After taking a few days to think about how best to break down the linebacker position I decided it makes the most sense to break it into 5 pieces. The first being this article, which I’ll use as an overview of what is a linebacker, types of defenses, and other basics. The next 3 pieces will be Rush, ILB, & Strong. I’ll focus on Rush & Strong more so then other types because the Colts primarily only use a Rush & a Strong. And, the goal is to provide a breakdown that will actually teach people what the hell backers do. As such, I will break down the backers' roles, responsibilities, reads, thought-processes, etc for the following formations: I-formation/heavy, 3 wide/single back, trips one side, four WR with a back, 5 WR set. There are, naturally, variances of each that I listed, so I’ll be assuming both offense/defense are using their base sets. IE, even in a 5 WR set, I will be discussing what each Backer would do if they were on the field in a base defense. More realistically, the Colts would have personnel packages for 5 WR sets that do not include 4 Backers; but, this is a backer series not a defensive strategy series. The 5th and final article will be about Weak, Middle, Strong Backers (aka 4-3 defense). This will be one article since the Colts are a hybrid defense and it is not their base. Without further ado, let’s start the series off.
The first basic question to ask is: what is a linebacker? The most basic definition is the guys standing up behind the line, generally 3-6 yards back, in a two point stances. Pretty bland huh? Well, let’s try this. Backers are a hybrid of the secondary and DLine. They are, in my bias opinion, the core of a defense. Their role requires a linebacker to be the most versatile players on the defensive side; having to do a little bit of everything at a minimum. The Captain of a defense is generally the Middle or seasoned Inner. Why is that generally the case? The Middle or seasoned Inner has to be the brains in the thick of everything. They are responsible for relaying plays, making sure the "box" is set, and that the defensive is on the correct page for what the offensive shows. Thus, the common term of the middle or seasoned inner is "QB of the defense." Hopefully, after this series of articles y’all will be able to just call the "QB of the defense" a "mother f-ing LB." But, I digress…
Okay, this series will cover two base defenses: 3-4 & 4-3. For anyone who might not know, the 1st number refers to DLine and the 2nd number refers to LBs. Thus, our 3-4 base defense has 4 backers. Furthermore, the secondary is a beast of their own as the Middle or Inner Backer will not call coverages. And, formations that focus on secondary are specially named; the two common being nickel and dime. To reiterate the important note is that Backers do not call coverage nor have control over coverage. A Backer will call the formation, stunts (blitzes), any noted differences from the base (ie slants), and the strong-side of the offensive formation as it becomes shown. A FS, in most cases, will call coverage(s) based on what he sees. The Middle/Inner Backer & the FS have, essentially, VETO rights on the DC calls. Why? Because, the defense doesn’t know what the offense is doing. The best example at this point is: when the offense come up showing 2 WR & 1 TE on the left and 1 WR on the right – the FS will call man-to-man on the back side and float center field while the SS drops down to take the TE. That’s about as simple as it gets to VETO rights. And, to have a pair of defenders being able to audible on the field is just as vital as having a QB that is able to do that.
The next important piece of the puzzle is gaps. Gaps are associated with run defense. A gap is the holes between two offensive players (Oline & TEs). In-between the center and guard is the "A" gap, guard and tackles "B" gaps, tackles and TE "C" gaps. Outside the TE is a "D" gap. Dline and Backers are responsible for 1-to-2 gap/s. Gaps will be important to know when discussing each backer and their responsibilities; as I’ll be referring to a backer being responsible for a gap/s. (Note: If anyone doesn’t understand gaps, ask in the comments and I’ll go further into them).
Another important piece to know is types of coverage. There are 2 styles and 3 types. Styles are either man-to-man or zone. The types are man-to-man, zone, or mixed. In case you aren’t sure, man-to-man means that each defensive player is paired with an offensive player. They have to cover that player. Zone coverage means that a defensive player gets an area of the field to cover. Any player entering that area is that defensive player’s responsibility. (Note: if anyone doesn’t understand gaps, ask in the comments and I’ll go further into them).
The next basic quality of a linebacker is that of a bruiser. These guys are heavy hitting, play making, half-insane tanks. A linebacker loves contact and even more so the physicality of dominating an opposing player. They thrive off of the hit, as their first responsibility is to defend against the run. I will discuss their reads and etc in each article of the series, but it’s important to note that their first step is always forward. Even in pass protection, they always start forward. This minor detail will be important for later discussions as a player’s first step can dictate the success of a play.
