Eventually Manti Te’o is going to lace up his cleats and take the field as a football player for the San Diego Chargers and hope to make everyone forget he was the victim of a hoax. If Te’o becomes a good NFL player, the jokes will be retired and the whole ordeal will become just a footnote on his career.
Although Te’o didn’t look like a great middle linebacker prospect on tape and the National Championship game against Alabama highlighted some of his weaknesses, he landed in a perfect spot as an inside linebacker in John Pagano’s 3-4 defense.
In a 3-4 defense, Te’o’s ability to play downhill will be highlighted and he won't be asked to cover tight ends and running backs one-on-one regularly. At most, Te’o will be asked to drop into short zones and play the receivers in front of him, and he will probably not play in nickel and dime situations.
When Te’o played middle linebacker at Notre Dame, his responsibilities included stopping the run and the pass—he couldn’t just focus on the things he does best. Part of the beauty of the 3-4 defense is being able to take players that otherwise may not have an NFL fit and making them productive contributors.
The 3-4 "Mike" Linebacker
Donald Butler is entrenched as the weak-side inside linebacker that is called a “Mo” in the Bum Phillips one-gap 3-4 variant that the Chargers run. The weak-side linebacker is considered the playmaker of the two inside linebackers and the one that is expected to make plays from sideline to sideline.
Te’o will play the “Mike” linebacker spot or the strong-side inside linebacker position for the Chargers. The "Mike" is expected to be better against the run and give the "Mo" opportunities to make plays by taking on offensive guards and funneling running backs to his help.
A decent "Mike" ties up a guard or fullback and enables his teammate to make the play behind him. A great "Mike" can also shed and get a shoulder on the running back. The "Mike" is often called the “thumper” because he’s responsible for blowing up gaps and lead blockers, but he’s also responsible for preventing the cutback against zone runs.
Since the 3-4 defense uses only three down linemen, one of the linebackers is responsible for whatever offensive lineman isn’t tied up by the three down linemen. In a one-gap scheme, the defensive linemen are not anchoring and playing two gaps, and that means there will almost always be one offensive lineman free to block a linebacker.
Fortunately for the Chargers, Te’o has proven that he’s very capable in this role. Te’o is quick to read and react to plays, and he diagnoses the right gaps. When Te’o gets moving and provides a good pop, he’s usually able to shed and find the running back.
When Te’o is caught flat-footed when he’s occasionally slow to diagnose a play, offensive linemen will put him on skates. He needs to work on fighting through blocks, but he can be a decent inside linebacker next to Butler even if all he can do is tie up the blocker.
The Coverage Issue
General manager Tom Telesco praised Te’o for his ability to play on third down and called him capable of being a three-down linebacker in the NFL. There is, indeed, some fact and fiction to what you have heard about Te’o’s abilities.
There are obviously two types of coverage—zone and man. Te’o has demonstrated the ability to drop into short zones and read and react to what receivers run in front of him. Te’o’s strength is how quick he is to respond to the offense, and that ability translates well into covering short zones.
What Te’o doesn’t do well is cover man-to-man, and he can get fooled by the play-action pass because he’s always looking in the backfield. Sliding Te’o outside to cover a tight end would be putting him in position to fail. Alabama went to a heavy set with nose tackle Jesse Williams as a fullback to get Te’o into a situation where he would have to cover a tight end man-to-man.
NFL offenses are also increasingly spreading the field and forcing defenses to adapt. Te’o is not a player that can cover a tight end down a deep seem or in the slot, so he’ll have to be given a short zone responsibility or come off the field in those situations.
Depending on the tight end and the opponent, the Chargers may be able to use Te’o in certain passing situations, but as we saw in BCS Championship Game, they would run the risk of an offense planning to attack him. The Chargers will have to get an extra defensive back on the field against passing teams, and the extra inside linebacker is almost always the player to lose snaps in this case.
The good news for the Chargers is that the Te’o fits perfectly in Pagano’s 3-4 defense. Te’o will only be put in positions to be successful, and his coverage issues shouldn’t be a huge problem. If Te’o can get off blocks more consistently, he will form a great tandem with Butler for years to come.