Football Basics: Linebacker

The Role of a Linebacker

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - FEBRUARY 02: Tight end Zach Miller #86 of the Seattle Seahawks tries to avoid the tackle of outside linebacker Danny Trevathan #59 of the Denver Broncos during Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium on February 2, 2014 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
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In football, a team's defense is often only as good as its linebackers, as these strong, speedy players are the portrait of toughness and grit that epitomizes the game of football. A normal defensive scheme will have the defensive linemen holding their ground on blockers while the defensive backs in the secondary are locked in pass coverage, so the linebackers are usually the ones making the tackle on any given play.

At the end of the game, linebackers usually stick out on the stat sheet, as they almost always lead the team in tackles.

What does a linebacker do?

As the name would imply, these guys line up behind the defensive linemen. They have to read plays quickly and respond immediately because one misstep can put them out of position to make the tackle. They will be called upon to blast through gaps and stop the run one down, but required to drop into pass coverage, both zone and man-to-man, on another. They also do a lot of communication to the rest of the defense, helping the team adjust to what the offense is doing. In addition, some defensive schemes call for the linebackers to be walked up to the line of scrimmage like a defensive lineman.

Positions

Depending on the defensive formation, a team usually utilizes either three or four linebackers at any given time.

In a 4-3 defensive formation, the four defensive linemen are backed by three linebackers: a weak-side and strong-side, and a single middle (or inside) linebacker.

In a 3-4 scheme, the three defensive linemen are followed by a four-linebacker set that includes one extra player in the middle, usually a stronger linebacker who plays a hybrid position and can act as a lineman to disguise where a rush is coming from.

What makes a good linebacker?

Linebackers must be versatile in their athletic ability, and have good size and strength but not at the sacrifice of speed.

Linebackers, especially those in the middle, must be alert and have a great understanding of football, with an instinct to read plays quickly and call out discrepancies or audibles to the rest of the defense. Because of these leadership roles inside linebackers play, they are sometimes thought of as the "quarterback of the defense." 

The Greats

Some of football's greatest players have played linebacker positions. Lawrence Taylor, who played for the New York Giants in the 1980s and early 90s, is among the players considered the best, though former Chicago Bears Dick Butkus (1965-73) and Mike Singletary (1981-92), Baltimore Raven Ray Lewis (1996-2012), and San Diego Charger Junior Seau (1990-2009) also stake claims in the debate.

What About Sam, Mike and Will?

Every team in football employs a Sam, a Mike and a Will at linebacker, but that's not to say there's a name requirement for the position. The strong-side linebacker is often called Sam, while the weakside is known as Will and the middle is Mike. The fourth linebacker is usually a hybrid linebacker/lineman, and can be called a Leo or a Jack.