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How To Play Linebacker In Football – Complete Guide

The linebacker is the captain of the defense. It’s often known as one of the most critical positions on defense. Linebackers must stop the run, play the pass, and communicate effectively to the other ten players on the field.

In this article, we will show you everything you need to know about playing the linebacker position.

By the end of this article, you’ll have a complete insight into what a linebacker does and how you can play it effectively.

What Is A Linebacker In Football

The first thing you should know about playing linebacker is why it’s called linebacker and how it got its name.

Linebackers get their name from where they are positioned on the field.

They are positioned in the back of the defensive line, thence the name linebacker.

If you want to learn more about the origin of linebackers, we have a great article here that can help you learn more about what a linebacker is in football.

Linebacker Positions

Linebackers in football are often labeled by position. Coaches name the linebackers based on the position of where they are playing.

Teams will often have the linebacker who plays to the strength be called the “sam” linebacker. The weak side linebacker is often called the Will. Last, the middle linebacker is often called the “Mike” linebacker.

To read more about how these positions are named, be sure to check out our guide on the linebacker names found here.

Guide To Playing Linebacker

Now that you know what a linebacker is, it’s time to learn how to play linebacker. Several components go into playing linebacker.

From mentality to stance to approach the ball, the difference between an outstanding linebacker and an average linebacker is often their technique.

In this article, we will cover everything a new and experienced linebacker should know about playing the linebacker position.

Mentality

Before we get to technique, a linebacker’s mentality and willingness to chase after ball carriers and give contact must be part of their makeup.

Linebackers who are scared of contact or shock and shed offensive lineman should seek to play another position. Almost every play, the linebacker will be making contact with either a ball carrier or an offensive lineman.

It’s important to shape the linebacker’s mindset to embrace the contact rather than try to avoid it.

Teaching them proper technique will help shape the mindset to shed offensive lineman rather than run away from them.

We recommend training the brain early through drills and repetition to familiarize it with the contact it will absorb.

Stance & Start

Stance and start play a fundamental role in playing linebacker.

Stance and start are crucial because false steps and poor posture will often put the linebacker out leveraged seconds before the snap.

For a proper posture, the linebacker should:

  • Have their legs shoulder width apart
  • Their shoulders should be over their toes
  • The hands are ready to engage and punch through offensive lineman
  • The eyes should be on the offensive line keys or running back

When the ball is snapped, the linebacker should move toward the target, taking a 45-degree step toward the line of scrimmage.

Coaches may choose to have linebackers always come forward or have them bounce their feet in place to get a read. This entirely depends on the coach’s philosophy.

The most significant coaching point is to make sure the linebacker’s feet don’t cross over.

If the linebacker’s feet cross over, they are often off-balanced and can be pushed over easily.

This brings us to the linebacker techniques once the ball is snapped.

See our free linebacker course here for more information on stance and start.

Linebacker Techniques

Eyes

Once the ball is snapped, the linebacker must flash their eyes to their “key.” The key is whatever the coach wants them to read to take them to the football.

There are several different keys that the linebacker can read. These keys are:

  • The running back
  • The offensive line
  • Triangle read

The triangle read is one of the most common reads for linebackers.

The reason it’s called the triangle read is that the linebacker is reading both the offensive line and the running back.

This means the linebackers must be able to read guard pulls, down blocks, etc., and then transition their eyes to the running back’s path.

Triangle reads help your linebacker be more efficient in where the running back is going and where the overall direction of the play is going.

Scrape

Scaping to the running back is a term that is often said by linebacker coaches – but what does it mean?

The term scrape means moving at a 45-degree angle downhill while maintaining linebacker posture.

Scraping to the tackle with proper posture allows the linebacker to contact an offensive lineman or run back with maximum power.

In contrast, if the linebacker is running to the football as fast as possible, it’s common for the linebacker to knock them off balance and the linebacker to miss the tackle.

When scaping downhill, it’s essential to keep a wide base, also known as a power position. A wide base will allow the linebacker to change direction from left to right. Quickly switching direction is a direct attribute of a good linebacker.

Shock & Shed

The next linebacker technique is the ability to shock and shed an offensive lineman or lead blocker. Let’s break down these terms.

