NFL Football: 2011-2012's Most Dominant Linebacker Duos
The linebacker position is one of the most difficult positions in the NFL.
Linebackers are tasked with being strong and physical enough to push past 350-pound offensive linemen to get to the quarterback and/or stop the run. In addition to that physical strength, linebackers are tasked with having enough athleticism and speed to run down-field with receivers and tight ends.
Finding just one player with that rare and elite combination of strength, speed and football I.Q is hard enough. Some teams, shockingly enough, have found two of those elite type of players whether through the NFL draft or free agency.
Getting two high-end/elite linebackers is either the result of a genius front office or pure luck. I think these eight linebacker tandems are a results of smart drafting and opportunistic offseason acquisitions.
Without further ado, here is a look at the top eight current linebacker tandems in the NFL.
8. Cincinnati Bengals: MLB Ray Maualuga and OLB Thomas Howard
One of the most surprising stories of the 2011-12 NFL season is the emergence of the young Cincinnati Bengals defense. Most analysts thought the Bengals defense would be good, but not many knew they would currently hold the fourth-ranked defense.
There is no doubting that the numbers of these linebackers aren't dominant, and I'm sure I'll get some hate for this one, but their production speaks for itself.
No. 53 OLB Thomas Howard is in his first year with the Cincinnati Bengals and he is holding his own. He is anchoring the defense that ranks second in rushing yards allowed and 10th in passing yards allowed.
In nine games, Howard has accumulated 52 tackles (32 solo) and has forced two fumbles. While his numbers aren't astronomical, they are impressive based on the production of the Bengals overall defense.
The other member of this linebacker duo is No. 58 MLB Ray Maualuga. Maualuga has only played in six games this season due to injury, but in those games his play speaks for itself. Maualuga has totaled 45 tackles (23 solo), one pass defended and one forced fumble.
Maualuga's presence alone (6'2'', 260 pounds) has a strong impact on opposing offenses. If Maualuga stays healthy he will undoubtedly become one of the leagues premier run stoppers at the linebacker position.
Only time will tell how good this linebacker tandem is with the Bengals only starting to play the toughest stretch of their schedule. Here's hoping Maualuga and Howard can continue their dominant play, because the Bengals will surely need it.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars: MLB Paul Posluszny and OLB Daryl Smith
Statistically speaking, Paul Posluszny and Daryl Smith are absolutely dominant, with a combined total of over 140 tackles.
So why do they come in seventh on this list? Because unfortunately they are on the only losing team to be featured on this article. While the record of the team doesn't reflect the player's individual talent, it still impacts the way they will ultimately be remembered.
The first member of this linebacker tandem is OLB No. 52 Daryl Smith. Smith is on pace for a career year. With 67 tackles (49 solo), 2.5 sacks, six passes defended, one interception and two forced fumbles, Smith is not only holding his own, he is making it look easy.
On the other side of this tandem is MLB No. 51 Paul Posluszny, one of the best linebackers to ever graduate from Penn State's "Linebacker U." Just like his counterpart, Daryl Smith, Posluszny is well on his way to having one of his best years in the NFL and that is most likely due Smith's production on the field as well.
Posluszny has recorded 72 tackles (49 solo), 1.5 sacks, six passes defended and one interception this year in only nine games played.
If you asked Posluszny and Smith about the success of their season, I'm sure they would say it means nothing if the team doesn't win; sadly for them that is the case.
Here's hoping that the Jaguars amp up their offense this offseason so that this linebacker tandem can get the wins they deserve.
6. Atlanta Falcons: MLB Curtis Lofton and OLB Sean Witherspoon
The Atlanta Falcons 5-4 start and their 14th-ranked defense is largely due to the success of linebackers Curtis Lofton and Sean Witherspoon.
This linebacker tandem is probably the best tandem people outside of Atlanta have never even heard of.
OLB No. 56 Sean Witherspoon has come out of nowhere this season. Last season in 11 games Witherspoon accumulated 42 tackles (34 solo), one sack and one pass defended.
In only 9 games so far this season Witherspoon has accumulated 76 tackles (53 solo), two sacks and six passes defended. Witherspoon is dwarfing his numbers from last year and is doing it with ease. There is no limit to how good the second-year man out of Missouri can become if he continues to develop.
