As we covered last week, there's been a major change in the types of athletes teams are using at the inside linebacker positions in the modern era. The days of the middle linebacker being primarily responsible for blowing up lead blocks and filling hard and fast between the tackles are over and done.
Teams love to feature specialists who work together to create a whole greater than the sum of the parts and defenses are no exception. Spread offenses are designed in part to force specialists to execute assignments they weren't recruited or developed to perform. There are a myriad of different ways that offenses will now attack the inside linebacker, who as a stout, run-plugger was an easy target for a teams that focused on making opponents play in space.
Spread-option teams today read the middle linebacker as a primary key to determine where to send the football, asking him to navigate conflicting assignments in space. More passing-oriented teams will just get him matched up against a quicker player and see how well he can run routes.
But now by using elite athletes at that position, defenses can now counter some of these trickier tactics. Here's how it works:
Step 1: Freeing the linebackers
If you want to put more speed at linebacker so those players can run with spread offenses, they need to be free to do so without worrying about getting run over when the offense calls an inside running play.
Since many spread teams are just looking to get favorable numbers in the box so it becomes easier to run you over, some teams are only trading out one of their two pluggers at inside linebacker for a more athletic option. They'll simply have their linebackers line up according to the passing threats rather than the strength of the run game.
For instance against a four-wide spread set, a team that wants to keep one LB on the field who's more of a run-stuffer can simply match the harder coverage assignment with the two outside linebackers while keeping the plugger matched up against a running back:
Normally the middle linebacker would be lined up to the three receiver side, in between the other two linebackers, but instead team will now use the quicker athlete in the middle against this look since this position is lined up against a slot receiver while the weakside linebacker spot is filling inside or covering a running back.
Now the team can get a plugger on the field without exposing him to coverage assignments that require a great deal of range.
In the same way that a defense wants three good coverage players on the field at all times, they also generally want to keep three good run-stuffers on the field to fill the interior run gaps. Since 4-3 teams only have two DL (the tackles) inside those gaps they often want to keep one more plugger on the field. Rotating the mike and will linebackers to keep the plugger safe from getting isolated in coverage is a way for them to use an LB as the 3rd run-stuffer. Against an even set this would look more traditional:
Then there's modern varieties of 3-4 defense, or the 4-3 teams that will have their ends two-gap the B and C gaps, which will use three down linemen as the run-stuffing players, freeing up either inside linebacker position to feature speedier athletes rather than iso-stoppers.
The three DL in the middle of the field are going to be able to attack the OL and occupy interior gaps while both inside linebackers can now run free to the football or pay mind to coverage assignments. They'll still have to play blocks from time to time, but they can now be players defined more for their quickness and nose for the ball rather than their ability to blow up blockers.
Step 2: Handling space and conflicts
When the inside linebackers are defined first and foremost for their ability to run to the football it opens up new possibilities for how defenses choose to defend spread-option concepts designed to pull them apart to create creases to attack.
What always hurts spread-option teams is when the defense can muddy the waters for the QB and prevent the quick-trigger reads and distributions he's been drilled to make. If the QB can't make a quick read and get the ball where it needs to go, more of the defense will have a chance to follow their keys to the football and avoid being spread out.
Here's a typical, modern RPO (run/pass option) play that’s looking to give the QB multiple answers for defensive responses all within the same concept:
First the QB will identify if his "Z" receiver on the outside is facing a corner in man coverage or if there's also a deep safety helping over the top. If it’s just the former, he may take the snap and immediately throw a fade, slant, post or other route to the Z receiver. If there’s a deep safety, he’s now reading the middle linebacker to see how he covers the stick route by the "H" slot receiver. If the middle linebacker is racing downhill to fill a gap against the inside zone blocks the OL is executing than the QB is throwing the quick pass to H. If the linebacker is covering the route than the QB can hand off to the back who’s running behind five OL blocking at favorable angles against five remaining defenders.
By putting a faster athlete at middle linebacker the defense can still play two-deep safeties to prevent the home run throw outside with the linebacker dropping to take away the route rather than dropping a safety to cover the slot receiver in man coverage. The difference is that now the linebacker is fast enough and protected enough to take away the route and then come back and arrive in time to stop the running play before there’s any major gain.