First, to shock an offensive lineman or lead blocker means you need to punch through their breastplates and stop their forward progress effectively.

Once the offensive lineman or lead blocker is shocked, the following technique is to shed the block violently. By straightening the arms out and creating extension, the linebacker can rip or swim off of the block.

Rip & Swim

The rip and swim moves are standard techniques for shedding blocks in football. Here is how to execute both of these moves.

Rip – To execute a rip move, the linebacker must leverage one side of the defender. Using the outside arm, lift toward the sky, taking away the aiming point for the offensive lineman. This arm motion should be fast and with a purpose.

Swim – The swim move gets its name from the motion the linebacker will be doing. Their arm will come up and over, such as a swimmer swimming in a pool. The motion should be a short “arm over” stroke rather than a long, straight-armed stroke. The purpose of this move is to use speed and quickness to displace the offensive lineman’s arm.

The rip and swim moves can be used for the linebackers to get around blocks from the offensive lineman or running backs.

Blitz

A blitz is when the defense sends five or more rushers toward the line of scrimmage.

These players are often linebackers whose job is to sack the quarterback in a pass situation and hit the running back in the backfield on a run play.

When the linebacker blitzes, he must use his speed and physicality to get around offensive lineman.

A well-timed blitz not only disrupts the play rules of the offensive lineman but can help get a free, unblocked linebacker through the line of scrimmage.

Learning the opponent’s cadence and timing the blitz up properly is a great way to get an advantage when blitzing.

Tackling

Last but not least, the linebacker must know how to tackle from all angles. Linebackers will tackle from head-on, 45 and 90-degree angles.

Linebackers will also be tasked with tackling up high as well as tackling down low. Consistent tackling and having proper body posture upon contact are important for the linebacker to drive the ball carrier backward.

We recommend checking out this YouTube Tackling series we did with Coach Digaetano from Fordham University.

Linebacker Zone Coverages

Linebackers are mainly responsible for stopping the run. However, if the offense decides to pass, the linebacker needs to drop into different coverages.

It’s important to note there are three main types of coverages. These techniques and schemes depend entirely on the coach, but all linebackers must know of them.

Man Coverage

Man coverage is a basic technique that is easy to learn but hard to execute. Man coverage requires extreme discipline and athletism to play.

The assignment is simple, cover the player wherever they go. However, with how quick and agile receivers are nowadays, it’s become an increasingly difficult task.

Zone Drop

A zone drop is when the linebacker drops into a zone. This often means the Hook/Curl zones, flats, or an actual hole dropper.

The linebacker will move directly into the area of the field they are assigned and hope to disrupt the quarterback’s timing to his receiver.

Zone drops are standard, as coaches will specify which linebacker should drop the minute they read pass.

It’s easier on the linebackers because they are responsible for an area of the field rather than a man.

To learn more about coverages and zone drops, read here.

Man Match

The following coverage is a hybrid between man coverage and zone. The concept of man match is that the linebacker is covering a man who goes through his zone.

So, for instance, the linebacker is responsible for the flats; they will cover the #2 or #3 (depending on the coach’s rules) until the flats.

The purpose of man match coverage is not to have players covering grass but instead covering actual receivers.

Man match is a difficult concept to learn and teach, but once taught correctly, it is effective against passing teams.

Linebacker Communication

The linebackers, often the “Mike,” is known as the captain of the defense. This player will often dictate the strength and make the coverage calls to the defensive backs and make the front adjustments to the defensive line.

Communication across the entire defense is essential, and the linebackers play a large part in this process.

Coaches will often rely on the middle backer ( or the inside linebackers if you have 4 in your scheme) to communicate this effectively.

Learn More

Linebackers in football are the core of a defenses ability to stop the run and cover the pass. Effective linebackers are the difference between winning and losing football games.

It’s important to shock and shed offensive linemen, as well cover receivers. Linebackers must be able to do it all if they will be effective in their position on the football field.

Let’s keep learning! Our learning center is packed with information regarding technique, scheme, and more!

If you’re looking for more in-depth breakdowns & coaching resources, visit our coaching resource page here.