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How to Become a Dominant Outside Linebacker

It’s often easy to get noticed when you’re playing the outside linebacker position. After all, they are the ones usually with the best chance of recording a sack and changing the outlook of a particular football game. However, in order to earn this recognition, an outside linebacker has to work his tail off day in and day out to perfect his technique and continuously improve on the key traits needed to man the position.

Athleticism

Essentially, the trait of athleticism is one of the few things that will allow an outside linebacker to beat a blocker on his way to the quarterback. At the same time, athleticism permits that same player to be able to cover the other responsibilities required. Bleacher Report refers to these responsibilities as a “three-tool player who can move laterally, accelerate to the backfield, turn his hips in coverage and have the strength to beat blockers and bring down ball-carriers.” You often hear people say that you can’t teach athleticism. This is definitely true.

You could have great football smarts, but if the guy opposite you is more athletic, it doesn’t necessarily matter how intelligent you are. This is particularly why you see NFL teams take fliers on college basketball players who have never taken a step on the gridiron.

Technique

Outside linebackers have to be able to get by opposing lineman. These linemen are going to be the biggest guys on the field. While athleticism can help them beat the bigger players, it doesn’t hurt to kill them with perfect technique.

Technique is vital when it comes to pass rush and coverage, of which will be individually discussed later in this article, but coaches also want to see intelligence in terms of technique when it comes to deciphering a play. You don’t have much time after the snap to decide whether a pass or run is impending.

Pass Rush

While outside linebackers do a lot more on the field, one statistic that catches the eyes of many are sacks. In college football, the players that record large amounts of sacks often get looked at more closely by scouts. In the NFL, players that rack up sacks earn the big bucks. It isn’t rocket science to understand that sacks draw the interest of many. Even though these stats can be overblown depending on the quality of the opponent, the game film will show how players can improve upon their technique. Here are some simple tips for fine-tuning your pass rushing skills:

Beat the Hands – Offensive lineman consistently will attempt to get their hands inside your chest. If successful, it can be very difficult to get out of this grip before the quarterback releases the ball. You can try to combat this by beating him to getting hands inside his chest onto the shoulder pads, but I find it much more effective to try to wrap around him. When the lineman sticks out his arm, knock out the outside arm and slide around.

Plan Ahead – I’ve heard many NFL outside linebackers say it is important to have a plan before the snap. However, be sure to react to what is going on. Going back to the idea of read and react, players need to fine-tune their technique so they can alter their strategy if needed.

Coverage

If you play for a team that predominantly runs a 4-3 defense, outside linebackers will be forced into coverage situations. Unless your coach opts to load up with defensive back packages in passing situations, outside linebackers need to avoid becoming a liability in the passing game. Many things go into developing one’s coverage skills. They need footwork to backpedal as receivers run their routes. Quickness is vital to stay with receivers as they run across the field and they need to possess the capability to keep one’s eyes on the quarterback to read the play. Many of these characteristics take plenty of practice to develop, but are necessary for success in coverage.

Here Head Coach Russ Martin explains the practices of the coverage drill.

Source: MAV43 Defense course

Quickness

As I mentioned above in the coverage section, outside linebackers need quickness to run with receivers. If they’re all strength and no speed, opposing offenses will move their sets around to match up a slot receiver with the outside linebacker and beat him deep. Don’t confuse quickness with speed. Scouts often look long and hard at 40 yard dash times, but these are actually partially irrelevant for outside linebackers. Rather, I suggest you break down the 10-yard splits. These are what will be valuable for pass rush.

Quickness is one of the ways to practice pass rush. Offensive lineman aren’t the most agile players, so quickness can allow for an effective speed around the edge to get to the quarterback. Strength is still needed, but quickness off the ball and in pursuit can work in certain situations.

Mental Aspect

Having all of the right physical attributes will likely prepare you to play football, but one must also be able to handle the mental adjustments needed. Much of this goes back to a point I discussed earlier: an outside linebacker needs to learn how to diagnose a play in the early stages.

Offenses are going to consistently try to keep defenses on their toes whether it be through play-action passes or attempting to get away with pick plays down the field. Outside linebackers need to avoid over pursuing on run situations, which have the ability to leave a receiver wide open if a play-action pass is the actual play. Likewise, an outside linebacker can’t get down on himself if he is struggling to get to the quarterback. It only takes one or two plays to make a major difference, so keep working out there!

Here NFL future hall of famer Patrick Willis talks about the importance of mental development.

Source: Build the BEAST course

Lining up in 3-4 and 4-3 Defenses

In a 3-4 defense, although a team can designate a strong side and weak side setup, for the sake of this argument, I’ll just group it all together for a 3-4 strategy. Basically, one of these linebackers will be the pass rusher extraordinaire while the other focuses more on helping in the run. Meanwhile, in a 4-3, it is much more important to designate a strong-side and weak-side.

The key difference between this and the 3-4 is that here the linebackers need to be much more well rounded. The weak-side backer is often in coverage taking care of tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. The strong side needs to be a jack-of-all-trades to handle the run game, attack the quarterback, and cover tight ends. As you can see, the difference between the two is vast, but it all comes down to the personnel both in the linebacker unit and on the defensive line.

Here Coach Branden Jakubcin,  Defensive Coordinator & Defensive Backs Coach at Heidelberg University demonstrates the 3-4

Source: Winning Money Downs course

Aggressive Personality

Chances are if you’re soft, you probably will struggle to dominate on the gridiron. There’s no way of getting around the fact that football is a tough game. Particularly at a position like outside linebacker, you can’t be afraid to lay a solid knock on an opposing player. Along with helping in coverage, outside linebackers are going to be doing a lot of shedding blocks and making tackles. With this said, it is best to develop a bit of an aggressive personality while on the football field. I’m not saying to go out and hit the quarterback late, but you can’t hesitate to hit when you have the chance to bring someone down.

Dominant NFL OLB’s

As I mentioned earlier, outside linebackers typically garner a lot of attention and respect from their peers. These guys are some of the most dynamic athletes in all of sports and have all proven to be terrific NFL players. Here are a couple of the elite ones:

Justin Houston – The 3-time Pro Bowler from the Kansas City Chiefs is coming off a 22-sack season and is still only 26 years old. One trait that I’d like you to take away from Houston is his willingness to learn. It would be easy to think you know everything once you become an NFL draft pick, but Houston knew he needed to learn right away. Playing alongside another great outside linebacker (Tamba Hali), Houston has gradually improved each season under Hali’s guidance.

Von Miller – The former Texas A&M star has had no trouble transitioning his game from college to the pros. Between Miller’s incredible quickness and strength, he is nearly unblockable going around the edge. This is a perfect example of a player possessing superior size and speed while working on his technique for years.

Master It!

The outside linebacker is a tough position because they often have a lot riding on their shoulders. They’re expected to be able to put pressure on the quarterback, but also have the talent to cover athletic tight ends or speedy running backs out of the backfield. The best advice I can give is to not underestimate the importance of technique. Hard work and technique are two things that can beat athleticism when athleticism doesn’t want to work.

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