Being a linebacker is a hard job, being a great linebacker is even harder. Linebackers are the heart and soul of the defense. They analyze the offensive schemes and determine which blitz will be effective and which coverage will prevent the offense from moving the ball. Linebackers must be strong enough to take on a 300lb lineman and make a tackle, but they must also be elusive enough to drop into coverage and make a play on the ball.
To be a great linebacker, it is essential to have a coach with strong football knowledge that can be transferred into the mind of the athlete. Use these drills and techniques to make your linebackers the most feared defensive players in your league.
1. Position Stance Technique
For linebackers that are positioned within the tackle box, their feet should be a little more than shoulder width apart to build a solid foundation. The inside linebacker’s toes should be slightly pointed inwards, which helps prevent false steps.
They should be slightly bent over with a straight back and their head up, allowing them to analyze the offense to make the appropriate reads and calls. The elbows of the linebacker should be over the knees, but not resting on them, with hands in a ready-to-strike position.
Linebackers that are placed outside the tackle box, have a stance that is altered to fit the defensive scheme. Outside linebackers feet are staggered with the foot that is closest to the center being placed forward while the outside foot is further back in a ready-to-run position. Arms should be at the player’s side also in a ready-to-strike position.
Here Defensive Coordinator Matt Hachmann from Stony brook talks about proper linebacker stance and positioning.
Outside linebackers are responsible for keeping the ball contained inside, so they usually line up on the outside shoulder of the tackle. For a linebacker to be great, you need to coach in a way that enforces technique as first priority.
2. Tackling Technique
Tackling is obviously one of the first things taught in football, but it is essential to teach proper tackling technique that is constructed for the linebacker position that prevents injury while allowing him to be an effective force.
Proper tackling technique for a linebacker involves a solid foundation with the shoulders squared and head up. Plenty of times, the linebacker will be tackling a running back between the tackles. It is essential for a linebacker to take small steps in the direction according to the read on the tackles, guards and fullback; and meet the running back at the line of scrimmage with feet and shoulders squared with the player’s face mask finding the football.
Here Illinois Wesleyan University linebacker coach Grant Caserta shows how to improve game time tackling.
Once the linebacker makes contact, arms go from being back to wrapping around the offensive player and hips pressing forward. When done correctly, your linebacker can basically body-slam the running back and hopefully cause a fumble.
3. Stance and Start Drills
For this drill, the linebacker will start off in his stance. Wide base, toes pointed slightly inward, back straight and head up. The coach will stand in front of the linebacker and point either right or left. The linebacker will take one 6-inch step in the direction coach points. This drill simulates a linebacker reading the guard, tackle, or fullback and taking the appropriate short step in the direction they are going. It is beneficial to point from a slower to faster pace to help the linebacker improve on reading quicker while taking the appropriate short step.
4. Read Drills
One of the most important parts of being a successful linebacker is reading your keys correctly. Inside linebackers will focus mainly on the guards and fullbacks. If the guard drops back, the linebacker should suspect a pass. Whenever he pulls and runs either left or right, the linebacker should suspect an outside run or screen. If the guard blocks down, the linebacker should suspect an inside run, especially if the lineman is running directly at the linebacker.
To practice these reads, the coach should simulate a half-speed play and give the guard directions to either go back in pass block, pull to right or left, or block down on the defensive tackle with eyes on the linebacker. When the guard drops back, the linebacker should either drop in coverage or keep eyes on the fullback. If the guard pulls, the linebacker should fight to the outside in the direction the guard is going. If the guard blocks down, then the linebacker should fill the hole and look for the ball.
Here defensive coordinator for Penn State Brent Pry explains the keys to effective reads.
This should be repeated until it becomes automatic for the linebacker to read the guard and take the appropriate steps. Reading the fullback follows the same measures. Outside linebackers will key on the tackles, using the same technique as the inside linebacker.
5. Angle Drill
To ensure proper and efficient tackling, the right angles must be practiced. This drill is fairly simple, but extremely important. First, you have a runner with or without a ball starting at a cone. The running back will run in an angle either right or left. The linebacker will practice keeping shoulders straight and taking the right angle to reach the running back.
When done correctly, the linebacker should be only a few steps behind the runner and get his head across with his facemask on the ball. The linebacker should be tackling with his head up, running through the ball carrier and rolling his hips to ensure safe, effective tackling. This drill should be done often at various speeds and at different angles.
Here Don Brown, the defensive coordinator for the University of Arizona explains the proper way of angle tackling.
6. Shuffle Alley Drill
The Shuffle Alley Drill will simulate following a running back while maintaining backside leverage. This helps prevent a running back from successfully cutting back to leave you tackling the air. This drill starts with the linebacker in his stance between two cones set about 10 yards apart. A runner is placed in front of the linebacker, about 5 yards away. The runner’s job is to simply run from left to right, without crossing the line of scrimmage until the coach says “alley.”
The linebacker should be shuffling, mirroring the running back while keeping his head straight and shoulders back. When the coach says “alley,” the linebacker plants and attacks the running back in whichever alley he is occupying. Cones can be placed to simulate the offensive line to give the drill a more authentic feeling. This drill will undoubtedly help your linebacker from getting blown by and left in the dust.
7. Back Pedal, Shuffle, and Plant Drill
In this drill, you will place 5 tackling dummies or large barrels all parallel to each other lying on the ground. The linebacker will start on the side of the first dummy and back pedal along the side of the barrel, then shuffle to the alley created by the next dummy, plant his feet, run through the alley, shuffle to the next alley, and finish by back pedaling through the alley. He will repeat this until he gets to the end and then go back the other way. While doing this, the linebacker needs to keep his eyes up looking at the coach. Shoulders should be square and feet should stay shoulder width apart.
For a more authentic feeling, you could stand in front of the linebacker and point in different directions, forcing the linebacker to adjust which foot to plant and which way to shuffle. This drill is essential for teaching a linebacker how to react in plays like draws and screens. The linebacker will be able to adjust, react, and attack at a high level after mastering this drill.
Here Matt Hachmann demonstrates how to teach and implement the drill.
8. Airplane Drill
Being a linebacker comes with a lot of head-on collisions. If your linebacker is not careful, he could suffer many head injuries if he constantly uses his head to “Hulk Smash” into his opponent. The Airplane Drill is designed to teach linebackers to shed offensive blocks without ramming their head into the other player. For this drill, the coach will place about 5-8 players in an angled position, one behind the other, about 8 yards apart. The last player in line will act as the running back and have a ball in his outside arm.
The linebacker will start in his stance parallel to the other players. When the coach says “go,” the linebacker will run in an angle and the offensive players will try to block the linebacker. The linebacker’s job is to rip through the players’ arms with his outside arm, dodging the blocks. Doing this allows only a small amount of contact with the head. The linebacker will rip through the blocks using his shoulder and forearm. He will run through each player then angle tackle the running back at the end. This will help your linebacker rip through blocks and make big plays.
Create your Perfect Linebacker
The linebacker is a vicious position. It requires football knowledge, strength, agility, and a good coach. Sit in the film room with your linebacker and implement these drills and techniques into your linebacker routine and watch your linebackers grow and become a feared force.
After 27 years of coaching at both the collegiate and high school level, Keith Grabowski took on a new role in helping advance and grow the game of football. One of the most prolific writers on scheme, technique, and program building (American Football Monthly, AFCA Insider, X&O Labs and USA Football), Grabowski also hosts a daily podcast, "Coach and Coordinator" on which he interviews the most knowledgeable head coaches, coordinators, and position coaches from professional, college, and high school football.