The strength of this Indianapolis Colts’ defense since the beginning of 2018 has been the linebacker core. Led by All-Pro Darius Leonard, this group has been among the best in the league for the past two seasons. Outside of knowing who the players are and their position in the defense, what are their exact roles on the defense? What are the differences in expectations from the SAM linebacker and the WILL linebacker?
Today, I am going to go position by position in this linebacker group and break down what their roles, responsibilities, and expectations are in this defense.
Starting with the least important position of the group, we are looking at the SAM linebacker. The SAM is typically the strong side backer in a typical base defense look. They are responsible mainly for the ‘B’ gap behind the nose tackle but that responsibility can shift down depending on the offensive formation and how the play is blocked. The key distinction in where the SAM lines up typically depends if the defense is playing with an over look or an under look.
The under look basically lines the SAM up on the line of scrimmage and essentially gives the defense a 5-2 look rather than the typical 4-3. This is used either when the offense they are facing is in a run heavy look or the defense just wants to get creative with match-ups and potential blitz from this spot. The diagram shown before this clip is actually straight out of a Tony Dungy playbook which is one of the defenses that heavily influenced how Matt Eberflus draws up plays. Here the SAM (Matthew Adams) is lined up in the under look and gets a free rush on the edge for the would be sack on the play.
An over look on defense is more of the traditional three linebacker set that we are used to. The SAM lines up on the strong side of the formation in the three linebacker look, typically behind the nose tackle. The SAM’s responsibility on this play is to fill the strong side ‘B’ gap and take on any pulling linemen or fullbacks that come through the hole. Here the SAM (Bobby Okereke) takes the Steelers’ fullback head on in the lane and makes the tackle for a short gain.
Coach Eberflus simply broke down the SAM position in an interview a while back with Colts.com very well:
The SAM is usually our heavy guy who likes to hit. He’s in the bubble here so he will do a lot of things like turning the ball back inside and those types of things.
That essentially is what the SAM backer does. It is a gritty position that doesn’t get much recognition. With the NFL’s change over the years to a more pass heavy league, the SAM for the Colts really only sees the field about 25-30% of the snaps. It is their job on those snaps to be a sturdy and tough run defender and fill those run lanes to create space for the WILL and MIKE to make plays. Bobby Okereke was excellent in this role last year and should play there again in 2020. This is a great example of a perfect SAM play as he fills the run lane, crushes the fullback in the hole, and makes the tackle for a short gain.
Getting to both the MIKE and the WILL now and things get a bit more complex. Matt Eberflus defines his WILL backer as the most athletic player on the field. He also says that he almost always will line up behind the three technique defensive tackle. For me on why the WILL lines up behind the three technique, click here for an article I wrote on this the other day.
Let’s look at the WILL in two parts now, starting with run defense. The WILL is the most athletic linebacker on the field so this position will almost always be on the weakside of the line. The WILL’s primary gap is the backside ‘B’ gap but that can change depending on the offensive play call. The goal of the WILL in this defense is to attack and play downhill, especially in run defense. This player has to be that elite athlete because they have to be able to beat climbing linemen to the spot and make plays on the running back.
The WILL, like most off ball linebackers, also has to be a fast processor. While they want to attack downhill and be aggressive, it can’t be reckless and give up cutback lanes. It’s all about diagnosing the play, being confident in your reads, and attacking. Here WILL backer Darius Leonard showcases his speed and processing ability by quickly diagnosing the toss play and beating his climbing linemen to the spot to make the tackle.
Typically the WILL linebacker is a team’s best coverage player due to the fact that they are the best athlete in the group. While Leonard is better in an attacking position, he does still make his fair share of plays in coverage. Matt Eberflus does a great job of utilizing Leonard to the best of his ability and keeping him around the line of scrimmage in the attack position. Leonard thrives in short area man to man and sitting in that mid-zone where he can either bait quarterbacks into bad throws or come up and make plays in front of him. Here are two examples of that below as he shuts down the slant pass to DeAndre Hopkins in clip one and baits the quarterback into an interception in clip two.
While Leonard is great in coverage, Eberflus realized early on that he is at his best when attacking. That is when Eberflus essentially started drawing up more and more blitzes that feature the All-Pro linebacker. While the WILL backer is typically utilized on blitzes due to their speed and size combination, Eberflus has taken it to the next level with his spy and blitz calls with Leonard. The result has been 12 sacks in two years for an off ball linebacker.
