A Linebacker’s Explanation of Linebacking: Rush Backer (Series 2 of 5)

If you missed the 1st article of this series, please, go give it a read at: It’ll lay the foundation on what I’ll be discussing in this article.

Now that we have the basics covered let’s talk about one of the more exciting roles that a Linebacker can play: the Rush Backer. A Rush Backer is the pass rushing specialist of the LB core. He makes his name on being a QB hater (sounds familiar yet?). He does have edge responsibilities (C or D Gap pending TE placement), and coverage responsibilities, but his main goal in life is to make the QB’s life hell. The Rush backer is traditionally a college 4-3 DE that is known for pass rushing and has exceptional athletic abilities. The reason for moving this type of player from a 4-3 DE to a 3-4 Rush Backer is to give the defense an unknown.

As Colt fans, the Manning Era is a great example of static alignments. Similar to how Reggie & Marvin never moved from "their" side of the field; the same goes for good ole Freeney & Mathis. They lined up in their respective manners, and created chaos. The problem? The Offense knew exactly where our two studs were. If not for their wide repertoire of elusiveness then they would not have been the game changers we knew them as. They were easily accountable for and smart OCs were able to capitalize on that simple fact.

A Rush Backer does not have a static alignment. He will typically be on the backside of an offensive formation (their blind side); however, the advantage of being a stand-up is that he is able to move around and perform a multitude of different stunts. In order for the pass protection to work, the QB/Center has to account for where a Rush is and where they think he’ll be coming from. Key word being *think* instead of *know*. Mathis has become a poster boy for the 34 Rush Backer. (Side note: 34 is 3-4, but abbreviated. So, if you hear someone saying "34" or "3-4" same thing).

In his first season as the primary Rush Backer, Mathis has produced a league leading sack number at a whopping 19.5. He has continued his strip-sack record, and has shown everyone that ole man is as much of a monster as ever; and, was not a by-product of Freeney. Mathis cemented his name in Colts history; and, a city favorite. So, what has allowed this monster to continue his rampage of chaos upon offenses? The unknown. Weird to think a guy that accounts for an extraordinary amount of the team’s total sacks is "unknown." But, that is the beauty of being a 34 Rush Backer; the Backer is never in a static alignment. He can blitz from the blind side, strong side, any gap he wants; OR, he can even throw a monkey wrench into the machine and drop back into coverage and even have a delayed blitz. The Rush Backer is an "X" factor even if the offensive knows the potency of that Backer’s playmaking abilities. Transitioning to a Rush Backer has allowed for Mathis to continue his game wrecker ways. For the reasons listed above, teams have a much more difficult time double/triple teaming him as a Rush LB then they did as a 43 DE.

Before we get into the technical aspects, let’s take a moment to review & compare. Take a stroll down memory lane to Mathis as a 43 DE. Always in one place. Always rushing the passer with very few and far between change-ups. The main question OCs had were A) Is he spinning inside B) is he bull rushing, or C) is he coming around the edge. Let’s compare this to now. As a 34 Rush Backer, Mathis could be anywhere. He could rush the passer, or drop back into coverage. He could be delayed. If he is blitzing from somewhere, then he could be spinning to either side, bull rushing, or taking an edge. There is simply too much to account for; which allows for Mathis to be an "unknown." Due to the amount of guesswork involved in game planning for the Rush Backer, there is simply a limit to the use of doing so . OC trying to guess against a HoF’er has allowed for Mathis to be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year. And, rightly so given the impact he has for the Colts this season.

