Linebackers are defensive backs that play between the offensive line and the secondary defense. The linebacker is a versatile player responsible for the following:
- Tackling the ball carrier and preventing forward progress
- Blocking passes
- Preventing scores
- Forcing turnovers
- Sacking the quarterback
- Communicating with the sideline and calling defensive schemes
Linebackers typically line up about three to five yards behind the line of scrimmage. Their main role is to stop the offensive team members from gaining any yards down the field. The linebackers are the players responsible for stopping the ball and ball carrier. The linebacker provides extra run and pass protection. Linebackers typically line up in a two-point stance by standing upright with no hands on the ground. This is in contrast to defensive linemen, who line up in a three-point or four-point stance by crouching with one or two hands on the ground.
Linebacker Roles and Responsibilities
The linebacker is often considered to be the most important defensive position on the field. This is due to their versatility and responsibilities of communication and stepping in where help is needed. Just like the free safety, the linebacker’s course of action is determined by the formation of the offense and changes from play to play.
The key responsibilities of linebackers include calling schemes to the rest of the defense, reading plays, stopping runs, defending passes, and sacking the quarterback. The duties of linebackers depend on the particular position they are playing. Linebackers are classified as middle, also called inside, or outside linebackers. The outside linebackers are further divided into strong side and weak side linebackers. Each type of linebacker has slightly different responsibilities. Keep reading below to find out more about the differences.
Mike, Sam, Ted, and Will Linebackers
Linebackers are often designated by position using the names Mike, Sam, Ted, and Will; the first letters of the names correspond with the linebacker’s position. Thus, the Mike linebacker is the middle linebacker, Sam is the strong side linebacker, and Will is the weak side linebacker. A Ted linebacker, meanwhile, refers to the second of the two middle linebackers in a 4-3 defense.
The Mike or middle linebacker, is sometimes known as the quarterback of the defense. The middle linebacker is the defensive player that receives communication from the sideline and calls defensive plays. Middle linebackers must be versatile, as they can be called upon to blitz, cover the line or deep midfield, or spy the quarterback. The location of the middle linebacker can be a key to reading which defensive scheme the squad is running.
The Sam linebacker plays the strong side of the field opposite the tight end on offense. Strong side linebackers are usually the biggest of the three positions, as they are most often called upon to tackle the running back or shed a blocker that is protecting a run. Strong side linebackers also require considerable quickness, as they may be tasked with defending shallow passes or getting into zone coverage.
The Will linebacker plays on the weak side of the field, facing fewer offensive players. Weak side linebackers are typically the fastest and smallest linebackers, as they are most often used for pass coverage. Weak side linebackers must still have considerable strength as they are sometimes called upon to cover pulling linemen.
Another type of named linebacker is the Jack linebacker, which is an outside linebacker on the weak side of the field who often helps to defend pass rushes.
The defensive backfield is located just behind the line of scrimmage. Linebackers stand in the defensive backfield, positioned between the linemen and the secondary.
Below are some common formations linebackers find themselves in when standing in the defensive backfield:
Linebackers can appear in a number of different formations on the field. A 4-3 defense in football is a defense with four defensive linemen and three linebackers. 4-3 defenses are great for creating pass rushes without a blitz, and are hard to combat by the offense double-teaming on defenders. In a 4-3 defense, the linebackers typically array themselves on the right, left, and middle of the backfield. This type of scheme is where the Mike, Sam, and Will linebackers are most apparent.
A 3-4 defense is another type of formation in football where the defense consists of three defensive linemen and four linebackers. The linebackers in a 3-4 defense are usually two inside (middle) linebackers, a strong side linebacker, and a weak side linebacker. This formation spreads the defense out from side to side. In a 3-4 scheme, the two middle linebackers typically rush the football while the outside linebackers act as edge defenders.
A 46 defense is used in run-heavy situations or to confuse a quarterback. In a 46 scheme, a safety will line up at the same depth as the linebackers. This prevents double coverage near the center of the formation and provides maximum gap coverage. Depending on the play, the shallow safety or linebackers can blitz, get into man or zone coverage, or drop back into deep coverage.
Linebackers must have a number of skills that correlate to their various roles and responsibilities. These skills include communication, play-reading ability, speed, agility, and strength.
Firstly, linebackers must be very communicative with their fellow defenders. As they are often the captains of the defense, they must be able to quickly call out strategies and make themselves heard so that the defense can swiftly react to the offense’s tactics. As a part of this skill, linebackers must also be able to read offensive plays on the fly, as they must be aware of the offense’s plans in order to respond to them effectively.
In terms of physical skills, linebackers must be fast, agile, and strong. Speed is a necessary skill in order to pursue receivers and runners, while agility and strength are necessary in order to evade offensive linemen and make tackles, whether on the quarterback or other ball handlers.
Linebackers in the NFL are required to wear jersey numbers between 1 and 59 or between 90 and 99. In college football, linebackers may wear any number between 1 and 99, as the NCAA does not have jersey number requirements for defensive players.
Notable NFL Linebackers
- Dick Butkus
- Derrick Thomas
- Ray Lewis
- Ted Hendricks
- Von Miller
- Derrick Brooks
- Junior Seau
- Jack Ham
- Lawrence Taylor
- Ray Lewis
- Brian Urlacher
- Bobby Wagner
What type of football position is a linebacker?
The linebacker is a defensive position in football. They line up behind the defensive linemen during plays and have the primary tasks of stopping runs and passes and sacking the quarterback, if possible. Linebackers are a major part of various defensive schemes in football, including the 4-3 defense and the 3-4 defense.
What does a linebacker do?
Linebackers typically position themselves behind the defensive line at the start of a play. Then, when the play begins, they will either attempt to skip around or through the offensive line in order to attack the quarterback or fall back into the backfield to cover potential pass receivers or runners. In the event of successful passes or runs, linebackers will attempt to tackle the ball carriers.
What is the difference between a linebacker and a lineman?
Though they sound similar, defensive linemen and linebackers are distinct positions with separate roles. Linemen, as their name implies, are the players on the defense who form the actual line that directly squares off with the offensive line. Meanwhile, linebackers are named as they are because they “back up” the defensive linemen, standing behind them in a second line of defense as players who can make big tackles against runners and quarterbacks.