t is an honor to share a few observations which I have made over a 42-year career regarding the principles and techniques

of linebacker play. In some instances, I will offer the suggestion of drills to aid in the development of those techniques. My thinking has been influenced by two great linebacker coaches, Jerry Sandusky and Lou Tepper, whose books and publications have assisted many of us. Football is a game requiring execution on defense, but linebackers must be able to perform with a degree of reckless abandon. When coaching talented linebackers, one must avoid falling into the “paralysis by analysis” trap by overcoaching them or making their reads too difficult. Stance: Since most linebacker movement is made in a lateral direction, the stance should lend itself to such movement. Many high school linebackers come to us with a stance in which their feet are much too wide, resulting in false steps. The desired stance is one with the feet parallel while assuming football’s basic “breakdown” or hitting position. The feet are shoulder width apart. The knees and ankles are bent with both heels on the ground, but with the weight on the balls of the feet. The waist is bent slightly so that the hands dangle at approximately knee level. I do not favor linebackers resting their hands on the thigh pads in their stance, but this will be tolerated if it is a habit they cannot break. The upper body should be coiled, but not tense, and the eyes should be focused on the offensive key or keys. It is important not to assume a stance in which the linebacker has to raise or lower himself before moving laterally. Again, so many young linebackers come to us with a stance with far too much knee bend, or a straight-legged stance with far too much waist bend. Most of us are looking for “knee benders,” not “waist benders.” Up Stance: In the “up” stance, the inside foot is up with the toes pointing toward the near back, and the weight is mostly on the front foot. The back foot is significantly staggered. The front foot is even with the nearest defensive lineman’s feet. The linebacker must appear that he is blitzing from his up stance. If the linebacker is blitzing, he should roll over the front foot as he goes. If he is “punching out,” he will push backward off the front foot, ending up in a parallel stance, reading his normal keys.


Diagram 1 - Punch Out Drill (Stance Drill)

Movement: The shuffle is the initial form of linebacker movement and should be drilled virtually every day. The linebacker should lean in the direction he wants to go and move the back foot first. Moving the front foot first will result in becoming over-extended, making it difficult to change direction. After moving the back foot, the linebacker then moves his front foot laterally. Obviously, the shuffle is executed without crossing the feet. The elbows should be close to the body while shuffling, and the linebacker should avoid using a “galloping” motion with the arms and shoulders. When the shuffle is not fast enough, a transfer to the lateral run (sometimes called the crossover run) should be made. The lateral run is the most frequently used form of linebacker movement. The linebacker will cross over with his back foot and make a smooth transition to the lateral run as the hips are opened. He will run laterally with his shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage (or nearly so), the hips open and the arms swinging naturally (hammer motion) as though running forward. In general, linebackers should not waste motion or become over-extended while moving. The shoulders should be turned only as a last resort. Movement drills should be incorporated into every practice. All movement drills must be executed with maximum effort because any

Linebacker Principles as Observed by an Aging Warrior

Diagram 2 - Shuffle/Lateral Run Drill (Movement Drill)

Diagram 3 - Four-in-One Drill (Movement Drill)

The linebacker will then thrust his feet backward and get off the block as he “stuffs” the blocker. He should keep his shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage and be the first to move after separation from the block. Generally speaking, crack blocks should be played by going through or over the top of the blocker, while using the hands and keeping the shoulders parallel

Diagram 5 - High/Low Drill (Shed Drill) Diagram 4 - Alley Shuffle Drill (Movement Drill)

effort less than maximum can become a bad habit. Shedding Blockers: All blocks will be played with the hands. The linebacker will concentrate on the blocker, but be able to see the ball carrier peripherally. When linebackers stay blocked, it is often because they are “peeking” at the ball carrier as they attempt to get off the block. This is especially true when playing cut blocks. Our philosophy is that if you are engaged in a fight, you had better be looking at the person with whom you are fighting. If the block is high, the hands should be placed on the blocker’s breastplate with the thumbs up, using the “same foot-same shoulder” principle. An example of the “same foot-same shoulder” principle is that if the linebacker needs to escape to the right, he will take a short power step with his left foot down the middle of the blocker, shoot the hands and prepare to escape to the right. The linebacker controls the blocker by locking the arm to the side in which he intends to come off the block. He should use a rip technique or other escape method, while keeping his shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage. If the block is low, the linebacker will get significant knee and ankle bend and minimal waist bend. The linebacker should focus his eyes on the blocker. When the blocker’s helmet goes low, the linebacker should get his hands on the blocker’s helmet and/or the top of his shoulder pads.

