Sunday, August 31, 2008

Linebackers: An Assembly Guide

The linebacker was created with a single purpose: play a support role for the defensive line, much like a safety provides protect for a cornerback. Of course, as with anything, the position developed into much more than that.

Didja know Ray Lewis was pretty good?

The most important thing to remember when thinking linebacker is assignment, assignment, assignment. Much like a safety, they need to be quite versatile. Even in schemes that ask just specific tasks from their linebackers, versatility is a linebacker's best friend.

Historically, linebacker has been a position where, based on scheme, they can be vital stars of the defense or simple role players. Because their assignments can be so diverse in most defensive schemes, you will often find offensive lines adjusting their protection schemes based on what they percieve from the linebackers. A good LB corps can conceal their true intentions by masking it with something that percieves an entirely different assignment. While it sounds simple, it's no easy task, and requires some smart play from all three (or four) backers.

Defensive fronts also play a big part in how linebackers are used and what assignments are given to each one. The basic two base fronts, the 4-3 and 3-4, are more deeply explained in the Football Schemes guide.
Skill sets

Linebackers have a wide variety of skills that all types of linebackers have to varying degrees. While they can get by being really good at only 1 or 2 of these, the best linebackers are athletic enough to do it all with success.
  • Speed. Not entirely vital, but a speedy linebacker -- or at least a linebacker with some burst to their initial movements -- can be great for nullifying off-tackle runs and or blitzing.
  • Tackling. Linebackers need to be able to solo tackle, preventing larger gains.
  • Covering. This goes for both zone and man assignments, though zone assignments at this position are more likely. They need to be able to locate the ball and contain their man or zone with authority. A linebacker good in coverage will be able to eliminate a majority of the easier over-the-middle catches with a good separating hit or simply by blocking the throwing lane.
  • Jamming. Particularly the outside backers and especially the weak-side backer, a linebacker needs to be able to (occasionally) move into the slot and jam the receiver long enough to disrupt the timing or force the receiver into the corners zone.
  • Recognition. As with most of the defensive positions, recognition can be vital. It can be the difference between -5 yards and a gain of 20 yards. A linebacker with good field awareness and recognition skills can put an end to a play before it even begins.
  • Block-shedding. They need to be able to shed the occasional blocker to make plays,which is hard when you are usually outweighed by a good amount. However, playing with smart leverage and hand movement/placement can shed any tight end or make it possible to shed a guard off you who has made it to the second level. This can become vital in run stopping situations against tough offensive lines.
  • Pass-rushing. Being able to shed a blocker sometimes isn't enough. Sometimes you need a linebacker to bring the heat and get behind the offensive line. This requires not only good leverage, strength and hand movement, but the genuine athleticism required to spin, swim, club and bull past offensive linemen.
While most linebackers only shine in one or two of these areas, they will still sometimes become stars. It depends on the scheme and what they will be asked to do; if a scheme requires the middle linebacker either to play a mid-field zone or to blitz in most of the plays, a speedy linebacker with some pass rush ability could become a star in that role. In a different scheme, if that middle linebacker is required to play a man up role on the running back and stuff the run, a speedy guy with good tackling skills and recognition will become the star.

4-3 Outside Linebackers

Outside linebackers in a 4-3 front are referred to as Will (for the weak, or non-tight end side) and Sam (for the strong, or tight end side).

Their roles will vary from defense to defense, but the genuine premise behind it is covering the area between the hash and the cornerback with run and coverage support based on their assignment for that play call.

While many defenses nowadays ask the same things of their outside linebackers (though not always the same assignments on the same playcall), there is a consensus view of the accepted strengths/weaknesses/roles of each. Some teams still use this formula, but as with everything else in the modern NFL, it's become much more diverse.

Sam linebackers are generally the bigger, stronger backers, better able to shed the block of a tight end. They line up over the tight end most of the time, and often times they are asked to jam and cover the end in passing situations. They usually get help from the strong safety in those cases

Will linebackers are generally the faster, more athletic linebackers. They are often called into zone coverage assignments and asked to cover or jam slot receivers in certain situations. They often cover the running back that attacks his side of the field first in man coverage, while covering the weak flat or hook/curl areas in zone coverage assignments.

4-3 Middle Linebackers

Middle linebackers in a 4-3 front are referred to as the Mike linebacker. They are usually responsible for receiving the defensive signals and relaying them to the rest of the unit. You could say they are the "quarterback of the defense."

Again, the roles they play vary from defense to defense. Generally, the Mike backer is assigned to protect the area between the hash marks and shut down the running back.

Depending on the scheme, they may simply be assigned to a particular gap, as would the outside linebackers. But the more popular use of a Mike linebacker is in pure run support from sideline to sideline, supporting both the defensive line and outside linebackers. Mid-field zones are also quite popular in passing situations. For all this, they are usually the most well-rounded and versatile linebacker on the field with the best ability to bring down a ball carrier 1 on 1.