Now for the fun part. There are many types of backers. There are essentially 3 categories of backers which are strong side, middle, and weak side. From these categories we can break down each type of backer. Each of which has special uses, responsibilities, and prototypes. And, while those within a category COULD be interchangeable, the categories simply cannot be correctly cross-changed. Due to the number of types, I am only focusing on our primary LBs for this series. But, as this is the intro, here is a list each type of backer that y’all should have ever heard of with a brief description:
Mike = This is the most common term you’ll hear for a middle linebacker. The Mike terminology is primarily used in a 4-3 as there is only one of them. If, in a 3-4, you call one Inner Line Backer a Mike then the other Inner is known as a Ted backer. In both formations Mike controls the defense (calls plays, calls the strong side, reorganizes other players, etc.). He is also considered the play maker ILB in a 3-4.
Ted= The Ted is the less sexy of the inner-linebacker. He paves the way for the Mike. He is the middle linebacker version of a "Strong" backer. He supports the Mike. In interior run support, he is taking out lead blockers, if any, so the Mike can make the play. In outer run support, he is supposed to make the play. A "Ted" is also a hybrid a of a "Will" backer. IE: If a defense shifts from 3-4 to 4-3 then the Rush/Leo/Jack/Elephant backer will become a DE, & Ted will become the Will.
Inner = This refers to the two backers in the middle of a 3-4. If a middle linebacker is called an inner-linebacker it can be two reasons. A) to keep things simple to talk about, B) the person talking about them does not know the difference or, C) either middle linebacker can be the Mike or Ted; and, it more depends on the defensive play and the offensive formation. This is the ideal for a 3-4 as it means both defenders can handle both sets of responsibilities.
Strong= Is associated with a 3-4. He isn’t a sexy position but vital. He supports the MIKE and the safety over top of him. The Strong backer sets the edge against the run. Thus, his role is to engage with the outside blocker. From there, he is supposed to angle himself to either A) force the RB back inside for the MIKE & TED, or B) force the RB deep & around to allow for the Mike to scrap (flow over-top) & the Safety to come downhill.
Sam= Is the strong side backer in a 4-3. He lines up on the overloaded side. He is typically a stronger run stuffer then a Will backer(see below). However, due to the nature of a 4-3 he needs to be able to play coverage and handle TEs in man-to-man.
Rush= To simply put is Robert Mathis. I would even venture far enough to say he is a prototype of this style of backer. Undersized 4-3 DE that is a pass rushing specialist that isn’t good against the run and is athletic enough to do basic coverage (IE Curl to flat zone).
Leo= The Leo backer is the new "elephant." Pete Carroll is, to my knowledge, the guy who changed the term from Elephant to Leo. A Leo, Elephant, Jack, and Rush fall into the "Weak" side backer category; so we'll see similarities. They are generally successfully interchangeable. They are not Strong or Sam backers. They are far from as we’ll see. Nevertheless, a Leo backer is bigger than a Rush is. His role is a pass rushing specialist as well, however he is also a stout run stopper. Leo’s aren’t coverage backers. So, if a defense uses a Leo backer then their strong needs to be better in pass coverage. Verse visa for a Rush backer.
Elephant= See "Leo". The difference can be on goal line situation and the Elephant is a bigger backer then a Leo (IE jumbo sets). But, these types are truly interchangeable as Pete Carroll took an Elephant backer and called it a Leo.
Jack= Is essentially a hybrid Leo/Rush. The terminology is based on a "Jack of all trades." He should be a pass rushing specialist, a solid player in coverage, and be able to be a play making run stopper. He is essentially a complete OLB. This term is the most misused for the simple fact that in the NFL, it is very difficult to get a guy that can be a play maker in each aspect. Lawrence Taylor is an example of a true jack. And, he is labelled as one of, if not the, best defensive player in history. A Jack with weaknesses is either typically a Leo or a Rush
Will= Is the weak side backer in a 4-3. He lines up on the opposite of the overloaded side. He is typically a stronger blitzer then the SAM backer(see above). Thus, he is typically the more quick and agile backer. This is also necessary for pursuing the RB, covering the slot in man-to-man, & being able to play zone.
Overview: A lot of basic information. Nothing too groundbreaking this article, but I hope it helps folks to start to understand the intricacies of the linebacking position. I’ll be digging much deeper in the next couple of articles in the series, but this intro lays out some of the important pieces of the puzzle. The keys to understanding what I’ll break down later is to understand gaps, man-to-man, zones, & Linebackers' basic mindset. These basics will allow us to discuss each of the Colts linebacker roles, responsibilities, reads, thought-process, etc. Please do not hesitate to ask questions in the comment section. The purpose of this article is to lay the foundation to be able to talk about Rush, ILB, Strong, & 4-3 backers in-depth. If you’re missing a piece now, things will only get more complex and confusing. Any question is fair game, so let’s get this party started.