After updating the Defensive Line Prototypes we are now moving on to the linebackers, rolling in a new wave of prototypes for the position as some of the old have either declined or retired.
Though linebackers can be arranged into a similar numerical system to defensive linemen (30-technique, rather than 3-technique etc), on any given play they can change their alignment subtly and move between them freely, so it is easier to break them down more by scheme than by specific techniques. Even then there will be players that don’t fit into any specific vanilla scheme but are talented enough that coaches find ways to incorporate them into the gameplan, or change their scheme to fit the player.
This list won’t be exhaustive, and players that are currently breaking and redefining the role of linebacker like Von Miller won’t be represented here, but we should hit on most of the regular positions and mention some of the more unusual quirks across the league as we go.
4-3 SAM Linebacker (OLB) – K.J. Wright
You might think the outside linebacker spots in a 4-3 should be completely interchangeable, and some teams do in fact play simply left outside linebacker and right outside linebacker, but the reason most don’t is because offensive formations are rarely balanced. Offenses and defenses work on the basis of a strong side of the formation and a weak side of the formation (traditionally, the side with a tight end is the strong side).
These outside linebackers typically have slightly different responsibilities against the run and pass. The SAM linebacker plays on the strong side of the formation, hence the name, and is usually the linebacker that has to take on lead blockers in run plays, or deal with tight ends releasing into pass patterns. Because of these roles, strong side linebackers need to be stronger and more stout than their counterparts on the weak side. Not every run goes to the strong side of the formation and so there will be some crossover in skills between these outside linebackers, but typically SAM linebackers need to contend with a more physically demanding game.
Contending with lead blockers in the run game and still being able to drop and cover tight ends requires a skill set that is becoming increasingly difficult to find, especially as tight ends become ever more athletic and dangerous in space, so the SAM linebacker is becoming ever more a two-down player — a run specialist that gets replaced when teams go to nickel defense for more athletic and fluid players in coverage. K.J. Wright is the latest prototype for this position, capable in coverage and a solid player against the run even when faced with lead blockers up at the line of scrimmage.
Alternate Prototypes: Erin Henderson, Justin Durant
4-3 MIKE Linebacker (ILB) – Luke Kuechly
The MIKE linebacker is the quarterback of the defense. He has the toughest job of the 4-3 linebackers, because he needs to be able to cover the most ground, whether that is sideline to sideline, or dropping into the deep middle. He also has the role, in most defenses, of calling defensive signals and making sure the defense is lined up in the right place and everybody is singing from the same hymn sheet.
With middle linebackers needing to cover large amounts of ground, they are usually more athletic than SAM linebackers, and they must have the best instincts and feel for the game of all because their positioning depends on the speed in which they can read and react to plays. Ray Lewis was the MLB prototype for years thanks largely to the instincts he possessed. Even when his athleticism began to decline, he was still able to make up for the lost step by reading plays better than those around him and getting to the right spot in time. Now that he has retired however, it is time to anoint a new prototype, and that is going to be Carolina’s Luke Kuechly.
Once the Panthers realized that Kuechly was a MIKE linebacker rather than an outside ‘backer his play took off, ending the season with six of eight games positively graded. He has an incredible ability to find the football, ending up as part of the tackle more than any other linebacker, regardless of where the play is going. He has the ability and range to flow to the football and is adept at reading and reacting to short passes in front of him. The area where he had problems as a rookie was in coverage deep down the field, as he struggled to adequately feel danger on routes that went behind him. Once he develops the experience to deal with these passes he will be a complete player.
Middle linebacker is also the position that can vary the most depending on specific schemes. In a defense like Detroit’s, one that employs a Wide-9 defensive front, the MLB needs to be a much more aggressive and stout downhill thumper, because he must be able to play off the blocks of free offensive linemen coming at him. Conversely in a Tampa-2 scheme the ability to drop deep down the field to cover passes is the most important skill, which is why Brian Urlacher was such a lynchpin of the Chicago D during the Lovie Smith-era.
