For the last while, the home of the elite 3-4 outside linebackers was Pittsburgh. The Steelers have had a steady stream of elite pass rushers including names like Kevin Greene, Joey Porter and James Harrison. However, will the number one still be from behind the steel curtain?
Successful "rushbackers" are often converted from college defensive ends who are undersized to play that position in the NFL. The key attributes to play this position in the NFL is pass rush capability. Due to being undersized, this means speed, explosiveness and a killer burst off the line. In playing the run, the ability to shed blocks and pursue, or stack blockers if the runner is coming your way is a must. This means that hand use is key. Finally, the ability to play at least zone coverage is useful, but in the modern re invention of the 3-4 defense this is being looked over more and more.
For more articles in this series, go to
This dynamo from South Beach is one of the many diamonds in the rough who go on to star as the primary pass rushers in 3-4 defenses. An undrafted free agent from the 2005 class, Cameron Wake as he was then known was signed, then cut by the the New York Giants. From there, he went on to be one of the biggest stars ever in the CFL. He recorded 39 sacks in his two seasons with the B.C. Lions, leading the CFL in sacks both seasons.
He has since made another bid at NFL stardom, signing with the Miami Dolphin's in 2009. The rest, as they say, is history.
Wake is an explosive rusher, who ran a 4.55 40 before the 2005 NFL draft. He is athletic too, able to turn the corner on lumbering offensive tackles. Although still a raw pass rusher, he possesses a few moves which he uses with devastating effect. He does a good job ripping inside on the counter move, which keeps tackles off balance.
He played defensive end for the Lions, and it shows in the running game. He is good at setting up the edge and containing the run, but lacks the strength to consistently beat blockers and bring down runners himself. However, he does a good job against the run, despite his lack of tackles.
His real weakness is in coverage. He has only played one season where he has been pressed into zone coverage in the NFL, and often does not do a great job at it. However, as a marquee pass rusher, he rarely ventures back into the secondary, so this weakness matters little when compared to his other prowess.
2010 stats: 14 sacks, 54 tackles, 4 passes defended, 3 forced fumbles
One of the best linebacker corps of the last decade, Woodley is a pass rushing nightmare for offensive co-ordinators. With both him and Harrison coming off the edge for the same team, Woodley is often blocked by a tight end or running back, and this is as much of a mismatch as will ever be in football.
Woodley was drafted in the second round of the 2007 NFL draft, and was converted from a "tweener" defensive end to a pass rushing outside linebacker. After seeing only occasional playing time in his rookie season, he became a starter in 2008 and made his mark on the NFL in a big way, recording 10 or more sacks in every season since then.
Woodley is more of a power pass rusher, which is uncommon for 3-4 outside linebackers. However, not many 3-4 outside linebackers tip the scales at 265 lbs. He does not have a very fast second gear, but accelerates quickly and bursts off the line from a two-point stance. He uses his hands well to disengage from blockers, and has a devastating bull rush which makes him unblockable by tight ends and running backs.
He plays the run well too. He uses his strength to control offensive linemen and tight ends, and can also shed and stack to make his way to the ball carrier. When asked to go into coverage he can also hold his own. His lateral agility and instant acceleration which make him a feared pass rusher also allow him to mirror tight ends and backs in their routes.
What keeps Woodley down in this list is where he plays. As the left outside linebacker, he is the second best pass rusher on his team. This means he is never blocked by the left tackle, who is normally the best pass protector in the team, and is also not blocked by a tackle at all in some circumstances. Until he proves himself against the best, which he no doubt will when Harrison retires, he will never be the best.
2010 stats: 50 tackles, 10 sacks, 7 passes defended, 2 interceptions, 1 TD, 3 forced fubles, 1 fumble recovered
With his long, blonde hair and relentless attitude, Clay Matthews looks for all the world like the reincarnation of his linebackers coach, Kevin Greene. And in his first two seasons he has looked for all the world to replicate his success as well.
Taken with the 26th pick of the 2009 NFL draft, Matthews made a big impact in his rookie season in the Packers new Dom Capers 3-4 defense. He recorded 10 sacks, and looked like he would develop into one of the top pass rushing linebackers in the league.
Matthews game is built around speed and relentlessness. He recorded a 4.62 40 at the scouting combine at 240 lbs, 15 less than his current playing weight. He also laid down a good three cone drill time and a good vertical leap. This highlights his burst and agility.