If the linebacker is also being protected by the three DL spilling the ball outside he'll have an even shorter distance to cover to reach ball carrier.
This strategy is excellent for allowing the defense to keep their safeties deep, which many defenses prefer to do in acknowledgement that the modern passing game is more likely to kill them than the run game. Additionally, spread coordinators are not necessarily the type to be patient enough to pound the ball between the tackles against two-deep defenses, even if the gains are consistently of the 3-6 yard variety.
The next challenge are the spread teams that are lining up highly skilled receivers running option routes to zones of the field that the linebackers are accountable for. With a really nifty slot receiver or flex TE as the innermost slot receiver, teams will take their chances working in smaller spaces with the confidence that their QB and receiver can clown a linebacker with an option route and get 5-10 yards whenever they want them.
On a play like this, either inside linebacker (M or W) is getting isolated against a very good receiver who’s basically running a GO (just "get open") route. These types of routes are exceptionally difficult to cover if the receiver and QB have great chemistry, especially if the receiver is a fast-twitch athlete who can turn on a dime.
Traditional linebackers are not built to handle these assignments and the offense will use these plays to create a quick, easy read and throw in the middle of the field. However, if the linebackers are quicker athletes that are capable of denying the quick throw over the middle and then chasing and contesting throws to the outside then a few things happen.
First the quarterback begins to stare overly long at a particular receiver which can allow the DL to get their hands up and turn what would have been a quick, precision strike by the offense into a tip drill.
Secondly, this buys time for the pass-rush to get home. Many of these types of passing offenses are all about getting the ball out quickly and they don’t always have the athletes at OL or QB to buy real time against a good pressuring front.
Finally, playing good athletes at linebacker in instances like this allows the defense to decrease the overall efficiency of these plays. Instead of looking at easy, 5-10 yard gains by throwing short option routes to good receivers, perhaps the offense throws more incompletions or the linebackers are able to force the receiver to get open for very short, minimal gains before making the tackle. Spread teams don’t want to approach the game with a "three yards and a cloud of dust" attack that involves their often wiry or small slot receivers getting repeatedly tackled by fast-moving linebackers.
Step 3: Attack!
Traditionally defenses have targeted the edge for their pass-rushing efforts, but option and spread teams share that appreciation for that space and will target the edge in their own tactics and put their own best athletes (the long, athletic, and imposing offensive tackle and tight end) out on the edge to meet them.
Playing skilled athletes at inside linebacker generally means using bigger DL up front to protect them, which means the defense no longer necessarily has more than even one good edge-rusher on the field and in position to attack on a given snap.
However, the final advantage of having a fast-twitch athlete inside comes in the pass-rush opportunities. There is nothing that ruins a spread offense faster than gut pressure through the A and B gaps. It eliminates the possibility for quick, timed throws, it puts the inside running game at risk for negative plays, and it evades the best pass-protectors and potentially forces the offense to leave a running back in the backfield to help protect the QB.
There are few things more devastating for offenses than well-timed, disguised A-gap blitzes executed by explosive inside linebackers. A stunt like the one above, that only brings four pass-rushers while dropping seven well-positioned pass defenders with two deep safeties, can be nightmare-fuel for a spread offensive coordinator. The QB doesn’t have an easy leverage throw to make and may be forced to escape the pocket where the outside linebackers will be in position to quickly pursue him while the safeties follow his eyes and look to jump any desperate heaves.
These types of blitzes have always been effective but they are never better than when executed by a player who’s one of the fastest athletes on the field. When a player like Jaylon Smith times his blitz well and suddenly darts into an interior gap he can often come totally free.
This is how teams are now using athletes that may have been safeties or running backs in another era to be their main answer for combating spread tactics by inserting them into the game at inside linebacker and ensuring that they can control the proverbial "middle of the chessboard."
In the upcoming 2015 season keep an eye out for players like Jaylon Smith at Notre Dame, Myles Jack at UCLA, Mike Mitchell at Texas Tech, or Malik Jefferson at Texas for an idea of where defenses may be moving in future seasons and how the athletic inside linebacker will change the game.