How to Know When a Linebacker Is Doing His Job
After the fun that was Friday's piece on offensive linemen at Your Best 11, we figured let's flip the sides of the ball and hit on the linebacker spot.
There are more ways for most people to look at linebacker play than offensive line, that's certainly true. Between tackles, tackles for loss, sacks and interceptions, most people feel like they have a firm grasp of the spot.
However, for linebackers, how they arrive at the numbers that most people tend to toss around as validation is the more important element. Lost in the numbers are things like run fits, gap integrity, taking on and shedding blocks, playing downhill, success in coverage and the little understandings that help set a defense.
That's not to say that stats don't mean anything; rather, it is to say that not all stat lines, regardless of similarity, are created equal. 100-plus tackles for Player A does not mean they are the same to the 100-plus tackles of Player B. That's what following the play of linebackers will show as you take eyes off the ball and let the players take you to the play.
For coaches, scouts and players, when film is watched it all starts with alignment. If a kid is in a 30 and he's supposed to be in a 40, then he is miss aligned and not only is it a negative evaluation mark, but he's also a few steps from making the proper play or filling the proper gap.
Now, obviously, when you watch the game, you're not privy to whether or not that Will backer is lined up in the right spot. And that's okay, because what you can do is watch the play's progress and look for certain things from there.
The first thing I like to look for with linebackers is the downhill step. Some call it a read step, but the point is that for linebackers, who are run defenders first, taking the first short step towards the line helps them gain ground and setup for lateral movement as they scrape to assignments, or redirect and get back into coverage.
In stopping the run, it boils down to run fits and maintaining gap integrity. These two go hand in hand, along with taking on and shedding blocks. The initial run fits and then working to maintain them is how the run gets stopped.
Those are run fits, and regardless of a team playing a 4-3 or a 3-4, each backer has a primary gap and then the duty to scrape across, head behind the ball, to stop the cutback. When you get the fits correct, it looks like this:
However, when a player over-pursues or, as is becoming more the case in today's world of college football, a backer gets moved off of his mark by a blocker, then you have a seam.
With the emphasis on speed in today's game a lot of players are both creating seams by avoiding the block and generating space because of their inability to get off of an engaged lineman. People buzzed about it with Manti Te'o against Alabama, but the fact is, when you watch most college football teams play, they have linebackers giving ground and being washed down.
Thus, when you're watching linebacker play, check out how they get off blocks and whether they are going through people to get to the play, or stepping back and running around would be blockers.
What you want to see is guys taking on blocks, getting off of the block and making a play. If we're talking about the outside guys in a 3-4 scheme, then you want them to set a hard edge, keep outside arm free and squeeze the end of the line to turn plays back inside.
On interior and in 4-3 schemes, what you want to see, playside, is guys running through blocks, disengaging and getting themselves into position to make a tackle.
Now, it must be stated that your defensive line goes a long way here. Shedding a center, a guard, a tackle, a tight end or a fullback is one thing, trying to shed a double team is another. If your defensive line is not doing their job, it makes it damn near impossible for the linebackers to do what they are supposed to do.
Another element that I look for in linebacker play is where, and how, guys make tackles. This is a lot less about making that perfect form tackle and a lot more about the types of tackles a player is making and where he makes them on the field.
In other words, is your guy making tackles at or near the line of scrimmage, or is he chasing guys down field to get them down. Is he driving ball carriers backward, or is he dragging them down as they pick up more yards. They all get scored as a tackle on a stat sheet, but each of these scenarios belies different qualities in a linebacker.
Ideally, your backers are hitting guys at the line of scrimmage and driving them backwards on contact. However, you also want guys who will, and can, chase down the plays away from them to limit the gains. But, if a guy is chasing and dragging on plays to him, that means he's having a problem with getting off blocks.
When it comes to pass coverage, the linebackers have got an interesting job because while run is their primary job, the current climate of college football demands that they be capable against the pass. Even though teams are going to more nickel and dime packages, linebackers still have to be players in the pass game for their teams to succeed.
In a man coverage scheme, that means linebackers have to be able to run with running backs, tight ends and sometimes even slot receivers. A very basic idea, but far more difficult in practice as backs and tight ends become more athletic and bigger players in the pass game.
Job one, in man, is keep the pass threat out of the middle. The middle is an easier throw for the quarterback to make and the goal is to make his job harder. In practice that means protecting the inside hard by forcing the receiver to go through the linebacker to get to that interior real estate that they want. Defenders are taught to sit hard on the inside and then sprint to the outside release.
Being good in man coverage means you eliminate opportunities for the offense and you tackle for minimal gain. Being incapable in man coverage often means touchdowns for the opposition.
When it comes to zone coverage protecting the interior is still job one, but there are far more complexities to the job for everyone involved. Instead of just taking the back that releases to their side, or riding the tight end, linebackers are now reading threat number three while trying to wall off number two and expanding into imaginary coverage zones in relation to the quarterback's drop and look.
Linebackers have to understand where they fit in a coverage concept and why they have to get to their landmarks every time. They get asked to get depth with their drops, while keeping receivers out of the interior of the zone, all while remembering to play deep to short and not chase routes close to the line of scrimmage and create holes in the zone.
So, when you're watching your linebackers in zone coverage watch for how they keep receivers out of the middle and then how they track receivers in their zone. If they dive into the line to try and defend against a shallow crosser and the quarterback hits a deeper dig behind where they should be, that's on the linebacker. You want to see your linebackers get depth in coverage, not obsess over the four yards and shorter routes, and close to the shallow routes with aggressive control to make tackles.
Aggressive control is the last thing we'll hit on here. In pass coverage linebackers have to close with aggressive control to the short passes. When they are players in the pass rush, linebackers have to get to the quarterback with aggressive control. That is how you want your guys to play, and regardless of the situation, once the backers are out of the phone booth that is the tackle box, aggressive control is a must.
When your guys are missing tackles, missing opportunities for sacks and overrunning plays, that's a problem. You want them flying around to the ball. You want them ready to deliver a blow when they get to the ball carrier. But you also want them to be able to actually get more than a hand on a player and to be in the play, instead of run themselves out of it.
Just like offensive linemen, take some time to watch the backers work. You'll see guys slow playing the ball away or sinking into coverage, all while reading their keys in an effort to diagnose the play and stop it for minimal gain.
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