Linebackers in the NFL today need to be more versatile than ever, with the offenses spreading out, the area these guys need to cover is expanding. Linebackers need to be big and strong enough to take, as well as deliver blows from the guys running at them. They also need to be fast, and cover huge areas of the field, all while reading their keys to get to the ball carrier to make the play.
We’ll start in the 4-3 defense. The three linebackers in a 4-3 are most commonly known as the Sam, Will, and Mike. Each linebacker position has a different job and certain physical and athletic traits uniquely qualifies a player to play each spot.
The Mike linebacker is the middle linebacker in a 4-3 defense. On most teams, the Mike is tasked with calling the defensive play, as well as communicating the offensive formation strength, and communicating any adjustments pre snap. First and foremost these guys need to be smart. On running plays, the Mike is generally one of the first players the gap on the defense. He needs to engage a blocker, and make the tackle, otherwise he needs to force the ball carrier back to a part of the field where his teammates can clean it all up. In pass coverage, the Mike is typically matched up with a back out of the backfield, or a tight end. If the defense is playing a zone coverage, there are several different types of zones he might find himself in. Because of the need to engage the lead blocks in the running game, as well as play in coverage, the Mike is one of the most unique players on the field. A typical Mike will be around 6’ 1” to 6’ 3”, and weigh around 230 pounds. In today’s NFL, the prototype for this position is Carolina’s Luke Kuechly. Listed at 6 ft. 3 in. and 238 lbs. he has the size to take a pounding, and he flies around the field, consistently involved in almost every play. As the game spreads out, we are seeing these MLB’s get a little bit faster and smaller. Deion Jones came into the league in 2016 as a rookie, and showed major promise. Jones was seen making plays all over the field during a Super Bowl run for Atlanta, showing us a glimpse of the future at the MLB position.
The Sam linebacker plays on the strong side of the offense’s formation. To figure out which side is the strong side, simply count players on each side of the center. The side with more players is the strong side. Sam LB’s line up over the tight end about seven yards back, and if there is no tight end, he lines up outside of the offensive tackle. Because of his alignment, the SLB frequently finds himself in coverage with tight ends on passing plays. On running plays, the Sam needs to get downhill fast, as he’s going to have to take on a lead blocker. The Sam is generally the biggest of the linebackers. He’s going to take a hit on nearly every running play, and needs to be big enough to cover the huge and athletic TE’s in the league. SLB’s attain the least statistics during games, because they’re either dropping in coverage, or taking on blockers, and trying to force the carrier inside to his teammates. Of the three linebacker positions in the 4-3, the Sam is the linebacker that is taken off the field in favor of smaller and faster DB’s, in Nickle and Dime packages. One of the best SAM LB in today’s NFL is Anthony Barr of the Minnesota Vikings. Barr is a massive 6 foot 5 inch 255 pound monster. In his career, Barr has started all 42 games he’s played in, and in 2016 racked up 70 combined tackles, as well as 2 sacks. In the video below, we see Barr cover the tight end, force the fumble, and take it to the house for a game winning TD.
The Will is the tackle machine of the 4-3 defense. He lines up about five yards back, over the B gap on the weak side of the line of scrimmage. Weakside linebackers generally have one job on running plays, make the tackle. These guys are some of the best athletes on the field, and most teams will have their WLB’s give up a bit of size as long as they make up for it in speed. WLB’s need to be true sideline to sideline players, and wrack up a ton of tackles in the process. There is no true prototype size for the weakside linebacker, most tend to be between 223 and 235 pounds. Sean Lee garnered All Pro status in the 2016 season starting at WLB for the Dallas Cowboys, finishing with an astonishing 145 combined tackles. At 6 foot 2 and 233 pounds, with instincts through the roof, Sean Lee has become the cream of the crop at the position. Down in Jacksonville, undersized WLB Telvin Smith has 350 tackles through three seasons in the NFL. Smith is only listed at 215 pounds, but is usually among the top two or three players on the field at any given time. The 20 pound difference in size between two of the better WLB’s in the NFL doesn’t affect their ability to get stops. With their speed and natural instincts, these guys each have their own unique ability to seek out the ball carrier and bring him down.
In the video below, we see Sean Lee read and react on the play. He follows the play action, and instinctively sees Vernon Davis number 85 on the left side leak across the line of scrimmage. He reverses field and uses his speed to get to Davis before he can turn it up for a big gain.
3-4 Inside Linebackers
In the 3-4 defense, there are four linebackers on the field, we discussed the role of the outside linebackers here. As for the inside linebackers, they line up over the guards, about 5 yards off the line of scrimmage. Each team plays the 3-4 a little differently, some teams have a specific ILB play the strong side, and other teams will rotate it depending on the situation. Because of this, some teams that play the 3-4 prefer their ILBs to be slightly bigger than the 4-3 MLB’s. In a 3-4 defense, there is no “star tackle machine” like in the 4-3, rather, the ILB’s share the responsibilities on each play. Therefore, in situations where the ILB’s are of similar ability, you’ll generally find similar stats between the two. For ten seasons, Lawrence Timmons of the Pittsburgh Steelers has been patrolling the middle, tallying over 90 tackles seven years running. His partner in the middle, the uber athletic Ryan Shazier, has finished with 87 tackles two years in a row.
These two form a combination amongst the best in the league as far as 3-4 ILB’s are concerned.