Earlier this week we brought you our updated article on the Defensive Line Prototypes, and now for the first time we’re going to do the same for linebackers.
Defensive line play has been distilled into a rough code of techniques and positions, and though linebackers have a similar numbering system (add a zero to the defensive line techniques to get the same alignment from a linebacker at the second level) there really is no limit on what linebackers can be expected to do in different schemes across the league. What might be a perfect fit for one scheme becomes a square peg in a round hole in somebody else’s.
The added space linebackers have to play in leads to a far greater variance in possible responsibilities that has given rise to a broad spectrum of linebacker types. We’re going to look at the most typical prototypes in both the 4-3 and 3-4 defenses, and touch on some of the more unusual quirks that some schemes require from their linebackers as we go.
First up, the 4-3 defense:
4-3 SAM Linebacker (OLB) – Daryl Smith
You’ll often hear about players being a perfect fit for the WILL linebacker spot, but not really a SAM linebacker kind of player, or about a guy being more of a SAM than a MIKE linebacker, but what does it all mean? The three linebackers in a 4-3 defense typically have slightly different responsibilities against both the run and pass.
The SAM linebacker plays on the strong side of the formation (hence the name: SAM for strong, Mike for middle, WILL for weak), and will usually be the linebacker who has to take on the lead blockers in run plays, or deal with tight ends releasing into pass patterns. Strong side linebackers have to be able to take on lead blocks and win at the point of attack in the run game, but also be able to cover tight ends in the pass game. Obviously the run does not always go to the strong side, and so while not being able to take on lead blockers and win is a deal breaker for SAM linebackers, WILL linebackers will have to do it on certain plays too. There are teams in the NFL that play left and right linebackers rather than SAM and WILL, and so in those schemes both OLBs have to be able to play either spot from one play to the next.
The strong side linebackers are increasingly becoming a two-down player because the two roles they have to be adept at are so difficult to master, especially as tight ends become ever more athletic. Daryl Smith isn’t just one of the most underrated players in football, but might be the best SAM linebacker around. He is a true three-down player, and excels both in coverage and against the run. He can also turn his hand to the blitz with fine results.
Alternative Prototypes: Erin Henderson, Bart Scott, and Justin Durant
4-3 MIKE Linebacker (MLB) – Ray Lewis
The MIKE linebacker is the field general for the defense. He has the toughest job of the 4-3 linebackers, because he needs to be able to cover the most ground, be it sideline to sideline, covering expanded gaps in a Wide-9 defensive front, or dropping into the deep middle in a Tampa 2. He also has the job, in most instances, of calling defensive signals and making sure everybody else is in the right place and on the same page.
Because middle linebackers need to be able to cover large amounts of ground, they are usually more athletic than SAM linebackers, and they must have the best instincts of all, because how they react depends entirely on the play and how they read it. Ray Lewis may be approaching his 105th birthday (he was born in 1975!), but he still remains one of the best MIKE linebackers in the NFL, and has maintained a Pro-Bowl level of play because his instincts are so good. He may have lost a step, but he can read and react to a play in an instant, rarely takes a false step and that all taken together means he is still a consistent presence against the run or pass. While his athleticism isn’t what it was, his experience and anticipation makes up for it in most instances, and his ability to time the snap makes him a factor on the blitz.
Middle linebacker is also the position that can change the most dependent on scheme. In a Tampa-2 like Chicago’s, the ability to drop deep down the middle of the field and act almost like a third safety becomes one of the most important skills, and Brian Urlacher is the perfect player for that scheme. In a defense like Detroit or Philadelphia’s, where the defensive line plays with very wide splits, having a downhill thumper who can play off the blocks of linemen becomes everything. Stephen Tulloch is the prototype for that kind of scheme.
