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Back in New Orleans again, Patrick Robinson adjusting to nickel role in more aggressive Saints defense

Tuesday 19 June, 2018 | RSS Feed

Back in New Orleans again, Patrick Robinson adjusting to nickel role in more aggressive Saints defense

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Patrick Robinson is back in New Orleans because he possesses a special set of skills. 

A defensive back who plays the slot, or a nickel in popular parlance, is a highly specialized role, different both than the role a true cornerback plays on the outside and the role a safety plays. 

And it's more important than ever. A nickel used to be a specialist, a part-time player who only saw the field in certain situations. 
All of that has changed. The nickel has been a de factor starter in NFL defenses for years. 

"He's playing 70 percent of the snaps," defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. "That nickel player is a starter, and he's going to play more snaps than the Sam linebacker."

New Orleans brought back its former first-round pick on a four-year, $20 million deal because Robinson was one of the best nickels in the NFL last season.

"I think that's a difficult position to play,' Allen said. "You're required to have the athletic skill set to cover in man-to-man, much like you would on the outside lanes like a corner, but there's a mental aspect that goes on in there, and things happen a lot faster inside in the slot. Gaining that experience has certainly helped him."

Working in the slot for the Philadelphia Eagles, Robinson made 47 tackles, a sack, four interceptions and 18 pass breakups in the regular season and put his own stamp on Philadelphia's Super Bowl run with a pick-six against Minnesota in the NFC Championship game. 

But the nickel role he'll be playing in New Orleans is not quite the same as the one he played for the Eagles.

"It's very aggressive, more on the man-to-man side," Robinson said. "I would say this past year, it was more of a zone defense when I was in Philly. Here, it's more aggressive, more blitzing, more of a man-to-man type defense. I'm still trying to get used to it."
A lot of the same skills that make nickel a specialized position still apply, but there's a big difference. 

"That changes a lot," Robinson said. "As far as a man-to-man defense, you're more focused on one or two people, but if you're in zone, you've got to have eyes and awareness for everyone in that area.

By signing Robinson, the Saints might be signaling something of a change in how they plan to handle the nickel position.

For the past two seasons under Allen, the Saints have used three-safety sets heavily, deploying former safety Kenny Vaccaro as the nickel who covered receivers out of the slot. 

New Orleans has also used cornerbacks in the role — P.J. Williams played the position at times last year, among others — but the Saints haven't had a player whose primary role was to handle the slot. 

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A player like Robinson. New Orleans will still likely deploy its three-safety sets against personnel groupings that feature two tight ends or two backs, but when three receivers are on the field, the Saints want an extra cornerback out there. 

And with an experienced nickel like Robinson, Allen might be able to mix in a little bit more zone.
"The thing is just understanding what it feels like to play in there," Saints cornerbacks coach Aaron Glenn said. "Understanding where your leverage is, understanding where your help is."

A good player in the slot can help take a defense to the next level. While the typical slot receiver used to be a small, agile possession type, the position has evolved in offenses. Big-bodied receivers and tight ends have become weapons out of the slot, and when teams want to take attention off of their best receivers, they often move them to the inside. 

Robinson was signed to handle all of those challenges. A former first-round pick, Robinson admits he was a little "bitter" about the way his first five seasons in New Orleans ended because he wasn't able to live up to the expectations, but he's no longer the same player who joined the Saints back in 2010 as a rookie. 

Outside expectations don't matter as much anymore. Robinson is focused on doing the job the Saints hired him to do. 

"I'm going to be honest, and I don't want to sound like a rude guy or a mean guy: I don't really pay attention to what the fans do," Robinson said. "If you get caught up in that, you're going to be high, and if things go wrong, you're going to be low. I'm just trying to do my job."
A job that is more important in the NFL now than it's ever been before. 

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