Alternate Prototypes: Patrick Willis, Bobby Wagner
4-3 WILL Linebacker (OLB) – Lavonte David
The WILL linebacker is the highlight-reel position in the 4-3 defense. Things are schemed for this player to fly to the football and make plays. Generally the SAM is tasked with taking on the lead blocks, the MIKE linebacker fights his way through any remaining blocks and the WILL linebacker gets a free run through traffic to the football. The weak side linebacker is therefore usually the quickest, lightest and most explosive of the 4-3 linebackers.
Teams will sacrifice size in favor of speed, quickness and the ability to cover distance and close on the ball and that’s why you often see prospects talked about as being either a strong safety or WILL linebacker. There are several players in the league that were college safeties that now play WILL linebacker. These players need to be explosive athletes than can find their way to the football through traffic at speed, and bring the play down before it can develop.
If you were drawing up the perfect 4-3 WILL linebacker he would probably look an awful lot like Ernie Sims, but unfortunately Sims doesn’t have the ability to play to his perfect physical skill set. Instead, Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David is the new defensive prototype for the position, stepping into the role once made famous in Tampa Bay by Derrick Brooks. At 6’1 and 233lbs David has the kind of size that enables him to play fast, racking up tackles for loss as he shoots gaps and disrupts plays in the backfield.
Alternate Prototypes: Sean Weatherspoon, Lance Briggs
3-4 OLB – DeMarcus Ware
In many ways 3-4 outside linebackers have far more in common with 4-3 defensive ends than they do with any of the 4-3 linebacker spots. In fact, our prototype for the position, DeMarcus Ware, is about to be converted to a 4-3 end in Dallas’ new defensive scheme, but he remains the textbook example of this position.
These 3-4 OLBs are the primary pass-rushers in that defensive scheme. They are essentially just stand-up defensive ends, and developed as coaches tried to craft a scheme in which an offense couldn’t determine before the snap which players would be rushing the passer and which would be dropping into coverage. As such, they need to be able to read and react, setting the edge against the run and bringing heat against the pass. Ware looks exactly how a 3-4 OLB should look. At 6’4 and 260lbs, he has the length teams want (height and arm reach) in order to fight off offensive tackles and keep them at a distance, but he also has the speed to turn the corner and influence plays.
In recent years this position has seen something of a revolution in terms of typical players. James Harrison was able to have an impressive amount of success despite having none of the desired height or length. The league is coming around to the idea that if a player has the ability to rush the passer from a two-point stance, he might not need to look like DeMarcus Ware to be a good 3-4 OLB.
Alternate Prototypes: Clay Matthews, Aldon Smith
3-4 ILB – Patrick Willis
The 3-4 inside linebacker is similar in many ways to the 4-3 MIKE ‘backer, and Patrick Willis could easily be named the prototype for both positions, having succeeded at both already in his NFL career as the 49ers changed defensive schemes. The differences between the positions are subtle. Inside linebackers in a 3-4 usually don’t have to cover as much ground as their 4-3 counterparts, since there are two players splitting the field in half, coming forward against the run or dropping back into coverage.
The trade off is they usually need to be more capable of dealing with blocks from offensive linemen getting through to the second level because there are only three defensive linemen in front of them instead of four — and gone are the days when those players were behemoth bodies tasked with controlling two-gaps. Most 3-4 schemes today are almost exclusively one-gap systems, meaning the linemen control just a single gap along the offensive line, and the linebackers behind them have to plug the others.
Just as some teams that run a 4-3 play just left and right outside linebacker, some 3-4 teams will play strong and weak side when it comes to their inside linebackers, whereas some play just left and right side. For the teams that don’t specify, either of the inside backers can be expected to take on the role of the SAM, attacking lead blocks and creating the play for the trail player to make the tackle depending on the point of attack.
Willis is a dynamo of destruction for the 49ers. He has off-the-charts athleticism and the burst to close on plays in coverage or against the run. He also has more than enough strength to take on blocks when he needs to, whether that be in the run game or even coming on the blitz through the middle. Willis is the league’s best inside linebacker by a distance, and remains the league’s prototype.
Alternate Prototypes: NaVorro Bowman, Sean Lee
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