Linebacker is potentially the most important position on defense. If you choose to play this position, you are placing yourself in the center of the action, in between the D-line and the secondary, and generally right in the middle of the field. Unlike safety, which I talked about earlier, playing linebacker has a much better risk-to-reward ratio -- ideally you have the opportunity to make the greatest number of plays, without the same liability. However, the disadvantage lies in the fact that you are much more likely to be blocked, and have less space and time to get to the play.
Then again, if you can master playing corner, you can easily master the linebacker spot as well. Here are a few tips to help turn you into the next virtual Ray Lewis.
It’s All About Gaps
All right, I mentioned how as a DB your primary responsibility is as a pass defender. This is not the case with linebacker. Your best opportunities to make impact plays are going to be against the run. That is not to say you should charge up the middle as soon as the ball is snapped. Assuming the offense is going to run, you will generally need to position your player in one of about five gaps. Let’s break it down like this: left outside, left middle, middle, right middle, right outside. In real football, these gaps have letters, but I don’t play real football.
The key to finding the right gap is to think like the running back; just like how the key to making interceptions is thinking like the quarterback.
Your goal as a run-stopper is to pick the right gap and plug it. Depending on which LB spot you pick (middle, left outside, right outside), as well as your assignment for the play, you will have a greater responsibility to defend certain gaps. Think about where your player needs to be to ensure that his duties are accounted for while still affording you the opportunity to make a play.
The key to finding the right gap is to think like the running back; just like how the key to making interceptions is thinking like the quarterback. When the ball is snapped on a run play, examine the play from the running back’s perspective and try to identify where you would run. More often than not, the computer picks the same gap and tries to run through it. Ideally, you and the ball carrier will see the same hole, and you’ll meet somewhere in the middle of it. However, remember that the running back is also watching for you. If you plug a gap too quickly, you could send them cutting to another area, and remove yourself from the play. To counter this, linger back for a few moments before making your move. This will give you more time to make the right read, and also ensure that the computer is committed to running into your kill zone. Once you have the play lined up, charge in and end it.
Filling the gaps is especially important for the linebackers.
Try using D-line moves if you get engaged. If your assignment is a zone, then backpedal to ensure you don’t get blocked at all. Beyond that, apply the normal rules of coverage that we talked about in my previous articles.
One advanced technique to countering blockers is to actually fake them out.
Most likely, however, you will have a man assignment against the HB, FB or TE. In these instances, I highly recommend backpedaling a step or two after the ball is snapped to give yourself separation from blockers, and allow yourself more space to react to where your man is going. Then, mirror his movements until you know where he is going, and then rush in to make the play.
One advanced technique to countering blockers is to actually fake them out. Try starting towards one gap, and then cutting back to another one. This needs to be done quickly and efficiently, but if you master it you will find WIDE open gaps to run into. The best place to practice this technique is on kickoffs. When you are running down after you kickoff, try cutting back and forth to avoid your blocker. Once you get the hang of it, you should be able to get to the returner without being touched, and stop the returner for a minimum gain.
Break on the Play
Either way, don’t bother trying to recover, especially if you have anything other than a crucial zone assignment.
Breaking on plays, especially draws, is important for linebackers to do.
Lastly, remember to make quality tackles over big hits. Linebackers are more likely to successfully Hit Stick ball carriers, but they are even more likely to make solid tackles.
By the same token, when stopping the run, at some point you just need to commit. Your opponent isn’t going to wait around trying to pick a gap, so neither should you. Stay mobile, and pick your spot. If you commit to one gap and the running back bounces outside, just keep chasing him. Maybe you’ll catch the RB from behind, or maybe he'll try to make another move and you can catch up to him that way -- or maybe he'll leave you in the dust, but at least you made an effort.
If you are using an outside linebacker, remember to try to keep the play inside of you. You will have a lot more zones and TE or even WR assignments, so be prepared to play a little more of the pass. Also, OLB have some of the best sack opportunities in the game, so if you play from that spot, consider treating yourself to some blitzes. On those blitzes, you can try getting the outside angle, but I like to start outside and then cut inside the TE or FB to get to the QB. Mess around with it and see how it feels.
If you can just run into the ball carrier, that is the most reliable way to go
Lastly, remember to make quality tackles over big hits. Linebackers are more likely to successfully Hit Stick ball carriers, but they are even more likely to make solid tackles. If you can just run into the ball carrier, that is the most reliable way to go. If you have someone lined up perfectly, go ahead and try to really nail him, but I highly recommend going high in those instances. Also, never try to Hit Stick the quarterback unless he is scrambling. For some reason it is really hard to line up the QB when he is standing still or exercising minimal movement, so just make sure to finish the play. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to take a QB’s head off and completely missing. By the same token, if the QB tries his luck on the ground, I can’t tell you to do anything but try to blast him. Nobody is that disciplined.
Try these tips out and see if you can’t master another defensive spot. I’ve said it every time and I’ll say it again: practice, practice, practice. I personally find working on these types of things in practice mode as redeeming a game experience as any other, so embrace it. Get in there and try running different defenses against different offenses, and seeing how your chosen position factors into each play. Once you get a sense for how these plays tend to unfold, you’ll be able to start changing games from the linebacker position.