to the line of scrimmage. The linebacker must not give too much ground in the process. Pursuit: A linebacker who is not a primary support player will keep the ball carrier even with his outside shoulder versus a wide play to his side. He should pursue laterally, until the ball carrier has turned upfield, and then attack from the insideout. It is important to mirror the proximity of the back to the line of scrimmage. The ball carrier should be forced to run east and west and not allowed a seam in which to turn upfield. Against a run which goes away, a linebacker who is not a primary support player will maintain a position which will take away the cutback. It is wise to have the back side linebacker “press” or attack the line of scrimmage if a “window” or gap opens. Generally speaking, a deeper angle should be taken when the football is farther away. A linebacker who is not a primary support player will play the option by “slow playing” the quarterback from a position one yard outside the quarterback and one yard upfield from him. As long as the quarterback’s numbers face the sideline, the linebacker will move laterally with him. If his numbers turn upfield, the linebacker should make the tackle. If the quarterback pitches the football, the linebacker will come off the quarterback on a flat angle and narrow the alley by running toward the pitch man from the inside-out. If he is in primary support, a linebacker

will support with his shoulders parallel with the line of scrimmage, while keeping the ball carrier on his inside shoulder. A supporting linebacker will be given the freedom to occasionally come underneath a lead blocker if he is clearly over-reached. However, if he comes under a block, he had better make the tackle! All lead blocks will be played with the hands. Against a run away, a primary support linebacker will keep his shoulders parallel with the line of scrimmage as he runs laterally, checking for cutback. The linebacker should run a path parallel to the line of scrimmage to at least the middle of the offensive formation. If the ball carrier crosses the line of scrimmage on the far side, the linebacker should deepen the angle and aim for a point on the far sideline, 20 to 25 yards downfield, becoming the second-to-last defender in the pursuit pattern. Tackling: Quite obviously, tackling is the most vital technique for linebackers. Too many linebackers are more interested in making the “big hit,” as opposed to making the sure tackle. The tackler should approach the ball carrier in a bent knee position without raising or lowering himself from a good hitting position. He should keep the elbows close to the body without “winding up” (throwing the arms backward). Winding up will cause the tackler to have too much weight forward as he approaches the ball carrier. This will result in lunging and is one of the most common causes of missed tackles by young linebackers. The neck should be “bulled,” the eyes should be open and the chest should be placed upon the ball carrier. Leading with the chest will keep the tackler from having too much weight forward and, more importantly, result in a safe tackle. Linebacker coaches have a responsibility to avoid teaching players to lead with the head while tackling. The tackler should accelerate the foot movement with the feet, shoulder width apart and the arms should be wrapped with authority. His head should be up and his back arched. This will enable the tackler to get his hips into the tackle. The tackler should drive through the tackle. When tackling in the open field, we do not believe in “breaking down.” We feel that breaking down results in the tackler stopping his feet and allows the ball carrier a “two-way go.” The ball carrier should

Diagram 6 - Chute Tackle Drill

Diagram 7 - Rapid Fire Tackle Drill

Diagram 8 - Open Field Tackle Drill

be forced to make a decision, and the tackler needs to know where his help is. When possible, the sideline should be used to the tackler’s advantage. The tackler should be under control and the cutback should be taken away. Zone Pass Coverage: As soon as a pass read is determined, a “pass” call should be made, the hips should be opened and a lateral run toward the landmark or aiming point should be executed. The linebacker’s head should be on a “swivel,” and the No. 2 and No. 1 receivers should come into vision, as well as the quarterback’s shoulder, as the eyes move back and forth. (Some zone coverages may require reading No. 3 to No. 2, looking for the two-three exchange, merely looking for crossing routes, etc.) Initial depth is important. When the football is exactly on the hash and the No. 2 receiver is in the backfield, the boundary linebacker can back pedal to his drop.