The better half of this linebacker tandem is MLB No. 50 Curtis Lofton. In only nine games this year, Lofton has totaled 85 tackles (51 solo), four passes defended and one interception, as compared to last year's numbers of 118 tackles (93 solo), three passes defended and one interception.
Barring injury, Lofton will make last year's numbers look menial compared to this year's production.
What makes this tandem stand out, aside from the statistical aspect, is the fact that Witherspoon and Lofton have been integral to the Falcons achieving a 5-4 record. Without the dominant play of this linebacker tandem the Falcons could have lost one or two close games and be sitting at 3-6.
The Falcons linebacker unit appears to be something special, and the best news is that both players are under the age of 25.
5. Green Bay Packers: OLB Clay Matthews and ILB Desmond Bishop
What?! A Packers linebacker tandem without AJ Hawk? Unfortunately for him, yes. This linebacker tandem consists of OLB No. 52 Clay Matthews and ILB No. 55 Desmond Bishop.
Bishop has stepped up his game this year, proving that he has what it takes to be a bona fide star in this linebacker corps. In only nine games, Bishop has accumulated 84 tackles (66 solo), five sacks, one pass defended and one forced fumble.
Bishop is well on his way to setting career marks for himself in all categories; he already has in the sacks category, bettering last years measly three sacks.
Bishop is clearly doing his job in the run game, helping the Packers hold opponents to 100.4 yards per game on the ground, eighth in the NFL.
The other member of this tandem is a linebacker that is more wildly known by fans throughout the league: Clay Matthews. It goes without saying that Matthews' numbers are slim this year based on teams double-teaming him constantly.
Matthews most likely will not set career numbers, only totaling 28 tackles (20 solo), five sacks, five passes defended and one forced fumble so far.
Those statistics aren't holding him back from being one of the most dominant team leaders in the NFL. Matthews' leadership is part of the reason the Packers are sitting at 9-0, and just like past years, as the season continues his production will only increase.
This tandem needs to pick up the pass defense if they want to move up the rankings on this list, because right now they currently are allowing the 31st-most yards per game through the air.
If the Packers go 16-0, it will be at least partially due to the tenacity of the linebacker tandem of Desmond Bishop and Clay Matthews.
4. Houston Texans: OLB Brooks Reed and ILB Brian Cushing
The Texans are sitting pretty at 7-3 atop the AFC South. The success of the Texans so far has been a result of the dominant play of their No. 2-ranked defense.
There is no doubt that the entire linebacker corps is responsible for this success, but the two most dominant on the defense are clearly Brooks Reed and Brian Cushing.
The first member of this linebacker duo is OLB No. 58 Brooks Reed, a rookie out of the University of Arizona. The most impressive part of Reed so far this season is the way he has outplayed veteran ILB No. 59 DeMeco Ryans.
Reed, in only five games as a starter, has accumulated 27 tackles (19 solo) and five sacks, as compared to Ryans' numbers of 34 tackles (24 solo) and zero sacks.
Reed clearly deserves to be on the field more often and is proving, with his ability to get to the quarterback, that he has what it takes to be a solid starter in this league.
The other member of this linebacker tandem is none other than ILB No. 56 Brian Cushing. In the face of constant double teams, Cushing has tallied 69 tackles (47 solo), three sacks, four passes defended and two interceptions in 10 games so far this season.
While he isn't close to his 2009 Defensive Rookie of the Year productivity, he is on pace to surpass last year's totals with ease.
The most impressive part of Cushing's game this year has been his ability to motivate the defense to play as well as they have in spite of losing Mario Williams for the year.
With the Texans losing QB Matt Schaub for the season and having to hand the reins to QB Matt Leinart, the fate of the Texans season rests clearly on the shoulders of this linebacker tandem.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers: OLB LaMarr Woodley and OLB James Harrison
What sets this linebacker tandem apart from the rest of the bunch isn't the number of tackles between them or the number of passes they've defended; it's their ability to get to the opposing team's quarterback.
Woodley and Harrison have 14 sacks between them, which is an impressive number in and of itself. One must assume, though, that for every sack the tandem gets, they are putting pressure on the quarterback three or four more times.