Now, onto the more technical aspects of a 34 Rush Backer. The Rush Backer stance can change depending on what his call is. For which, here is the disclaimer, I will explain a stance regarding the base defense rather than the multiple variances that there could be pending the situation. The Rush OLB, in a base defense, is on the blind side of the formation. He will be 3-5 yards off the Line of Scrimmage. His left foot is staggered forward; with his right football "primed" & ready to push off. His first step is ALWAYS forward. A LBs first step is never…EVER… backwards. When we discuss flow/scrapping in the ILB article I’ll discuss why it is always forward. But, for now, think of it as, a Linebackers #1 job is to make sure the football does not get past the line of scrimmage; and, stepping backwards is counterproductive to that task. A Rush backer arms are typically hanging in front or half "cocked" to allow for quick hits. Their head is up looking at the situation and focusing on their first read (see below). This stance is to give the Backer an advantage for his responsibilities (see below). The foot placement and body angle allows the Backer to attack the edge with speed to, hopefully, get the Tackle off balance & retreating. The arms are positioned to fight off offenders. All of which is vital for a Backer to be successful.

There are two types of reads that happen during a play: pre-snap & post-snap. The presnap reads are broad. A Rush backer will look at the offense (How’s that for broad?). Rush Backer keys off different pieces of information pending the situation. An example of this if the RB is winged out to the Rush side; potential for an extra block. The post-snap reads start with the Oline. I was taught this as the "High Hats or King’s Crown." I am sure this has numerous different names, but the substance is the same. A "High Hat" is when the O-linemen lift their heads up. This means that they are pass protecting because they snap their heads up to look, identify, and pick-up blockers. A "King’s Crown" is when an O-linemen keeps his head down (ie Crown of the helmet) & is charging towards his assignment. The O-linemen know where they are going, their assignments, and from a Backer’s perspective their helmets won’t pop up but look lowered. If it’s a run, then the Rush will identify the near Guard. A Guard’s blocking can show the way the play is going. If the block is towards the Rush, then the Rush sets the edge. If it is away, the Rush has cutback. Setting the edge is a misleading general statement. Setting the edge is twofold: The OLB hits the outside blocker and does either a) forces the RB back inside to the ILBs or b) forces the RB deep around too allow the ILB to scrap over top & the Safety to come downhill like a bat outta hell. A cutback is after a LB gets past the Oline, the LB cuts flat across in-case the RB tries to bounce it back. If it is a pass, then the Rush reads QB or his assigned coverage man.

Last note before discussing responsibilities. A 34 defense is typically a 2 gap defense. This means that each D-lineman is responsible for 2 gaps. NT has both A gaps. The DT/DE have B & C. The Rush will use the Tackle or blocking TE to set the edge to accomplish the above definition. Theoretically, the Rush is co-responsible for the C gap if there is no TE; and, solely responsible for the D gap if there is a TE.

Now onto the responsibilities of a Rush Backer in a base 3-4:

Responsibilities in an I-formation:

Run: Set the Edge, pursue the cutback, or stretch the blockers to the sideline. C or D gap is their responsibilities (depending on where the TE is).

Pass: Zone is hook to curl with flat support. Man depends on who breaks out. The WR on either side is covered by their respective CB. The SS will generally be in the box. The FS will be center field. The Rush will typically be on the non-TE side. If that is the case, he is responsible for the FB. The closest SS or ILB will be responsible for the RB if he comes out the same side as the FB. If the TE is on the side of the Rush, then the Rush is responsible for the TE.

Blitz: Sack the QB

Responsibilities in a 3 wide/single back:

Run: Set the Edge, pursue the cutback, or stretch the blockers to the sideline. C or D gap is their responsibilities (depending on where the TE is).

Pass: Zone is hook to curl with flat support. Man depends on the positioning. Keep in mind these responsibilities are based on a base defense. There is no slot CB because a slot is not in a base defense (3 Dline, 4 LB, 2 CB and 2 Safeties). If there is a side with only 1 guy that can catch (IE a sole wideout) then that CB will be alone in man on that side. If there are 2 guys that can catch (IE WR & TE or 2 WR), then the safeties will be a shell cover 2. The CBs will take the outside guys. And, the OLBs will man up to the TE & slot WR. The ILBs with spread wider to allow for a better angle in case there is an outside run and the OLB can’t get back to their responsibilities. The RB will be covered by whichever ILB is on the side the RB goes toward. The 2nd ILB is the "spy" on the QB

Blitz: Sack the QB/bat the ball down/truck the RB

Responsibilities in a trips on one side:

Run: Set the Edge, pursue the cutback, or stretch the blockers to the sideline. C or D gap is their responsibilities (depending on where the TE is).