He uses his hands well to disengage from blockers, and can bull rush offensive tackles when he gets them off balance. His motor runs non-stop, by his own admission because of his walk-on mentality to the game. He never gives up on a play, and many of his sacks come after his second or third effort.
He deals with the run well too. He is a great tackler in pursuit, using his speed and tenacity to get to the runner, but he has also improved his strength since his college days, and this has stopped teams finding success running the ball right at him. Matthews is also good in coverage. He has good instincts in zone coverage, and has the athleticism to cover tight ends and running backs in coverage.
In all, Matthews is one of the most complete outside linebackers in the league, who can blitz, tackle and cover with great proficiency. After a few more dominant seasons his resume will be complete for a push to be the best outside linebacker in the NFL.
2010 stats: 13.5 sacks, 60 tackles, 5 passes defended, 1 interception, 1 TD, 2 forced fumbles
The defensive standout for the Dallas Cowboys has once again shown why he is one of the best in the league. He lead the NFL is sacks for the second time in his career, and kept playing at a high level against the run.
Ware was taken 11th overall in the 2005 NFL draft after an impressive athletic display in the combine. He ran a 4.56 40 at 262 lbs, while also bench pressing 225 lbs 27 times, recording a 38.5" vertical leap and getting through the three cone drill in 6.83 seconds.
Since entering the NFL, Ware has been a machine, making 80 sacks in six seasons. He uses his speed and burst off the line to get around offensive tackles, but also has the strength to counter inside and keep him off balance, or bull rush straight through him.
He still plays the run a bit like a defensive end. He is good in pursuit, and contains the run well, but does not have the line backers instincts to sniff out the run and make tackles like the number one outside linebacker. His coverage skills are not bad either without being stunning. He can do a good job in soft zone coverage, but does not have the technique to mirror tight ends and backs.
While Ware is the best pass rusher in the NFL, he is not as well rounded as another outside linebacker, which pushes him out of first place.
2010 stats: 15.5 sacks, 66 tackles, 1 pass defended, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumbles recovered, 1 TD
It's official. The best outside linebacker again comes from behind the Steel Curtain. I am sure that this will draw plenty of criticism from Dallas fans, so support please Steeler faithful (that means you Matt).
Harrison is the best all around outside linebacker I have ever seen. He is a relentless pass rusher, using his speed and acceleration to turn the corner on any offensive tackle. Once he gets around the tackle he has great shoulder dip that allows him to accelerate through to the quarterback. He has a decent array of moves to rip inside or bull rush through the offensive tackle. These skills lead to him racking up 36.5 sacks in his last three seasons.
He is also plays the run like a middle linebacker. He diagnoses the play fast, sheds blockers and deals out crushing hits to the ball carrier. However, his speed and relentlessness also makes him one of the best at pursuing plays behind the line of scrimmage. He was the only 3-4 outside linebacker to make 100 tackles this season. He also recorded 101 in 15 games in 2008.
In coverage Harrison is also solid. He is best at zone coverage, where he can makes plays on the ball or deal out a big hit. There is no better example of this than his pick six in Super Bowl XL. Despite this, he also has enough technique and speed to match tight ends and backs in man coverage.
Harrison's all round game is what sets him head and shoulders above the rest.
2010 stats: 10.5 sacks, 100 tackles, 7 passes defended, 2 interceptions, 6 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovered
The leading pass rusher of the Baltimore Ravens just misses out on a top five berth because of his inconsistency. He is also a one dimensional player who can just rush the passer. This is not a surprise though, as he has played defensive end for much of his NFL career. He is a non-factor in coverage, and lacks a line backers instinct when playing the run. Regardless, he is a very dangerous pass rusher, which places him this high.
Hali is surprisingly big for an outside linebacker. He weighs in at 275 lbs, and uses this bulk to power past offensive linemen. Like Suggs, he is solely a pass rusher, which places him out of the top five despite making 14.5 sacks last season. However, if he continues to develop as a line backer while maintaining his sack totals it wont be long until he breaks into the upper echelon.
Phillips is a more rounded linebacker, who plays coverage and the run well. However, he is not so much of a pass rusher. He may record 11 sacks in a season, but is more of a blitzer who uses speed and surprise to get past blockers. His all round skills cannot be denied, but his success relies heavily on the quality of the defensive line and the complementary pass rushers to keep him clean of double teams.