What Is a Linebacker In Football? Learn Here

Written By: Chris Haddad
Updated: February 12, 2024

Linebacker is one of the most important and versatile positions in football. It requires both athleticism and grit to play. However, what is a linebacker, and what do they do?

A linebacker (LB) is a defensive player that lines up directly behind the line of scrimmage. They are responsible for making tackles on run plays and covering short passes.

Linebackers must be both athletic to play the pass and also big enough to stop the run.

This article will look more into what a linebacker in football does and why they’re so important.

Linebacker Position In Football

The linebacker position in football is one of the most critical positions on the field. They have many responsibilities that require both discipline and intelligence to be impactful.

A linebacker’s job in football is to stop the offense’s running attack. Linebackers will also support the defensive backs to help stop the offense if they throw the football. It’s one of the most versatile positions on the field.

Linebackers are often players that are both big in stature but also athletic enough to cover the pass. They need to be big because of the ability to take on offensive linemen to stop the run. They are positioned directly behind the four defensive linemen.

They will be confronted by an offensive lineman that they need to disengage with every play.

linebackers in football

The linebackers are often categorized as inside linebackers and outside linebackers. In a 3 linebacker system (such as the 4-3 defense), you will have a middle linebacker and two outside linebackers.

In the picture above, you’ll see the Sam linebacker, Mike linebacker, and Will linebacker. The linebacker position names change based on what the coach wants to name them.

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What Does A Linebacker Do In Football?

The linebacker needs to cover a man or drop into pass coverage on passing plays, which we’ll cover later in this article.

Linebackers play aggressively to the run, and passively to the pass. They are main run defenders like the defensive line, but they have additional pass coverage responsibility.

Linebackers also have additional responsibilities which are covered below.

Communicates The Defensive Play Call

In most defensive systems, the defensive coordinator will signal the play to the linebacker. The linebacker will then tell the other players the play call. For instance, a defensive coordinator may signal in “Over 2”.

This means the defensive line will play an over front, and the linebackers and the defensive backs will play cover 2. Due to the fact the linebacker often lines up in the middle of the formation & field, it’s the best position to echo to the entire defense what the call is.

Linebackers in professional leagues, such as the NFL, will often have a green dot on the back of their helmet. This green dot lets the referees know that they have a speaker inside their helmet to hear the defensive play calls.

In high school, players don’t have the luxury of having speakers in their helmets, so they need to have one player communicate the play to the rest. This is where the linebacker comes into play.

Stops The Run

The main job of a linebacker in football is to stop the run. If the offense can run the ball effectively in football, they control the clock and the game’s pace.

Teams who run the ball effectively often will win the game.

It’s the job of the defensive line and the linebackers to stop the run. They do this by filling what’s called gaps to stop the run. There are six gaps on the line of scrimmage. Having a body in all six gaps forces the running back to move laterally, which the defense can then chase down and tackle with their speedier players.

Remember, the shortest distance to the end zone is a straight line. Teams run up the middle in football to try to score the fastest way possible. It’s the job of the linebackers and the defensive backs to make sure this doesn’t happen.

Linebackers need to be both physical and tough to endure the constant contact they face in football from an offensive lineman.

Defend Against The Pass

The linebacker position is unique because it requires a rare skill set.

For instance, a defensive lineman or often faced with the challenge of stopping the run and hand-fighting with an offensive lineman.

Defensive backs are smaller, quicker players responsible for covering wide receivers.

Linebackers need to be able to do both. They need to be able to stop the run, rush the passer, and play pass coverage.

Depending on the defensive scheme, linebackers are often tasked with playing man-to-man coverage on tight ends, or they need to cover a zone on the field.

It’s one of the most challenging positions to play in football due to the physical requirements. It’s also one of the most rewarding positions, as the linebacker is often the most challenged on the field.

Where Does The Linebacker Play In Football?

linebacker in football

The linebacker gets its name from the position on the field in which they play. They are located directly in the back of the defensive line. This is where they get the name of a linebacker, the backer behind the line of scrimmage.

Teams can choose to use 1, 2, 3, or even 4 linebackers in their scheme. Due to the innovation of the spread offense, teams will often use 1-2 linebackers in the box to get more defensive backs on the field to play the pass.

Linebackers in the NFL are asked to cover both the pass and the run. Teams rarely have big, bulky run-stopping linebackers anymore because of the passing element.

Innovation Of Linebackers In Football

Linebackers in the early 1960s and 1970s were often tough, rugged players. Since the inception of the spread offense, linebackers have become more finessed players than gritty and rugged.

For example, Dick Butkus was one of the greatest linebackers of his time. Dick was known for his physical style of play and the ability to hunt down any running back that carried the football.

Due to the run-pass option (RPO) innovation, linebackers can no longer be aggressively freely toward the line of scrimmage.

Offensive systems have now engineered a way to take an aggressive linebacker out of the game. They will read that player in hopes of making him wrong.

For instance, if a linebacker is aggressive and always moves toward the scrimmage line, offenses will put a receiver in his vacated zone for a short gain. This type of play is highly frustrating for defenses, as their only option is to get into a man coverage situation.

Do Linebackers Have To Be Big?

Linebackers in football need to be significant size because they need to shed offensive linemen’s blocks. Offensive linemen are usually the biggest players on the field.

If the linebacker is undersized, the offensive lineman will have a size & power advantage when blocking a linebacker. This is why it’s recommended the linebacker be big, strong, and fast to get around offensive linemen.

Is Linebacker a Hard Position?

Linebacker is a difficult position. It requires the ability to stop the run and cover receivers in the passing game. Players need to have the athletic ability to do both.

Coaches will often name their linebackers Sam Will and Mike, based on where they play. Each linebacker position will carry different responsibilities. The strong-side linebacker (Sam) is used to play against tight ends, while the Will linebacker is used to defend the run.

Keep Learning

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How To Play Linebacker In Football – Complete Guide

What Are The Sam, Mike & Will Linebackers In Football?

Linebackers are one of the most important defensive positions. They are responsible for communicating the play call, stopping the run as well as playing the pass.

The linebacker position is a versatile position that requires players to be both big and athletic. Smaller players tend to get overpowered by an offensive lineman, and bigger players are often too slow to pass.

This is a unique position that requires both skill sets to be successful. The Mike linebacker is often the captain of the defense and makes audibles and checks when the defense motions.

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

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About the author 

Chris Haddad

Chris Haddad is the founder of vIQtory Sports & high school coach for over 12+ years. He has been featured as an authority on Hudl, Bleacher Report and countless other football-centric platforms. Chris continues to study and provide valuable content for those looking to learn more about the game of football.