Dealing with interior linemen from the offensive getting to the second level becomes a big problem with some middle linebacker, and it's become more and more of a neccessity for the Mike to be able to shed even the best blockers at times. A guy like Ray Lewis, as talented as he is, struggles at this aspect of the game and requires a large defensive front to ensure his freedom of movement.

3-4 Outside backers

Since the 3-4 is a scheme designed to conceal the fourth rusher, the outside linebackers in a 3-4 are often very pass-rush capable linebackers who possess the athleticism to be effective in zone and run coverages. This is quite a demanding position; not many pure linebackers are capable of being both a pass rusher and a run stuffer.

The weakside 3-4 backer is the one with the better pass rush ability. Playing opposite the tight end, they rely on the weakside defensive end to hinder the offensive tackle's ability to block them on the rush. They need to be quite athletic, speedy and capable of beating tackles to the edge to disrupt the quarterback. Outside of a pass rush assignment, they are generally responsible for covering the running back coming out of the backfield.

DeMarcus Ware is among the NFL's best, combining pass-rushing skills with run-stopping abilities.

The strongside 3-4 backer is the one with the more well rounded skill set. They must be able to rush the passer successfully, but will also be required to play coverage against the tight end and support the run coverage. They will usually pass the coverage of a running back coming out of the backfield to the strongside inside linebacker.

Because 3-4 outside linebacker requires such pass rush talents while remaining strong against the run, college defensive ends in 4-3 schemes are often drafted in an attempt to convert them to a 3-4 outside linebacker. They usually have pass rush ability, and -- having played on a defensive line -- they are already instinctively concerned about stopping the run. In the case of pure speed rushers like Dwight Freeney, these guys do not project to this position because they are usually not as stout against the run as a bigger pass rusher with a blend of power and speed rushing skills.

3-4 Inside Linebackers

Responsible for playing the role of Mike, Will and Sam, the inside linebackers must be strong in shedding blockers, playing the run, and covering the middle of the field in zone. Occasionally, depending on play call, the weakside inside linebackers will be required to play the role of Mike while the strongside backer plays in pass coverage, and vice versa. They need to be pretty versatile for those reasons.

The strongside inside backer is responsible for the tight endl, sharing many of the duties of a 4-3 Sam backer while splitting the duties of the Mike backer with the weakside linebacker.

The weakside inside linebacker will occasionally be responsible for maintaining a strong mid-field zone and has many of the duties that Will in a 4-3 would. He, too, splits the duties of the Mike backer with the other inside linebacker.

Summarizing it all

Linebackers are the safeties of the front 7. Depending on the scheme, they will have many different roles in a defense, but it all revolves around supporting the efforts of the down linemen and, occasionally, reinforcing the actions of the secondary. They need to be pure football players, capable of doing whatever is asked of them while maintaining a strong skill set, one that reflects what their team's scheme requires from the position.

While some defenses will require their linebackers to take a passive "wait and see" role and hold their ground, breaking big plays before they happen and giving up ground in small bits, others will ask their backers to be aggressive and attack plays with blitzes and proactive run coverage. Each of those schemes and every one in between require different forms of effort from each linebacker. You always need the right backer for the job.


Thursday, August 14, 2008

8.14.08: Bringin' Home the Blogs

Every Tuesday and Thursday, I dig through the Sportopia to find the best posts to share with you, my loyal readers, like a father bringing home the bacon (or something like that). Now, I'm Bringin' Home the Blogs...

Racism in Spanish sports began long before the "slant-eyed" pictures. RUMORS AND RANTS has a rundown of the incidents, ranging from one-liners to organized chants. I find it amazing that people like Spanish columnist Jamie Martin justify this crap.

Spaniards want you to know this is, in now way, racist. Yep.

Since we're on the topic, CUZOOGLE has Jose Calderon's response to the outcry over the photo. Apparently, it was just a wink.

Steven Jackson, who continues to holdout, is really screwing with fantasy footballers. Will he be be the same? How far should his stock drop? Why did he have to do this?!?!!? The DEUCE OF DAVENPORT is certain on one thing: he's pissed!

After noting Xavier Lee's failed career, Rick Gosselin of WFAA examined how other 2004 Parade All-Americans have faired. Which ones transferred to D-II? Who's in the NFL? Gosh, I'm a sucker for this type of thing.

Jeremy Schaap won't stop staring at DAVE LOZO. I can only imagine the horror.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

8.12.08: Bringin' Home the Blogs

Every Tuesday and Thursday, I dig through the Sports Blogtopia to find the best posts to share with you, my loyal readers, like a father bringing home the bacon (or something like that). Now, I'm Bringin' Home the Blogs...

