensive backs. The fifth defensive back will replace either a down lineman or a linebacker.

If a college 4-3 is the base defense, the fifth defensive back usually replaces one of the linebackers. If a 5-2 is the base defense, the fifth defensive back replaces one of the five down linemen. If a 3-4 is the base defense, one of the four linebackers moves to a down lineman, and the fifth defensive back replaces another linebacker.

This diagram depicts the base alignment and technique for each defender in the 4-2-5 nickel as well as basic responsibilities for run toward the defender, run away, key and responsibility for dropback pass. Keep in mind when reading the chart that many alignments are possible for the down linemen and linebackers.

The alignment noted in the chart for the defensive left and right ends is outside eye of the offensive tackle. The ends’ technique is listed as a squeeze technique, similar to the gap-control technique used in a 50 defense, because in some situations the nickel package will see run, and the ends will have to react accordingly.

It is possible to abandon the squeeze technique and adopt a more aggressive pass-rush technique. The ends are responsible for contain rush, unless they are stunting. If backfield run flow is toward them, they are responsible for the off-tackle gap. If flow is away, they are responsible for quarterback bootleg or reverse.

The alignment for the defensive tackles is given as “solid” or head-up on the guard. This recommendation is only meant as one possible alignment. Because shaded alignments are possible, the exact alignment of the defensive tackles should be made according to what is best for that particular defensive call. On any run play, the tackles can play two gaps if they are aligned head-up, or, if they are aligned on a shade, they are responsible for the gap to their alignment. On flow away, the defensive tackles are responsible for pursuit and cutback. On a drop-back pass, they rush the passer, either with a pre-determined pass-rush move or a stunt called in the huddle.

The alignment of the linebackers, identified as “stud” and “wild,” is listed as either stacked or in a gap. Their exact alignment is flexible. Their technique is listed as “squeeze/hat read,” which means they are reading the helmet of the guard in front of them. Some coaches prefer that the inside linebackers read the backs. The most important point is to be consistent.

On flow toward the inside linebacker, they are responsible for defending the gap assigned to them, normally the A or B gap. Usually, the inside linebacker’s gap responsibility is the opposite gap assigned the defensive tackle in front of him. So, if the defensive tackle to his side is aligned on the inside shade of the guard, the linebacker is responsible for the B gap. If the defensive tackle in front of him is aligned on the outside shade, the inside linebacker is responsible for the A gap. If flow is away from the inside linebacker, he should not turn his shoulders but shuffle up and in toward the line of scrimmage. He should maintain backside leverage, overpursue and be ready to play the cutback.

The strong safety and nickel are defensive backs who are mirrors of each other. The strong safety aligns to the strong side of the formation, over the No. 2 receiver. His depth will depend on the pass coverage called. In press-man coverage, he will be up on the line of scrimmage. In zone, he will be off the line of scrimmage.

The technique of the strong safety and nickel will depend on the defensive call. They will blitz, play man coverage or play zone coverage. In zone coverage, the strong safety and nickel will key the unit end – the outermost player on the line in a three-point stance, either a tight end or tackle –  through to the near back. If they are playing man coverage, they will key the receiver lined up in front of them.

The corners align on the No. 1 receiver to their side, unless trips exist opposite their side, in which case they align over the inside-most receiver. They key the unit end through to the near back. If they are playing man coverage, they will key the receiver lined up in front of them.

Variation: 4-1-6 dime sting

Situational uses:

  • Against one-back passing formations with slide protection
  • Against a team that likes to roll out to the field
  • Against a team that utilizes play-action to the strong side of the formation
  • Against a team that utilizes a five- or seven-step drop by the quarterback
  • Against a team that doesn’t execute the hot route to the tight end with any consistency
  • Against a team that doesn’t throw the fade well


  • Four-man overload to the strong side of the formation
  • Six-man rush
  • The quarterback should have to get rid of the ball quickly
  • Strong versus play action
  • Strong versus a roll out to the strong side of the formation


  • No safety help for the corners or nickel back
  • The hot route to the tight end is difficult to cover unless the free safety is aligned five- to seven-yards deep at the snap.

John Rice is the head football coach at J.W. North High School in Riverside, California, a position he assumed in 2013. He has been a high school football coach for over 25 years, and has served as a head coach, as well as a coordinator, both offensively and defensively, and as a position coach at various times for every position on the gridiron. His career has included stints at two large-school state championship-level programs, including defensive coordinator at national power Louisville Trinity, a 19-time state champion. He has been the featured speaker on over 30 instructional coaching DVDs on a wide variety of both offensive and defensive topics, and has authored two books, Coaching Nickel and Dime Defenses and Defending the Spread Offense. In addition he has written several articles that have been published in Gridiron Coach Magazine and American Football Coach Magazine. He is also a frequent presenter at instructional football clinics across the United States.