TAMPA — Everyone, it seems, wants to offer their two cents about the nickel.
The nickel position, a cornerback that covers a slot receiver, has emerged as a key component of modern NFL pass defenses as rule changes continue to encourage quarterbacks to spread the field in a quest for favorable matchups.
“When I first started playing it, if a third corner came into the game, that’s where he went — in the slot,’’ former Buccaneers standout cornerback Ronde Barber said. “Today, you might find your best corner there. Teams are passing almost 70 percent of the time and the nickelback spot has become a specialized position.’’
The Bucs have tabbed veteran assistant coach Larry Marmie to tutor nickelbacks exclusively, and he is working closely with former Largo High star Leonard Johnson.
“This is Year 3 for me, I’m not a rookie anymore,’’ said Johnson, who has returned two of his four career interceptions for touchdowns. “This is a good time for me to break ties with old coaches and impress new coaches. I’m going to let my play win their hearts over.’’
Johnson has started 14 games for Tampa Bay since signing as a free agent after the 2012 draft. He appears to have the inside track on the daunting responsibility of covering receivers lined up in the slot, where the sideline is no factor and physical play is mandatory.
“At nickel, you’re playing against some of the best receivers in the league,’’ Bucs defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. “You’ve got to not only cover, but you’ve got to tackle from that spot. We believe Leonard can get it done. He’s really grasped what we’ve asked him to do and he’s improving every day.’’
Barber, a five-time Pro Bowl selection who will be eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2018, slid inside from his starting corner position when teams used three receivers. He thrived against slot receivers.
Barber was a fierce tackler who studied tendencies and often baited quarterbacks into believing a target was open. He also was a threat to blitz from the nickel position — with 47 interceptions and 28 sacks, the only cornerback in NFL history to record 40-plus interceptions and 20-plus sacks.
“If you want to know exactly the level you’re trying to get to, it’s right in front of you around here,’’ Bucs head coach Lovie Smith said. “I say Ronde is the best nickelback to play the game. Leonard’s a tough guy. He’ll tackle, he’s smart and he’s coachable.’’
From taking on small but shifty Wes Welker to handling massive Calvin Johnson, nickelbacks face an array of challenges each week.
“I often hear someone described as a team’s No. 1 corner or No. 2 corner, but when you’re talking about a third corner, he may be lining up on the No. 1 receiver,’’ Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “When you face three-wide receiver sets, everyone labels the guy who lines up inside as your No. 3 corner. But in reality, that position is probably more difficult than playing out on the edge because you’ve got to basically cover the whole field.’’
Third-year safety Mark Barron has witnessed steady progression from Johnson, who picked off a pass in three consecutive games during his rookie season.
“Leonard and I came in together and since Day 1, he’s been a hard worker,’’ Barron said. “As long as the guy comes out and works like that every day, he’s going to get the results from it.’’
Johnson, whose daughter, Parker, was born Dec. 30, isn’t taking that coveted nickelback spot for granted.
“Ronde and I had a 40-minute film session recently and he gave me some pointers,’’ Johnson said. “It’s hard trying to fill his shoes and it’s way different than being on the outside. If you mess up inside, that’s the closest receiver to the quarterback.
“I lost 14 pounds, I’m moving a lot faster and this scheme suits me well. If our coaches are falling in love with what I’m doing, I plan to keep doing it.’’