In a great piece of (realistic) Olympic fiction, evil Yao and the Chinese commies scheme to snatch America's lone chance at redemption, trapping the "Redeem Team." Who, if anyone, is brave enough save them and the freedom they represent? Go to BLACK HEAR GOLD PANTS and join the fun!

Will this man be able to thwart China's sinister plot?

Are youth basketball coaches so focused on winning that player development takes a backseat? Yes, according to former NBA coach turned blogger ERIC MUSSELMAN.

THE LEGEND OF CECILIO GUANTE takes a look at the Yankees' failed youth movement. Talk about bringing smiles to the faces of Yankee haters everywhere!

Louis Williams, Sixers guard and future stud, signed a five-year, $25 million contract extension last week. In due time, he will be a bargain, writes EMPTY THE BENCH.

Now for some breaking news, courtesy of the WALKOFF WALK. The Reds pitchers are struggling, but fortunately for them, manager Dusty Baker knows the cure: running. That Dusty Baker sure knows how to handle young pitchers.[1]

1. Friedell, Nick. "Did Dusty Baker learn nothing from Mark Prior and Kerry Wood?", Big League Stew.


Monday, August 11, 2008

Chris Kaman is a Hair Stylist!?!!?

Of all the news that I missed over the last week, nothing was more shocking than learning that Chris Kaman is a barber. For a refresher, here are a few pictures of Chris Kaman.

How does anybody turn to Chris Kaman for a haircut? Apparently, I wasn't the only one thinking along these same lines. Below is an exchange between Brad Townsend of the Dallas Morning News and Jason Kid.

Kidd: "Hey, have you talked to Dirk?"
Townsend: "Yeah. Have you seen his hair?"
Kidd: "Yeah. Man, who did that?"
Townsend: "Chris Kaman. If you are Dirk and you make his money, do you let Chris Kaman cut your hair?"
Kidd: "No way."

As you might have imagined, I would never let Chris Kaman touch my mane.


Kobe Starts His Hog, Or Why I Should Have Kept Watching

As I mentioned before, I skipped out on the end of the United States' thrashing of China. What a stupid mistake! I missed out on the following gem from Kobe. Thankfully, Tirico Suave has my back with the video and some masterful editing.


Sunday, August 10, 2008

What About that Mariners Hat?

Last Thursday, a reader named Bud wrote Hot Clicks to ask about a specific Seattle Mariners hat, pictured below. To his knowledge, a hat with this compass logo/color combination was never worn by the team. However, Bud needed some help from fellow readers to confirm his suspicion.
I tried my hand at helping him out. Needless to say, three hours and (well) over 200 Google Image Search pages later, I have decided to give up. Though the Mariners wore similar hats (shown here and here), I found no real pictures to lead me to believe such a hat "exists." I did find this picture of Alex Rodriguez, but that doesn't really prove anything either way.

Was my search a complete waste? In short, no. I stumbled across the autograph website that is selling this particular hat. For $100, you can buy the hat, complete with its (claimed) Ken Griffey, Jr. autograph. Before you do, give that autograph another take. It reads "Ken Griffey 8." If you will recall, Junior wore 24 while Senior sported 30.

Maybe the forger, when examining Griffey's autograph, confused the "Jr." for an eight. Maybe I'm mistaken, and the "Jr." only looks like an eight. This is what I know for sure: this picture is creating more and more questions.

EDIT: A commenter mentioned Griffey's "Jr." looks like an eight in his autographs. Here are four pictures for reference: 1, 2, 3, and 4. The autograph above looks to be a fairly perfect eight, while other autographs have other markings. Maybe it's just a result of a thicker marker? You be the judge.


The "Redeem Team" Beats China: Irrational Hate, Truth, and a Five-Point Summary

I, like President Bush, was one of one billion fans who chose to watch the "Redeem Team" take on Yao Ming and his Chinese brethren. The United States won by an unknown (to me) final score. I, like President Bush, stopped watching when the game was over instead of when the game was officially over.

LeBron and the U.S. steamrolled through China.

