Experience increases value of nickel to Titans' defense

Tuesday, July 20, 2010 at 10:31pm

With each passing year – and most passing situations – the Tennessee Titans’ nickel increases in value. Their nickel back, that is.

In recent seasons, that role (the third cornerback in pass defense) has belonged first and foremost to Vincent Fuller. Now with five years in the NFL to his credit, Fuller sees his experience as invaluable.

“It depends on the person, but in my personal opinion experience definitely plays a key factor because nickel is kind of a tough position,” he said. “Everything happens a lot quicker, and you’re playing an area of the field you’re not accustomed to playing if you’re a cornerback.”

Drafted in the fourth round in 2005 out of Virginia Tech, Fuller has appeared in 63 games during his career but has been credited with just two starts. It’s likely, though that he has been on the field more than some of the defensive starters.

With the increased use of three and four-receiver sets in the NFL, the nickel is not so much a specialized package as it once was. Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher has said repeatedly over time, in fact, that he considers the nickel back as 12th starter.

The last time the Titans had a nickel back with as much experience in the NFL was 1999, when Steve Jackson was in his ninth – and final – season. That, of course, also was the last – and only – time the team made the Super Bowl.

“I would definitely consider nickel my first role,” Fuller said. “Come Sundays, that’s where I spend the majority of my time. If something happens to one of our safeties, then I would have to fill in that role, but initially the nickel is my job.”

From that spot, lined up against a slot receiver, he has made five career interceptions, including a career-high three last season. He also has recorded two sacks and forced three fumbles.

“I love it,” he said. “It combines assets of cornerback and safety and due to my size (6-foot-1) and my stature (190 pounds), that’s where I fit.

“You have to be able to read your keys like a safety does and be able to play close to the line of scrimmage and tackle. At the same time you have to be able to cover a number of speedy receivers and learn route concepts and things like that. I think it incorporates a little of everything.”

Part of his appeal when he was drafted was that he had some experience in the role during his college career.

Fuller said that between his junior and senior seasons at Virginia Tech, the team switched to a defensive scheme more deeply rooted in professional concepts. He recalled one game against the University of Miami when he played every snap in the slot against tight end Kellen Winslow Jr.

In the NFL, his job most often is to defend a wide receiver.

“Basically, when nickel gets called there’s three receivers on the field unless it’s a down-and-distance situation where they want more (defensive backs),” he said. “But generally, I’m seeing more wide receivers.”

At this point, he’s seen plenty.