Bears switch Mannings at nickel back

Matt Trowbridge

Nickel backs usually aren’t good enough to start. Yet they play one of the more demanding positions on an NFL defense.

“That and the will linebacker (who plays opposite the tight end side) are the two toughest,” Bears defensive coordinator Bob Babich said. “He has to be able to play the run. He has to be able to play the pass. He has to be a blitzer. He has to be able to run with a guy deep. He has to be able to play a wide receiver in man coverage.

“There are a lot of things that guy has to be able to do.”

Ricky Manning Jr. made a name for himself as a third cornerback in the 2003 playoffs, when he led all players with four interceptions, earned back-to-back Player of the Week honors and helped Carolina reach the Super Bowl. Manning Jr. also excelled for the Bears in 2006, tying for the team lead with a career-high five interceptions in Chicago’s Super Bowl season.

“It’s a tough position,” Manning Jr. said. “You’ve got to hit with the big boys and cover the fast guys.”

A nickel back replaces a linebacker on downs when the defense expects a pass. But he’s not just a specialist against the pass. Because the nickel corner takes the place of a linebacker, he has to tackle like a linebacker when the offense calls a run instead.

“That’s what makes it so difficult,” Manning Jr. said. “You have to know your keys. You have to know the gaps the defensive linemen are filling. You have to know the gaps the linebackers are filling. The corners, they don’t have to know any of that.”

A few physical starting cornerbacks – notably Tampa Bay’s Ronde Barber and Minnesota’s Antoine Winfield – move inside to nickel on third down. But most teams bring in a virtual 12th starter.

Manning Jr., built like a mini-linebacker at a muscular 5-foot-9 and 193 pounds, seemed an ideal fit at the nickel spot. But losing Pro Bowl corner Nathan Vasher for 12 games to a groin injury led the Bears to try Manning Jr. on the outside last year. He struggled there and his play also dropped off when the Bears moved him back inside.

Now the Bears are replacing the 27-year-old Manning, Jr. with Danieal Manning, a second-round draft pick in 2006. Danieal Manning struggled at both safety and cornerback in his first two seasons and is “excited” about the move to nickel.

“That’s a big position, a key position,” Danieal Manning said. “It’s a pass-happy league, and third down is a big down. This shows how much they trust me and it shows my versatility. I’ve played safety, corner and nickel. It doesn’t matter as long as I’m on the field.”

Late last year, no nickel was often on the field for the Bears. Chicago’s nickel package struggled so badly that the Bears began to leave all three linebackers in on third and long.

Now the Bears, who dropped from No. 5 in the league on defense to No. 28, want to return to their traditional nickel package. With a different, faster, younger nickel back.

“When offenses go to three- and four-wide receiver sets, you’ve got to have a guy who can play inside,” Vasher said. “And covering wide receivers inside is a little tougher because they can go two ways, inside or outside. Sometimes nickels are the most athletic guys on the field.

“Danieal does a great job making tackles in the open field and covering like a cover corner.”

He needs to, because he now has one of the two toughest jobs on Chicago’s defense.

Matt Trowbridge can be reached at (815) 987-1383