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Three methods teams use for choosing linebackers: Method 2, the specialists

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Traditional, plugging linebackers can still find a home with teams that design their schemes to protect them and allow them to do what they do best.

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Last week we began our dive into different methods that college teams are using to choose their linebacker personnel. These choices deeply matter to programs because these guys are traditionally the heart of a defense. The line and the secondary can dominate games but a unit's identity is often determined by the types of players that comprise the first wave of support at the linebacker level.

The "pseudo-dime approach" is all about shoring up the pass defense with speedy, space-backers and relying on disguise and versatility across the defensive backfield to swarm offenses. The key to that approach is landing as many physical safety-types that can comfortably play in the box as possible. A squad like TCU never seems to struggle to find enough 190-220 pound guys that Gary Patterson can mold into physical players that aren't afraid to fill the alley or plug holes between the tackles but not every team finds itself capable of loading up on undersized scrappers. Nor does every team prefer to go that route.

An alternative approach is to call in the specialists.

The specialists, making the most of the division of labor

For squads that either can't recruit well enough to find versatile projects at every position, or perhaps can recruit somewhat limited but situationally elite prospects at every position, Adam Smith's notes on the division of labor make more sense as a way to approach roster building.

There will always be those players that can thrive in a limited role, carved out to suit their particular strengths and mitigate their weaknesses. When you have a team where everyone fits into a role in which they've been highly developed and suits their skill set, magic can happen.

So the specialist approach typically relies on fielding traditional linebackers who excel at executing typical linebacker assignments. Teams can still get away with loading up on stout and heady backers and keeping them plugged in around the box if they defer most of the challenges of covering spread offenses in space to the secondary. This is most frequently done with even, 4-2 nickel fronts.

Alabama has actually frequently been a specialist team, always making sure to stock up on excellent inside linebackers who aren't frequently asked to do much beyond normal inside linebacking unless they have another skill (usually pass-rushing) that would justify moving them around.

For instance, in 2015 the Tide would typically role with Reggie Ragland (6'2", 258) and Reuben Foster (6'1", 245) at the "mike" and "will" inside linebacker positions and handle covering slot receivers with nickel Minkah Fitzpatrick or safeties Eddie Jackson and Geno Matias-Smith. If opponents were flooding the field with enough quality receivers to risk putting Ragland or Foster in positions where they had to cover in space then Alabama would turn to their dime package.

In the future perhaps Saban will field more guys like C.J. Mosley, who was mobile enough that the Tide didn't have to shrink down beyond their nickel package too often, but for most of Saban's time in Tuscaloosa they've embraced the specialist approach.

Besides Alabama, who could approach the task of choosing linebackers in a wide variety of ways and find success, the specialist approach is really useful for a smaller program like Boise State. The Broncos' 3-3-5 package is built around finding one guy who's good as an edge-rusher and competent enough dropping into the flat and pairing him with a couple of true, inside linebackers who excel playing in the box, reading blocks, and making tackles.

Boise ranked 32nd in defensive S&P last year thanks to finishing 15th in rushing S&P with the following linebacker corps:

Position Player Size Recruiting Ranking 2015 Stats
Rush LB Kamalei Correa 6'3" 248 3-star 39 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, seven sacks
Middle LB Tanner Vallejo 6'1" 227 3-star 57 tackles, eight tackles for loss, one sack
Weakside LB Ben Weaver 6'0" 220 3-star 68 tackles, four tackles for loss, three INTs

Correa slipped from 12 sacks in 2014 to only seven in 2015, which is perhaps why the Broncos' pass defense numbers dropped. Nevertheless, the Broncos' ability to focus on recruiting players that can thrive in defined roles and then overlap skill sets allows them to build defenses that are greater than the sum of their parts.

Vallejo is at his best playing in the box and cleaning up behind the D-line while Weaver was solid enough in coverage to do the same or occasionally get out in space a little. None of them thrived outside of their respective fiefdoms but in the Boise defensive scheme they didn't have to.

Protecting specialists in the base defense

There are two ways to go about protecting specialists from difficult coverage assignments in the base defense, one is to keep guys in the same types of roles whenever possible so that the better coverage backer is always in the more challenging coverage position. The other is to always defer coverage responsibilities to the secondary.