Alternative Prototypes: Paul Posluszny, Patrick Willis, Tampa 2 – Brian Urlacher, Wide-9 – Stephen Tulloch
4-3 WILL Linebacker (OLB) – Sean Weatherspoon
The weak side linebacker is the glamour spot in the 4-3. Things are geared for this guy to fly to the football and make plays. Typically the SAM will take care of the first lead blocker, the MIKE linebacker cleans up any other blocks and the WILL linebacker can just penetrate and make a play on the football. The WILL therefore is usually the quickest, most explosive of the 4-3 linebackers.
Teams will sacrifice size in favor of speed and running ability and you will often hear about players coming out from the draft who are seen as either WILL linebackers or strong safeties. They need to be explosive athletes that can find their way through traffic at pace and get to the ball carrier, while the lead blocks are being taken care of by the other linebackers.
Ironically enough, Ernie Sims would be the perfect NFL prototype for this position, but for the fact that he can’t seem to play to his physical skills. Sims is one of the most athletic linebackers in the league, is on the small side at around 225 pounds, and can run with anybody, but he consistently misreads plays or over-pursues and takes himself out of things. While SAM linebackers throw themselves at blocks, blowing up the play at the point of attack, WILL linebackers need to take the right angle to kill the play on first contact, and Sims can’t seem to master that.
After a breakout second season, the new NFL prototype might be the Falcons’ Sean Weatherspoon. He is a fast, instinctive linebacker and was PFF’s fourth-rated 4-3 OLB against the run last season.
Alternative Prototypes: Lance Briggs, Chad Greenway, Will Witherspoon
3-4 Outside Linebacker – DeMarcus Ware
Cowboys fans have been complaining about a perceived PFF slight of late. We didn’t feature Tony Romo in our Top 101 players, we featured DeMarcus Ware too low, and we didn’t give DeMarco Murray enough credit for his great rushing days, but we’re featuring a Cowboy front and center now, ahead of all other players at the position.
3-4 outside linebackers are the primary pass-rushers in that defensive scheme. They are essentially stand-up defensive ends, and so they also need to be able to read the play and defend the run by setting the edge, rather than just affect the play by charging up field. DeMarcus Ware is what a 3-4 outside linebacker should look like. At 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, he has the length teams want at the position (height as well as arm length) in order to fight off offensive tackles, but he has the speed to get around the edge and wreak havoc.
Ware is half a sack shy of topping 100 for his career, and he is the perfect prototype for the 3-4 outside linebacker. In recent years, some players have broken the traditional prototype mold for this position. Pittsburgh’s James Harrison looks nothing like the traditional profile, but he is a freak athlete who makes use of his outstanding leverage, strength, and speed to make plays. Mario Williams, Clay Matthews, and Cameron Wake are all players who don’t match the textbook profile of a 3-4 OLB but have been very successful at it.
Alternative Prototypes: Lamaar Woodley, Brian Orakpo, and Clay Matthews III
3-4 Inside Linebacker – Patrick Willis
The 3-4 inside linebacker is similar in most instances to the 4-3 middle linebacker, and in truth, the player we have chosen as the prototype here could easily be the league’s prototype for both. The difference between the positions, though, is that inside linebackers in the 3-4 typically don’t have to cover as much ground as their 4-3 counterparts. Since there are two of them, they can usually split the field and cover half the ground, both coming forward against the run, and dropping back into coverage.
The downside to this is that they have to be better suited to fighting off blocks–from offensive linemen, especially–because either of them could find themselves playing the role of the 4-3 SAM linebacker on a given play, depending on the point of attack. In essence, the 3-4 inside linebackers can each be expected to act as the strong-side player, taking on and defeating the lead blocker for the other to make the play. Some teams will play strong- and weak-side ILBs especially for this purpose.
Patrick Willis is a wrecking ball inside for the 49ers in their 3-4 defense. He has the burst to close on plays and the strength to take on blocks as and when he needs to. He is more than tough enough to deal with blockers, and has the kind of athleticism and coverage skills that would make him the prototype for a 4-3 MLB as well. Willis is the league’s best inside linebacker regardless of scheme, but he is the 3-4 ILB prototype.
Alternative Prototypes: Derrick Johnson, NaVorro Bowman, Sean Lee