The case for the nickle Safety


“If you run to the ball, great things happen for you.”

That, in a nutshell, is all you need to know about Tavon Wilson.

He gets it.  He understands fundamental football.  Find the football and tackle the guy who has it.  If the football is in the air, get under it, jump to it, don’t let the other dude catch it – and if he does catch it anyway, despite your best efforts, make sure he knows that there’s a price to pay.

 No one saw it coming, the drafting of Wilson.  If anyone outside of the Patriots’ War Room says that they did, they’re lying.  The pick stumped ESPN Draft Guru Mel Kiper to the point that he was sputtering out sentence fragments and scrambling through notes for something – Anything – that he could say about Wilson on live television…which was reason enough to like the Patriots’ 2nd round pick, number 48 overall, though there is so much more to like…

“Good size and build for safety at the pro level with good top-end speed”, reads one of very few complete scouting reports on the 6′ 1″ 205 pound University of Illinois product.  But not good enough to be invited to any post-season All Star games, nor that Combine thing held every year in Indianapolis, of all places.  You could say that Tavon Wilson was a player very much under the radar.

A good player, nothing special. Played a little bit of everything on defense. Good special teams ability.

But if you were to ask Tennessee Titans’ receiver Nate Washington or Quarterback Jake Locker if Wilson is still under the radar, I’m pretty sure they’d both tell you that his physical play and ball hawking instincts are a large blip on a radar screen filled with Patriots defenders, a unit that suddenly looks like a top defense, so far as mayhem is concerned.

Of course, if simple improvement of the defense is all Bill Belichick had wished for, then mission accomplished.  Then again, when has anything been simple when Belichick has something to do with it?

And when is the last time Belichick wished for anything?

 Wilson represents Belichick’s desire to rule the world – er – football world.  A trend-setter his entire coaching career, he always seems to be one step ahead of everyone else.  So much so that when he drafted multiple Tight Ends in the 2nd and 4th rounds of the 2010 NFL Draft, he walked right into the Next Big Thing in football without even realizing it.

And two years and countless opportunities for his defenses to practice against them later, even he admits that it’s a virtual impossibility to cover Aaron Hernandez, and just as frightening a prospect for a defensive back is to see Rob Gronkowski brearing down on him with a head full of steam, cutting a straight swath towards him, with very little possibility that he’s going to juke and cut to avoid the contact….

…and that’s where Wilson and fellow 2012 draft pick Nate Ebner come into the picture, perhaps even 7th round pick Alfonzo Dennard as well.  The way to contain these brutish Tight Ends and the relentless no-huddle 21 Offense (two Tight Ends, two wide receivers and one running back) is to be in a Nickle formation, utilizing a safety as the extra back instead of a corner.  The position requires a cross of Safety and Linebacker skills, good size and the mentality of a young wolverine – the Nickle safety would fulfill the role of shadowing the tight ends while projecting a presence in run support.

The scouting report confirmed these qualities in Wilson, and they have indeed carried over into his first season of playing professional football: “He ran a 4.50-40 at the Illinois pro day, would have tied him for first among all safeties at the combine… Excels in the run game from the secondary, attacks the action with a purpose; shows better explosion versus the run than the pass, not afraid to stick his nose in the pile to make plays…not afraid to lay his shoulder into ball carriers and is a hard hitter, can separate his opponent from the football…”

All of that happened to Nate Washington, Chris Johnson and the rest of the Titans’ offense last Sunday.  Wilson and defensive captain Jerod Mayo teamed to sandwich Washington as he attempted to haul in a pass from Quarterback Jake Locker, the resulting carnage leaving both Locker and Washington broken.

Earlier, Wilson had snared a tipped ball for his first NFL interception, defended two other throws and stuck his nose in a few scrums.  Fellow rookies Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower teamed up on a strip sack by the former and return for touchdown by the latter…and by the time the score was out of reach, this defense had gained a great measure of confidence and a bit of swagger – a young defense, perhaps too young to look this good.

Regardless, New England is now prepared to send it’s defense up against – it’s offense.

Belichick the trend setter has given motivation to the rest of the league, as his success in running the two tight end set with physical freaks Gronkowski and Hernandez is spawning similar evolution on other teams, and with the past two years to study the monster that he created, he is now the most prepared coach in the league at trying to stop it, once the other teams are able to field such a unit.

And maybe the way to stop it is to just have Wilson’s gift for simplifying a game that all too often is complicated.  “Just keep running” he says, “If you run to the football, great things happen for you.”

That’s fundamental football at it’s most fundamental.  And Tavon Wilson gets it.