When it comes to evaluating Mack ILB's, what is "getting off blocks"?

Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

What the devil does "getting off blocks" actually mean when we evaluate Mack ILB's?

I understand the term for D-Linemen: meet the blocker head on, get your hands on the inside for leverage, do a push up with his body, and then toss him aside so you can make the tackle as a runner tries to slip by. I understand the term for Buck ILB's too because it isn't much different. The Buck ILB charges forward to meet a blocker and then acts sort of like a smaller but more mobile DL. Task #1 is to clog things up, and task #2 is to essentially bench press the blocker (if possible) in order to catch the RB who's trying to sidestep the logjam. This is why Buck ILB's run in the 250's or 260's, are generally big guys, and can get exposed in coverage. They need that mass in order to play the toe-to-toe game.

I even understand the term for DB's, since they are doing much the same thing except at a much smaller weight.

But Mack ILB's are a different breed because they are ALWAYS going to be physically outmatched by the guys who are trying to block them. Mack ILB's are run-and-chase players who flash through holes to make tackles behind the line of scrimmage and/or chase down plays from behind using their superior speed. They play in the 230-245 range in order to enhance that essential burst and range.

I was just updating the top ILB entries on our Big Board and found that all three are basically the same size give or take superficial differences: on Devin White is listed at 6'1", 240 lbs.; Mack Wilson is 6'2", 239 lbs.; and Devin Bush is 5'11", 233 lbs. [NOTE: Roquan Smith was 6'1", 236 lbs. and Rashaan Evans 6'3", 234 lbs., so these numbers are consistent.] There is no way that ANY human being that size could stand up to a Pouncey or DeCastro if the O-Linema actually gets there in time to establish his block. Maaaaybe an LVE at 6'4", 256 lbs., but that is why he was considered a hyper-athletic Buck rather than an oversized Mack. So here is my dilemma:

  1. Every defense wants to "keep its linebackers clean" by having the big guys up front absorb the OL's attention. That's the obvious answer: leave the Mack ILB free to use his speed without getting blocked. But that doesn't always happen. [NOTE: White, Wilson and Bush all had the advantage of playing behind a superior DL, which gave them more freedom than many of their peers.This is a factor to be accounted for when evaluating the other talents.]
  2. The next best thing is for the Mack ILB to see the play early and shoot past before the blocker arrives. This is yet another reason why "football IQ" and study habits are so utterly vital for the Mack ILB position, and why slower veterans often "play faster" than youngsters with far greater foot speed and explosion. Starting in the right direction a half second quicker gives a head start in the race, and deprives the oncoming OL of a half second more to get in the way. [NOTE: Please do not refer to this as "instincts" because that implies it is an inbred skill and not the earned result of uncountable amounts of study and hard work].
  3. Thus the race between a Mack ILB getting to the hole and the OL trying to cut him off becomes a game of inches. And that, in turn, means that the ILB should be able to avoid blocks (but not at the cost of losing position), and/or to defeat Pouncey when the OL can only reach him with one arm or without good balance.

I have understood "getting off blocks" refers to #3. Is that right? If so, what is the skill set needed to succeed? It can't be the classic "push up" technique used by Buck ILB's and DL's because the mismatch of size, length and strength is too enormous. Never in his life did Ryan Shazier meet a pulling TE in the hole, stand him up, hold him at arm's length, and then toss him aside to make the tackle! Not even with a good fullback like Rosie Nix. So what would he actually do? Maybe some variation on a one-handed stab move (one arm being longer than two)? Using quickness to duck under a moving O-Linemen in space? Knowing how to charge the bigger man by surprise in order to catch him off balance? Simple dodging, which might give up some position (i.e., create a hole) but leave him free to chase from behind?

All of those make sense to me but here's the thing: (1) all of those are learnable skills, and (2) none of them should be much different for the 233-lb. Bush than they are for the 240-lb. White. Doesn't all this mean that football IQ, study habits and explosive burst WAAAAY more important than "getting off blocks" because those are what let the Mack ILB avoid blocks in the first place?

That seems like the obvious conclusion but it is not what I read when people do their evaluations. Indeed, "getting off blocks" has been the one consistent thread that people use to distinguish the three ILB's I mentioned. Devin White is supposed to be good at it. Mack Wilson has question marks about it that merge with question marks about whether he's a split second less explosive than the others. And Devin Bush is supposed to be handicapped at it because he's 5'11" instead of 6'1". Really?

I get that there really is such a thing as "too small". There is obviously a difference to David DeCastro between tossing a 220-lb. man aside one handed, and doing the same to someone who's 240. But 233 versus 241? I don't believe it, expecially when things like leverage and position would overwhelm that subtle distinction. So where is the line? Is it simply that one between Safety and Mack ILB about the ability to absorb a pounding over the span of several games? We've seen that Box Safeties can handle ILB duties in the short term. It's just that they don't survive it over the course of a year, and certainly not a career. Does this mean that size only factors in as a long term concern rather than the analysis of what the player can do on the field in any particular play or game?

Finally, how does this translate into what we should look for at the Combine with regard to hard measurables. The vertical leap, horizontal leap, and 10-yard split measure explosiveness. Got it. The 40-time gives an indication of the ability to chase down a play from behind. Got it. Moving in space and so forth goes to coverage ability. Got it. But what do we look for with regard to "getting off blocks" and whether a guy like Bush or Wilson will be able to develop the skill (whatever it is, lol!) to do that job in the NFL? What are the measurables and cutoffs to look for? Arm length? Arm strength? Height? Build?

Thanks in advance for the discussion. I have always evaluated Mack ILB prospects primarily on the factors I mentioned: explosiveness and reported football IQ. I've only now realized why I saw those as the main points of emphasis. I'd love to know what I'm missing. And who knows? Maybe it will turn out that I have been correct all along, and the focus on "getting off blocks" is just a minor detail to roll my eyes at. Riiiiight. LOL.

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