Linebackers have been the calling card of the Steeler defenses for a long, long time. Essentially, if you have great linebackers, they can cover up the mistakes of the defensive line and the secondary. If you have great linebackers, odds are, you are going to have a very good defense. It's interesting then, that the Linebacker position is probably one of the most misunderstood ones on the field. Let's start out the discussion then by going through some of the most common myths when it comes to the linebacker position:
Myth No. 1: A 4-3 linebacker versus a 3-4 linebacker. Ok, here is the deal, there is no difference. If you can play linebacker, then you can play. Twenty years ago, teams would line up and run the FB dive. It was a quick hitting play which thus allowed the offensive guards could climb on the linebacker right now. No one runs that play anymore. Whether you are running an over defense, an under defense or the 3-4 defense, there is going to be a bubble.
A bubble means that the offensive lineman is uncovered. Whether there is one or two bubbles on the offensive front, that does not mean that the offensive lineman gets a free run at the linebacker. It's the job of the defensive linemen to prevent that from happening, in every defense. Moreover, defensive linemen are usually moving on every play. A bubble pre-snap might not be a bubble post-snap.
For more in this series: How to scout offensive linemen
Also, when was the last time you saw three linebackers in the box? With the proliferation of one-back offenses, you very rarely see a Mike, Sam, and Will linebacker in the box. Most times, you just see two linebackers that probably have the same gap responsibilities as a 3-4 linebacker. In just about every defense, the linebacker away from the strength is the "BOA" linebacker. BOA stands for B gap and OA stands for opposite A gap. If the linebacker gets flow to him, he fills B gap. If he gets flow away from him, he has the opposite A gap. The linebacker to the strength is the CAT linebacker. C gap with flow to him, A gap To him with flow away.
The only real exception is the Will linebacker in an under defense. Oftentimes in college football, this linebacker is undersized. The reason is opposite A gap is being filled by the strong safety. Pete Carroll was one of the first coaches to popularize this technique. It allowed the Will linebacker to flow fast because he had no cutback responsibilities. The defense was designed to take away the cutback on the inside zone play. If you watch college highlights of one Troy Polamalu you see him making a lot of tackles in the backside A gap.
Myth No. 2 Coverage Responsibilities: Linebackers coming out of college are not normally ready to handle the coverage responsibilities of an NFL linebacker. To be blunt, no one can really do it. Even great athletes can't do it because they do not understand route combinations and coverage responsibilities. This is really where the complexity comes in. NFL linebackers do not just "read a quarterback's eyes" while dropping into pass coverage. There is a lot more to it than that, and in college with their 20-hour work weeks, they simply do not have the time to rep all of it.
For example, if a linebacker is playing some variation of zone coverage, no one is spot dropping any more. That went out of vogue about 20 years ago. Instead, the linebacker has to read the route progression and pattern match. So, if there are 3 receivers to his side, he is probably reading the furthest inside receiver. If that receiver goes out toward the sidelines, he is going to be looking for #2 to come in. If #2 does not come in, he needs to continue to get depth and click his eyes to #1, looking to get underneath of the post of #1. If #3 is going out and both #2 and #1 are going vertical, then he will click his eyes to the weakside of the formation and look for a crossing route. The linebacker needs to read and process all of that in about 2.5 seconds. Now, that is just one example against one formation. You can imagine how complicated this gets.
One example really illustrate this. The completion to A.J. Green that allowed the Bengals to kick the game winning field goal was not Keenan Lewis' fault, even though it occurred right in front of him. Cortez Allen had the underneath coverage, and he jumped the route that was in Troy's zone. This created the window for Dalton to hit Green.
In defense of Allen, the Bengals had not run that pattern combination all game. Allen had not seen it. His inexperience showed. College linebackers don't face offenses that run hundreds of different pass plays. It takes a lot of time and repetition to get good at the coverages that the NFL defenses run. If you are drafting a linebacker just because he is good in coverage against college offenses, you are not making a good pick.
Myth No. 3 Block Destruction: Simply, inside linebackers do not use their hands in the run game. Much to the chagrin of Roger Goodell, they use their helmets. Offensive linemen are simply too big, and they hold too well. If the D-line does not do its job, and the offensive linemen are able to climb onto the linebackers, you are not going to get off of them with the use of just your hands.