The latter is totally feasible in either a cover 4/quarters or cover 3 base defensive structure, here's how it typically works. In cover 4 the nickel or space-backer is usually going to align either over the most dangerous inside receiver or to the field where the offense has more space to work in. With the outside receivers and most dangerous slot accounted for by the cornerbacks and nickel/space-backer, that means the true linebackers potentially only have to account for the fourth and fifth receivers. One of these is almost always the running back, and the middle linebacker or main "plugger" of the linebacker corps is generally the one responsible for handling him.

The other could be a fullback, H-back, or tight end, which is usually not a tough coverage assignment, but these days it could also be a slot receiver or flex TE. Cover 4 defenses usually handle these guys by bracketing them with the linebacker and a safety over the top who picks the receiver up quickly in the event of a vertical route or any run action that would draw in the linebacker.

So for instance in a 2x2 set with a flex TE, a cover 4 defense will often align like this:

Cover 4 specialists

This kind of pattern-matching requires some experience, discipline, and team chemistry but the upshot is that defenses can keep their players within their coverage comfort zones and field linebackers that may be excellent at reading the triangle and stuffing the run but would be murdered if they have to do much more than wall a slot receiver up to the safety.

The challenge here is that the corner and safety have to pick up their assignments correctly or risk seeing a WR run behind them, which has the unfortunate drawback of making it harder for physically ready but mentally inexperienced underclassmen to see the field. Additionally, that strong safety is much easier to target in coverage here because he can potentially find himself playing in a lot of space if a run/pass option (RPO) or play-action fake draws in the weakside linebacker.

We discussed last week how cover 3 can come alive when the linebackers and safeties can all handle multiple coverage roles within the defense but it's also really effective, if sometimes vanilla, at allowing the offense to get DBs in better position to cover receivers and allow the linebackers to have even simpler roles. Cover 3 would typically handle the above alignment like this:

Cover 3 specialists

In this scheme the linebackers are only helping on in-breaking routes, covering the RB, and helping to wall off the seam to help the deep safety. All of those tasks are generally much easier for traditional linebackers then what they'd be asked to do in a pseudo-dime or even in the cover 4 defense outlined above. The only problem here, or even with the quarters approach, is that the defense can become somewhat predictable. The offense can generally be sure that the defense will be deferring coverage stress to safeties to avoid putting it on the linebackers.

But if this allows the defense to stop the run and win standard downs then it's a worthy trade-off.

Protecting specialists with the blitz

Sometimes teams that choose specialists at linebacker who excel in limited roles (typically just playing the run) have to lean on their four-man pass rush to get the job done. Kansas State has been a "specialist" team for years as it's often all a non-blueblood team can do to get consistently good play at every position without also requiring that their linebackers be ultra-versatile.

These days they are fortunate enough to have a player in Elijah Lee who can play in space fairly well and also offers a lot as a pass-rusher (five sacks in 2015), but usually they've leaned on their D-line to provide the pressure. For teams that don't have great defensive ends there are always ways to scheme pass-rushing opportunities for linebackers even if they don't excel rushing the edge.

Boise State protects their specialists by regularly bringing five pass-rushers and tending to leave their players in roles where they're at their best. For instance, in 2015 they'd usually drop down star strong safety Darian Thompson (11 INTs in two seasons) over a slot WR, leave Ben Weaver back to cover the flat or middle while shadowing the RB, and bring Correa and Vallejo on the blitz.

Mike field FZ

That kind of 5-2 front created via the Fire Zone blitz can either be a way to maximize the versatility of a linebacker corps OR to set up limited players to fill roles where they can thrive. Even if the pass-rush tends to come from the same five defenders the Broncos could be creative at bringing them from different angles and with different stunts to highlight strengths or get after opposing weaknesses.

Another pathway to helping the LBs is through the zero blitz, in which the defense accounts for the eligible receivers with man coverage from the defensive backs and uses the linebackers to overload and hopefully overwhelm the protection. There's no great skill required to be a part of a six or seven-man pressure if the secondary can buy time while playing man coverage.

6/7 man specialist blitz

So you tend to see specialists at the linebacker position on teams that can count on their secondary to pick up the tab in coverage and perhaps the DL to pick up the tab on the pass-rush. So long as the linebackers are filling their roles as tackling machines at the 2nd level of the defense then this kind of approach can allow teams like Alabama to excel with elite inside linebackers or allow teams like Kansas State to find hidden value in players that can thrive if protected.