“You lose a starting middle linebacker, that’s the heart and soul of your defense.” When former NFL player Eric Green made this statement, he exemplified the importance of an inside linebacker for the overall success of a defensive unit. If you lose a starter at any position, there’s going to be consequences, but these repercussions are magnified due to the amount of impact an inside linebacker has on each play. Understanding the skills and mentality can go a long way towards developing a reliable linebacker.
With any defensive position, it’s vital to understand your responsibilities for different formations. With a 3-4, you have two inside linebackers. First, the MIKE is the bigger one that has the ability to be a consistent run stopper. Meanwhile, the JACK or TED takes on blockers in order to open space for the MIKE to come in and make plays. While the traditional formation includes one of each, it isn’t uncommon for teams to employ two MIKE’s. This is due to the fact that coaches are developing linebackers with the athleticism to cover receivers and physicality to get into rushing lanes to make stops.
Here Defensive Coordinator at Perry High School Dante Bartee explains the role of MIKE.
The second most common defense is a 4-3. Here there is one middle linebacker and two outside linebackers lined up behind the four-man defensive line. With a 4-3, the inside linebacker is known as the MIKE. The 4-3 MIKE will traditionally be the vocal leader of the defense and be a strong force in run defense. Since there is only one inside linebacker on the field, coaches need to feel comfortable in that player’s ability to efficiently make tackles on a consistent basis.
High Football IQ
When I mention the term “high football IQ,” it means a player that knows how to put himself in a position to make a play. Middle linebackers need just as high of a football IQ as any other player on the field. Due to the responsibilities of the position, middle linebackers must be able to make quick reads and appropriate reactions. He doesn’t always have time to wait for the play to progress, rather he should be able to instinctively tell whether the ensuing play will be a rush or pass.
Instincts are one trait that can help a player overcome a lack of size or speed. For instinctive players, the game slows down and you seem to know what the opposition is planning to do. In the end, increasing your football IQ comes through plenty of game experience and work in the film room.
Athleticism and Strength
It might seem repetitive to stress these two qualities toward developing an elite defense. On the defensive line, you need plus-strength and any athleticism is a bonus. With the defensive backs, athleticism is vital, but strength is needed in varying degrees, especially with strong safeties. Inside linebackers need a nice mix between the two.
First, let’s take a look at athleticism. They need to be able to switch directions in an instant. As they’re chasing the ball, flexibility is essential as the ball carrier makes a cut. Furthermore, when the offense chooses to do an outside run, can the linebacker explode to the outside and put himself in a position to make a stop? Athleticism is also vital when dropping back in coverage, whether it be man or zone.
Next, we have strength. Does it go without question that strength is a necessity to stopping the run? They need strength in the upper and lower body to fight off initial blockers in their pursuit of the ball carrier. If an inside linebacker can’t fend off blockers, it could quickly become an ugly game for the defensive side. This is due to the role the inside linebacker is supposed to play in rush defense.
At all levels of football, teams are working on spreading the offenses out with multiple receivers. To make the situation even trickier, athletic tight ends are proving to be a difficult test for traditionally slower inside linebackers. All of these factors force inside linebackers to work on their coverage skills in practice. This includes practicing man coverage as they could cover a variety of players, whether it be a slot receiver, tight end, or running back out of the backfield.
The key here is in the movement of the hips and flexibility in staying with receivers. Think back to the change of direction idea from above. Without these qualities, coaches will be quick to pull inside linebackers in obvious passing situations, thus limiting your time on the field.
Here Coach Ron Roberts at SouthEastern explains the essentials of linebacker pass coverage.
With inside linebackers, the trait we often think of first is tackles. Unless you’re giving up 40 or 50 completions a game, chances are the inside linebackers will be amongst the team leaders in tackles each game. They are often in the best position to wrap up on rushing plays and usually add a few tackles in the passing game.
The key to look at here is not necessarily the quantity, but rather the quality. If given the snaps, even a mediocre middle linebacker can rack up a decent amount of tackles. However, if this number includes a significant number of missed tackles, it’s useless. The efficiency of tackling is most important. If you’re consistent in finishing the tackling and preventing 10+ yard gains, then you’re doing your job!
Best NFL Inside Linebackers
The NFL is loaded with elite inside linebackers. Most of these guys are not only clogs in the run game, but can contribute across the field in other areas as well. Here are a couple of the elite inside linebackers in recent years:
Bobby Wagner – With his recent contract making him the highest paid middle linebacker in the NFL, this Seattle Seahawk has backed it up on the field. His impact on an elite Seahawks’ defense comes from his leadership. In addition to making the calls, he utilizes his speed, strength and instincts to be a factor against the run and pass.
Derrick Johnson – The former Texas standout has proven to be one of the elite linebackers in the NFL. Johnson has exemplified the “efficient tackler” trait as he racked up 100-plus tackles for four-straight seasons from 2010-2013. Combined with this aggression, he’s also shown to be above average in pass coverage.
No Plays Off!
One of the best lines I can use to describe the role of an inside linebacker is “No Plays Off!” Due to the interconnections the position has on numerous types of play, he can’t afford to be day-dreaming. Otherwise, you’ll see either a long run up the middle or a catch across the middle of the field. The position has become just as much cerebral as it is physical.
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