To illustrate, I'll describe a drill that is so synonymous with the Steelers, many teams call it the "Steeler Drill". Picture this: the defensive player is on his knees with his butt sitting back on his calves. Approximately four yards away, is another linebacker that is supplying the role of the offensive blocker. The blocker runs (not jog, not walks, not moves briskly, but runs) at the defensive player. The offensive player is told to try and run over the defensive player. The defensive player has his hands on his thighs. The defensive player snaps his hips as the offensive player approaches. He is told to put the screws of his helmet under the chin of the offensive player. Once he executes the "butt", he locks out his hands. It is very similar to doing a weightlifting push press, only you're pushing a person instead of a weight. The really good ones are able to do it with one motion. The hips are snapped, "Riddell" is implanted on the chin, and the arms are locked out. That is how you get off a block. Hat, hands, hips. Being able to shed a block with just your hands means the guy blocking you stinks. It speaks nothing to your ability to play linebacker in the NFL.
Now that we have established what NOT to look at, it is time to examine what to look for.
Coaches look for two things when evaluating linebackers: how well do they process their reads, and how well do they tackle. When looking at how a linebacker processes their reads, you need to look at where they are taking on the offensive players. Linebackers need to move downhill fast. They need to be pressing the line of scrimmage. Linebackers cannot have any wasted movement or false steps. Linebackers have to attack and then get violent when they get to their objective.
Linebackers not only have to attack, but they have to do it intelligently. To go back to our BOA and CAT discussion, they have to attack the right areas. Sometimes, you'll hear defenders talk about run fits. Run fits are the basis for every good run defense. Every defender has a place where they need to "fit" against a certain formation while in a particular defense. Coaches grade linebackers on their fits. Did they fit correctly 90 percent of the time? 80 percent of the time? This is where the majority of a linebacker's pre-draft grade comes from.
Once they get to the correct place, they need to tackle. Specifically, how well do they open-field tackle? When coaches evaluate how well a linebacker tackles, they want to see how well they "come to balance". Come to balance means that a linebacker should widen his base and chop his feet as approaches a ball carrier in the open field. If a defender lunges, does not break down, or just runs past the ball carrier, this tells the coaches that they probably will not be able to tackle in the NFL.
Linebackers need to be explosive and agile. When watching film on a linebacker, it's important to see how well they can work through the mess. In other words, some linebackers are able to get though and around all of other defensive players and offensive blockers on the way to the ball carrier. They can "feel" their way through. This requires a tremendous amount of athleticism. For the explosion, once again, you want to look at how well a linebacker can jump. Do they have the triple extension of the ankles, knees, and hips? How high can they jump vertically and how far can they broad jump? If they can do those things well, it is indicative of their explosiveness.
As was mentioned earlier, linebackers are the quarterbacks of the defense. But honestly, an NFL coach is not going to expect a rookie linebacker to come in and learn their position and everyone else's position. What coaches do look at however, is how well the linebackers process their reads. Good linebackers are able to read a blocking scheme and attack the line of scrimmage. Great linebackers are able to diagnose a blocking scheme and know who is assigned to block them in that scheme. Great linebackers use their expanded vision to know that the tight end is chipping off of the defensive tackle to block him, while keeping his fine vision on the ball carrier. Because great linebackers know who is supposed to block them, they are able to anticipate the block and defeat it. These are the type of things that coaches look at on film. I could have included this in one of the myths, but this has nothing to do with instincts. This comes from study. The more familiar I am with an opponent, the quicker I am able to process both my run and pass reads. Thus, I am able to play much faster. For some, this process comes a lot easier. The game slows down for them quickly. This is an example of instincts. I prefer to call it football IQ, but whatever.
Because of everything that was just mentioned, linebackers have to love the game of football. The pre-draft process tries to get as much of this information as possible. How hard did he prepare? How well did he know the playbook? How long did it take him to understand in-game adjustments? These are the things that coaches look for. If on top of all of that the kid is a natural leader, then great.
In my opinion, linebacker is one of the hardest positions to project because you can never tell how a player is going to react when the bullets start flying. With the increased repetitions in the pro game, some linebackers are able to increase their football IQ and thus play a lot faster than a 40-yard dash time would project that they should. But some guys never move beyond what they did in college. They play slow because the complexity of the game causes them to think too much instead of reacting.
As was mentioned earlier, a great linebacker can make an average defense great. He can literally cover up the mistakes of the rest of the defense. However, poor linebacker play can make a great defense look average. A poor run fit or a missed tackle in the hole will be exploited by an offense every single time. That's probably why, when drafting a linebacker, I would lean heavily on production. Levon Kirkland was a four year starter at the University of Clemson. Whether from a big or small school, those are the types of guys that are normally going to be reliable, NFL players. Sometimes, inexperienced players that are exceptional athletes can learn the reads and become great linebackers. But they are often the exception that proves the rule.