The No. 2 receiver should be walled off when applicable, but if the No. 2 releases shallow underneath, the width of the drop should be decreased. A linebacker should anticipate receivers coming through his zone, and he should collide with them when possible. He will not follow receivers in zone coverage, but will anticipate certain routes according to game plan. If the quarterback takes a three-step drop, a “quick” call should be made, and a much flatter drop should be made initially. The dropper then will gain depth when the proper width has been established. The dropper’s shoulders should be squared up at a depth of 10 to 12 yards or the depth required by the coverage, and he needs to be ready to react to the football. The linebacker will read the front shoulder of the quarterback in anticipation of the direction of the pass. The elevation of the quarterback’s shoulder is also significant. The dropper will anticipate the beginning of the throwing motion. The quarterback’s shoulder will point in the direction of the pass, and, when the quarterback’s front hand comes off the football, he is committed to throw. If the quarterback’s front shoulder is high, the pass is going deep. If the quarterback’s shoulder is low, the pass is going underneath. Communication is a must in zone pass coverage. It is our belief that when linebackers are talking, they are thinking. Adjacent defenders should be alerted when a receiver is crossing into their zone. A “ball” call will be made when the football is thrown. Other underneath defenders may not have the quarterback in their vision when the ball is released, making the “ball” call significant. The interception should be made in front of the receiver, and the football should be caught at the highest point possible. It is virtually impossible to catch the football at its “highest” point, which would be about halfway between the quarterback and the intended receiver. The interceptor will put the football in his outside arm and run toward the nearest sideline, thus avoiding the majority of the offensive players who are making the transition to defense. Man Coverage : It is our belief that it is best to employ only aggressive or man under, man-to-man coverage with linebackers because loose coverage accentuates mismatches. In aggressive man coverage, the linebacker will focus his eyes on

the receiver and immediately close the distance between defender and receiver. The defender will not allow the receiver to get inside position. If possible, the linebacker will collide with the receiver by stabbing him in the near breastplate with his outside hand, without lunging. The receiver must be allowed to come to the defender. When the receiver is outside of the linebacker,

Diagram 9 - Stair Step Buzz Drill (Man Coverage Drill)

the backer will run with him, staying to his inside and slightly behind him. The defender will maintain “man eyes” and play all pass routes from underneath. When the receiver’s eyes get big and his hands go up, the linebacker will turn into the receiver and make the interception or breakup. Stunting and Blitzing: Stunting and especially blitzing techniques are often system specific in nature, but there are a couple of thoughts to keep in mind. On stunts that involve a change of gap responsibility with a lineman, it is necessary to work tight off that lineman. The linebacker must not allow separation between himself and the lineman. He is, in effect, replacing that lineman’s technique

Diagram 10 - Linebacker Replacing a Lineman’s Technique

alignment (Example: see Diagram 10). In either blitz or stunt situations, it is still vitally important to get a run-pass read quickly. In a blitz versus pass, it is dangerous for the rusher to assume that he will not be blocked. He should attack half a man versus the blocker, use his hands, and apply an appropriate pass rush technique.

Points to Remember – Some final thoughts regarding linebacker play are as follows: 1. A linebacker should leave his feet to make a tackle only as a last resort. 2. A defender should use his hands when playing blockers in the open field. He should never assume that he will not be blocked. 3. Tacklers must be patient. Not every tackle can be made for a loss or no gain. 4. A linebacker needs to recognize blocks and react to the pressure of the block. He must not run around blocks. 5. If a player performs the first part of his technique really well, the remainder of the technique will be easier and more effective. 6. Defenders should take care of immediate problems first. 7. Players need to concentrate on blockers while seeing the ball carrier peripherally. 8. Linebackers should eliminate wasted motion and make great effort on every down. 9. Linebackers should keep their shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage when playing run. 10. Defenders should avoid becoming “push button” players. Rather, they should

In 2003, the Wayne State defense finished ninth in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference by giving up 408.1 yards per game. Two Warriors, Alvin Mask and Mohamad Bazzi, finished in the GLIAC top 10 with 11.8 and 10.8 tackles per game, respectively.
play with reckless abandon and make things happen. 11. Tacklers must get a good arm wrap on every tackle. 12. Players must not be allowed to make excuses. (Definition of excuse: any “reason” for not doing what should have been done.) 13. Linebackers should play to win. 14. LOE’s (loafs) will not be tolerated!

Stay Informed About Issues That Affect The Football Coaching Profession
Football coaches who are concerned about the welfare of the profession should be aware of major issues within the profession and be well informed about them, especially those which are controversial and sometimes make headlines. Whatever your thoughts on the issues, now is the time to make them known to those who are involved. Make it a point to know about issues that could affect the profession and your job. Communicate with your athletic director, faculty athletic representative and president. Let them know you are vitally interested in your profession, and make your opinions known early in the process. Don’t wait until it’s too late.

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