Being a Playmaker
One of the most important factors of this type defense, dating all the way back to Tony Dungy back in Tampa Bay, is forcing turnovers. The “bend don’t break” style of the cover two needs turnovers to survive. One of the biggest factors in this is the WILL backer especially when it comes to stripping the ball and forcing fumbles. I know from watching some coaching clinics on Tony Dungy that he preaches that players who come in from the back or the side of the ball carrier to be punching at that ball to force fumbles. The perfect player to be in position for these plays is the WILL as they are typically pursuing backside and have the strength and speed to knock these balls loose. Leonard is insanely skilled at forcing these fumbles and is extremely vital to what the Colts want to do as a result.
To summarize, the WILL backer is a much different than the SAM that we discussed earlier. The WILL is responsible for the weak side of the defense and the overall goal from the spot is backside pursuit with their elite speed. The WILL is typically the best cover linebacker on the team but Matt Eberflus has done an excellent job of utilizing Darius Leonard to the best of his abilities and utilizing him more around the line of scrimmage and attacking. They don’t ask much of his in coverage and honestly this works really well for both parties. The WILL also has to be a big time playmaker in this defense just from where they line up and Leonard has been a perfect fit in that regard as well. Basically if you made the perfect WILL in a lab, it would be Darius Leonard.
Lastly we have the MIKE who may be the most important part of the entire defense. This position is typically filled by the smartest and most reliable player of the group. Eberflus also mentions how this player needs to “take good angles” in his interviews with Colts.com. It is vital in run defense that this player has top level instincts and can be relied on not to take those bad angles. One misstep by the MIKE, and it could be a huge play for the offense.
The Colts have had Anthony Walker Jr. fill the MIKE spot the last two seasons. While he is a bit limited overall as a player, I would argue that he is one of the best run and chase linebackers in the league. He takes great angles to the ball and does a great job of sifting through traffic to make stops. His ability as a run defending MIKE is one of the reasons why the Colts have been a top ten run defense each of the last two seasons. Here he makes the climbing guard miss his block in space then takes a great angle for the stop.
Another way the MIKE impacts run defense for the Colts is in their “Patterns” call. You can click here to read a whole article on the subject that I wrote a while back. Essentially though, the Colts like to slant the defensive line in run defense to create better angles for disruption up front. In this call, the linebacker fill behind the defensive line as the play is funneled to them. Walker Jr. is typically the beneficiary of these plays as the play is funneled to him to make the tackle in space. It is vital for the MIKE to be tight to his gap and make these plays in space.
In pass defense, Walker is at his best around the line of scrimmage much like Leonard. His instincts really come into play on quick curl or out passes to tight ends over the middle. He reads those routes very well and drives down fast to make plays on the ball. Outside of doing that though, the MIKE is mostly required to drop into the mid-zone and attack anything thrown underneath. The Colts do mix in some man coverage looks at times and the MIKE typically has to take those with the WILL being more of a roamer but the main look is that cover two with the mid-zone.
The other type of zone that the Colts will have the MIKE drop into is the deep middle third carrying seam routes. This is when the Colts drop into their Tampa two looks. The Tampa two defense essentially differs from a typical cover two in the way it handles seam routes and the depth of the MIKE. The MIKE on this look will carry the seam route to the deep middle third and basically turn the cover two look into more of a cover three. This play is actually a perfect example of that type of zone as Walker Jr. carries the seam deep and then is able to locate the underthrow for the interception.
In summary, the MIKE is the quarterback of the defense. He makes all the calls and is the biggest communicator out there. To succeed in this spot for the Colts, the MIKE has to be a reliable player who is a rangy run defender and takes good angles. In coverage, the typical zone is underneath but the MIKE has to be athletic enough to occasionally drop into man or Tampa two. Walker Jr. has been as reliable as they come in this spot the past two seasons.
While each player may be listed as a linebacker, the three positions are vastly different in what they have to do in each play. The SAM is a strong, run stuffing position that sets the edge and forces the play back inside. The WILL is the uber athletic playmaker. The MIKE is the quarterback of it all and has to be versatile yet reliable.
While Matt Eberflus has specific roles for these positions, I absolutely love that he adjusts according to his players. For instance, at SAM with Matthew Adams in that role, he played a lot of under looks because Adams is a tank who can set the edge. With Okereke there last year, it was more over looks to use his speed in space. The WILL is typically a cover guy but Eberflus has essentially made Leonard a hybrid blitzer and spy on a lot of passing situations. Even with Walker Jr. at MIKE he has made adjustments as well.
The Colts have players who fill these spots really well but also have the coaching that is not afraid to stray away from their vision. Eberflus and his staff doesn’t fit players to their system but fits their system to their players. That is why this group has been so successful the last two seasons. These linebackers aren’t ever over-thinking, they are just playing football in their best suited roles. Expect even more success going forward from this extremely talented linebacker group.