Football's Defense Team: The Linebackers

By the design of the American football defense, linebackers are the leaders of that 11-man squad. The rest of a team’s defense looks to the linebackers in a number of ways:

  • Linebackers are the defensive quarterbacks and coaches on the field, beginning every play by giving the defensive call.

  • They set the standard for every defense by being able to get to the ball before anyone else.

  • They’re usually emotional leaders who excel in leading by example. If they play hard, their winning attitude carries over to the rest of the defense.

Although a linebacker’s main intention is to tackle the offensive player with the ball, the term linebacker has become one of the most complicated terms in football. Linebackers have become football hybrids due to their wide variety of responsibilities and enormous talent.

The job description of all linebackers is pretty lengthy:

  • Defend the run and also pressure the quarterback. (Vacating their assigned areas to go after the quarterback is called blitzing.)

  • Execute stunts and defend against the pass in a zone or in what are paradoxically known as short-deep areas on their side of the line of scrimmage.

  • The middle linebacker generally makes the defensive calls (he informs his teammates of what coverages and alignments they should be in) when the offense breaks its huddle.

  • Often responsible on pass defense to watch and stay with the tight end and backs.

  • May be responsible for staying with a speedy wide receiver in what’s known as man-to-man coverage.

To fully understand linebacker play, you need to be aware that every linebacker wants to coordinate his responsibilities with those of the defensive line. A linebacker is responsible for at least one of the gaps — the open spaces or areas between the offensive linemen — in addition to being asked to ultimately make the tackle.

To keep your sanity when watching a game, just try to remember which players are the linebackers and that the bulk of their job is to do what Patrick Willis of the San Francisco 49ers (shown in this figure) does: make tackles from sideline to sideline and constantly pursue the ball carrier.

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Photo credit: @@cw Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

Linebackers must take full advantage of what they can see, feel, and do. Every drill they do in practice, which carries over to the game, is based on these things:

  • Eyes: Linebackers must train their eyes to see as much as possible. They must always focus on their target prior to the snap of the ball and then mentally visualize what may occur after the snap.

  • Feet: Everything linebackers do involves their ability to move their feet. Making initial reads of what the offense is going to do, attempting to block offensive linemen and defeat them, and tackling the ball carrier are all directly related to proper foot movement.

  • Hands: A linebacker’s hands are his most valuable weapons. They also protect him by enabling him to ward off blockers and control the offensive linemen. A linebacker uses his hands to make tackles, recover fumbles, and knock down and intercept passes.

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