OLB No. 92 James Harrison has played in only six games due to a broken eye socket suffered in the Steelers' game against Houston, but that hasn't stopped him from producing. In those six games Harrison has recorded 35 tackles (28 solo), five sacks and two forced fumbles.
Harrison is averaging almost one sack per game which is an impressive feat when you take into account the competition the Steelers have been playing.
The better half of this linebacker tandem is OLB No. 56 LaMarr Woodley, who has only played in eight games this season and has still recorded nine sacks, leading the league among linebackers.
In addition, Woodley has compiled 36 tackles (24 solo) and one interception. While those numbers are not nearly as dominant as other linebackers, they reflect the fact that the Steelers force a lot of offenses into three-and-out situations.
If you're worried about the age of James Harrison (33) impacting his play, don't worry, because there is a guy named Lawrence Timmons who is more than capable of filling in.
2. Baltimore Ravens: ILB Ray Lewis and OLB Terrell Suggs
The only question is, who will be the other half of the Ray Lewis linebacker tandem? Will it be ILB No. 53 Jameel McClain, OLB No. 95 Jarret Johnson or OLB No. 55 Terrell Suggs?
The winner is...Terrell Suggs.
Year in and year out, Suggs plays consistently and dominantly at the linebacker position. His play is a large part of the Ravens' overall consistent success. This year Suggs has accumulated 41 tackles (28 solo), six sacks, four passes defended, two interceptions and two forced fumbles.
Those stats would be good at the end of the year, let alone at the halfway point of the year.
The other part of this dynamic linebacker tandem is none other than ILB No. 52 Ray Lewis. Whether you love him or hate him, you have to admit that he is one heck of a linebacker.
This year Lewis has accumulated 68 tackles (49 solo), two sacks, six passes defended, one interception and two forced fumbles. The most impressive aspect of Lewis' play is the fact that he puts up these numbers—if not better—year in and year out.
Lewis is going to be one of the greatest linebackers, motivators and leaders of all time at the end of his career, and he is only adding to that legend this year.
I personally don't like the Baltimore Ravens, but I sure respect the way their linebackers play.
1. San Francisco 49ers: ILB Patrick Willis and ILB NaVorro Bowman
Last year we knew the 49ers linebackers were good and showed flashes of a bright future, but no one expected them to reach that bright future so quickly. The 49ers are the shock of the year so far, sitting pretty at 8-1 atop the weakest division in the NFL: the NFC West.
It's only nine games into the season and the 49ers are two or three wins away from clinching the division. The 49ers success is largely due to the dominant play of their defense that ranks first in points allowed per game (15.4) and first in rushing yards allowed per game (73.2 yards).
The success of the 49ers defense is rooted in the dominant play of their linebacker corps, which is solidified by ILB No. 53 NaVorro Bowman and ILB No. 52 Patrick Willis.
The first member of this dynamic tandem is NaVorro Bowman, a second-year man out of Penn State University's "Linebacker U." In almost half the games, Bowman has doubled his production so far this year.
In 2010 Bowman ended the season with 46 tackles (38 solo) and zero passes defended, as compared to this year's numbers of 92 tackles (73 solo) and six passes defended in only nine games played.
Talk about a superstar in the making.
The future is brighter than bright for Bowman because he plays aside one of the most dominant linebackers in the NFL in Patrick Willis.
Aside from his absurd mix of speed and strength, and his unreal statistics, the most impressive aspect of Patrick Willis is his ability to lead by example. Where most players talk the talk, Willis consistently walks the walk and that is seen by every member of the 49ers team and coaching staff.
In nine games this year, Willis has totaled 78 tackles (61 solo), two sacks, eight passes defended and three forced fumbles. Those stats are helping the 49ers defense become one of the most feared and respected defenses in the league.
If there is one linebacker in the NFL that current college players and NFL rookies should strive to be like, it's clearly Patrick Willis. He is living proof that hard work pays off, and if you are willing to put your money where your mouth is you can achieve anything.
If the 49ers want to win the NFC West and make a run deep into the playoffs, this dynamic linebacker tandem must stay healthy and continue their dominant play.
Thanks for reading. Follow me on twitter @peteremerick and comment with any questions or thoughts you have.
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