There were a few thoughts -- recurring themes, if you will -- that kept coming to mind as I watched the game. They are:
  • I really, really, really dislike Dwyane Wade. If he ever decides to play with intelligence instead of relying solely on his athleticism, he would be as good as he is portrayed to be. Unfortunately, I've been saying that for years now. Defensively, Wade is still incapable of sliding his feet; instead, he runs alongside offensive players, jetting into passing lanes. Thankfully for the U.S., his opponents have been unable to convert.
  • Dwyane Wade needs to stop cherry-picking. I'm sorry, but I had to give this its own bullet. At least two times, Wade strolled back on defense, reached the three-point line, and after a Chinese miss, sprinted to the offensive end for an easy dunk. You can call it cherry-picking or sand-bagging (or whatever else), but this fact remains: you wouldn't get away with that crap at the YMCA. D-Wade does it in the Olympics?
  • Chris Paul has improved defensively. I know, China's guards aren't the physical types that typically give him fits, but Chris Paul was noticeably this time around. Following an exhibition game against China two years ago, I wrote this: "While I’m bashing some of the NBA’s young stars, I might as well hoop on over to the Chris Paul bandwagon... where I subsequently beat the driver of the aforementioned wagon with a baseball bat. Chris Paul is quickly becoming the most overrated player in the NBA; sure, he’s a step above spectacular offensively, but he cannot stay in front of his man for the life of him (at which time I flash back to Carlos Arroyo shooting a lay-up while CP3 was still scratchin’ his head at the free throw line). At this point he isn’t even average defensively." Obviously, I can't write that anymore.
  • Jason Kidd has no business playing, let alone starting. During the telecast, Mike Breen mentioned that Dara Torres was an inspiration to an old-in-the-tooth Jason Kidd. I laughed. Torres -- despite her age -- posted the best split on her medley team, whereas Kidd is easily third-fiddle at his own position. Deron Williams and Chris Paul are better creators, shooters, and -- at least today -- defenders. Experience didn't really do much for Kidd.
  • LeBron James is really a fine player. Need I say more?


Saturday, August 2, 2008

Gary Coleman Ejected in Baseball Debut!

Yesterday, we reported the Madison Mallards' contract offer to Gary Coleman. As it turns out, Coleman decided to accept their proposal and made his baseball debut last night. He was promptly thrown out.

Here's the video:

Thankfully, the ump comes through with a short joke!


Friday, August 1, 2008

Gary Coleman to Play Minor League Baseball?

The Madison Mallards, a minor league baseball team in the midsts of a playoff push, are willing to win at all costs. The Mallards, in what is being considered an unprecedented move, have offered a contract to a former star: Gary Coleman of Different Strokes fame.

“As the Mallards prepare for the playoffs we feel that we need a special player to help put us over the top,” said Stenman. “Gary brings a lot of intangibles to the field and I feel like his presence would help invigorate our club as they get ready for a run at a championship. You can’t coach a strike zone like Gary has and I anticipate him being a force at the top of our lineup.”

Manager C.J. Thieleke is excited about the possibility to work with the star.

“I feel like he could develop a couple different strokes to rule the Northwoods League,” said Thieleke.
Under league rules, Coleman would not earn a paycheck for his play. He has yet to accept the contract offer. Until then, Mallards and their fans will be keeping their fingers crossed.

Tip of the Undrafted Free Agent's hat to THE SPORTS POINT.


Manny Ramirez Hates Troops, Kids With Cancer!

The Red Sox have ridded themselves of their major malcontent, Manny Ramirez, by trading him to the Dodgers. In the weeks leading up to the trade, it was obvious the relationship between club and star was deteriorating. I mean, just ask Buster Olney: it took Manny 5.7 seconds to run out a grounder; that's glacial in baseball terms!

As with any nasty breakup, both sides will try to paint the other as the bad guy. Manny had his turn yesterday, saying the Red Sox were a bunch of backstabbers. No word from the team.

I can only imagine what the writers, who no longer rely on Manny for interviews, will have to say...

  • Manny Ramirez beats on the elderly.
  • Manny Ramirez hates kids dying from cancer.
  • Manny Ramirez fakes injuries.
  • Manny Ramirez hits his teammates.
  • Manny Ramirez hates the troops.
  • Manny Ramirez didn't keep a promise that he made when he was in his teens.
  • Manny Ramirez is the biggest bum ever.

So, Mr. Callahan, why wait until Manny was traded to share this with his (former) fans? Were you afraid to write, "Hey, you know that guy you fans adore? He's a real jerk," when the fans still supported him? Were you under orders to keep that stuff quiet? What gives?

Now, I'm not defending Manny Ramirez. Most likely, he is a jerk. I just love how some writers sit on this stuff until after the fact.


About the Undrafted Free Agent

Ron Crimson was the only player on the high school roster to not get in a game. He couldn't argue with the decision, because he sucked. Needless to say, yet stated anyway, when he entered the NBA draft following his sophomore season in college, he went undrafted. Now, Ron Crimson is the Undrafted Free Agent.

Contact the Undrafted Free Agent

Interested in informing the Undrafted Free Agent of his mistakes, advertisement opportunities, or a scoop on the latest sports scandal? (You can guess which is more likely.) Well, email him at undraftedfreeagent [at]

Look at This!

There's nothing here; I just needed to fill some space. Space eater! Space eater! Space eater! Space eater! Space eater! Space eater! Space eater! Space eater! Space eater! I also needed to balance it out a bit.

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