Pass: Zone is hook to curl with flat support. Man depends on the TE position. TE away from the Trips side will be covered by the CB. The OLB on that side will be cover the RB if he comes out that way. Otherwise, free blitz. The trip side, the CB will take the outside guy. The OLB will take the 2nd WR in the trips formation. The SS will cover the 3rd WR (closest to the line). The FS will be centerfield to jump the solo-side TE or to hawk overtop of the trips formation. The RB is covered by the ILB if he goes out to the trips side. If the TE is on the trips side, then the CB from the empty side will rotate over. The man responsibilities from the outside inward are: CB, OLB, CB, Safety. The FS will split the QB and the widest WR. He’ll cover over top and ball hawk. The 2nd ILB is the "spy" on the QB.

Blitz: Sack the QB/bat the ball down/truck the RB

Responsibilities in a 4 WR/one back:

Run: Set the Edge, pursue the cutback, or stretch the blockers to the sideline

Pass: Zone is hook to curl with flat support. For man, this is very similar to 3 WR/one back. This time this is no TE. A 2-2 split: the CBs take the outside WR, OLB take the slot, & safeties are in a shell cover 2. Trips either side see above. The same side the RB comes out of, is the ILB responsibilities. The 2nd ILB is the "spy" on the QB.

Blitz: Sack the QB/truck the RB

Responsibilities in a 5 WR set:

Run: Hit the QB, there is no RB or TE to block.

Pass: Zone is hook to curl with flat support. The two man side: CB covers the wide-out, OLB covers the slot. The three man side: CB covers the wide-out, OLB covers the slot, & ILB covers the WR closest to the line. The safeties are in a shell cover 2. The remaining ILB is the "spy." Keep in mind, in the NFL, the DC will have a special personnel package; but this is a LB series about 34 LBs.

Blitz: Sack the QB/bat the ball down

Tips for watching the Rush Backer (Mathis) this Saturday:

His first step will always be forward. Even in coverage he, should, take a step forward and then shoot back into coverage. Bird’s eye view is tough to see "High Hats or King’s Crown." But, try to watch the O-lineman’s heads. When they pop up, look for Mathis to keep going. When they don’t, look for Mathis to stick to the Tackle/TE until the RB "declares" his move. He’ll hit the Tackle/TE and try to angle himself to a) push the RB inside or b) make the RB bounce it deep. Replays that show a more regular view should be a good way to see this. Look for him to line up against the weaker tackle. Mathis does best on the outside, so he probably won’t blitz inside; but, if they need to dial up something special look for Mathis to come from difficult places. Look for the Brady to identify Freeman, Mathis, & the FS before each play. Freeman as our "MIKE", Mathis as our "Rush", and either Landry or Bethea as our "FS" for that play.

Rush LB is one of the more exciting roles in the LB core. They are an unknown regardless of how well known their reputation is. They are pass rushing specialist with a knack at creating chaos. O-line hates them. QB fear them. RB get smashed by them. Confusion by their versatility gives the defense an unparalleled edge when they have someone like Mathis in that role. Mathis, in his first season as being the primary Rush, has done an extraordinary job at Rush. He has become a prototype for this style of LB; as he is the 2nd oldest defender to lead the league in sacks during a regular season. The one knock on Mathis is that he likes rushing from the outside. He does mix it up from time to time, but the outside is still the tendency OCs will game plan against. If Manusky shuffles Mathis around, BB & Tom Brady won't know where or when he is coming. A situation that brings a smile to Colt fans nation wide.

Please, feel free to ask any questions regarding the Rush Backer. Please, if I left something out or would like to know more specifics, feel free to ask. Any and every question is more than welcome. The next article in the will be about the Inner Linebackers. Hope y'all enjoy the read.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Stampede Blue's writers or editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of Stampede Blue's writers or editors.

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