The Middle Linebacker Is the Center of Any Defense

The key position is also called the "mike" linebacker

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The middle linebacker, or "mike" linebacker, is the anchor point in any good defense. Very similar to a quarterback on offense, the middle linebacker is, quite literally, in the center of all things that happen on defense.

A mike linebacker is tasked with stopping the run but is also involved in coverage and normally locked up man-to-man with running backs out of the backfield or tight ends. Additionally, the mike linebacker is involved in most tackles on defense, either instigating the initial contact or helping with the defensive play.

The mike linebacker is generally big, strong and hard-nosed. He is the vocal leader in most defensive schemes, calling out formations and strengths and communicating adjustments. He also is a key communicator for all the linebackers and defensive linemen, as he calls out formation strength and signals, hence the term "mike" linebacker.

Alignment and Assignment

The mike linebacker generally lines up about 4 to 5 yards deep, directly across from the offensive team's center. This alignment allows him to step quickly to the left or right to fill gaps and stop the run.

The mike linebacker is assigned as primarily a gap destroyer and a run stopper. He will take on any lead blocks and spill the back to his teammates if needed. In the case of a pass, he will drop to his appropriate responsibility, depending on the coverage called. For example, in a cover 3 zone, the middle linebacker will drop, read the quarterback's eyes, and break on the football.

There are also times where the mike linebacker is assigned to cover the running back out of the backfield on either side.

Key Reads

With his eyes on the running back, the mike linebacker sees and keys on the linemen. The back gives him his direction, and the linemen tell him if the play is a run or pass.

If the linemen pop up, it's most likely a pass, so the mike linebacker will drop back. If the linemen block hard, he reads the play as a run and will flow with the direction of the back to fill his gap and make the tackle.

Characteristics

A mike linebacker has to be big, strong, and able to be a physical tackler play after play. The average NFL mike linebacker is over 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighs over 230 pounds. For example, in today's NFL, one of the best mike linebackers is Luke Kuechly, who plays for the Carolina Panthers. He's 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighs nearly 240 pounds. If you watch him play, you'll see he's quick and strong—and he's involved in almost every play. As of the end of the 2017-2018 season, Kuechly had made more than 800 tackles.

In previous eras, middle linebackers were exemplified by such hard, grizzled veterans as Ray Nitschke, a football Hall of Famer, who spent 15 years playing for the dominant Green Bay Packers​ and striking terror into the heart of opposing offenses. Overall athleticism is important, as the mike linebacker must be able to drop in pass coverage and move laterally with the passing game. But the mike linebacker has to be a player who likes to hit and can bring down the best running backs in the game.