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Chalk Talk: The ND 3-4 Transition Part III- Outside Linebackers

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Welcome back to "Chalk Talk" with LB Coach. In this installment LB Coach breaks down the responsibilities of the outside linebackers. I hope you are all enjoying this series of posts as much as I am. Links to Parts I and II are below in case you missed them. Whiskey

Part I- Expectations
Part II- Defensive Line

LB Coach

The Outside Linebackers
The outside linebacker in the 3-4 is a unique combination of positions in modern defenses. Back in the 60's and 70's both outside linebackers were called defensive ends, were in a 3-point stance and almost always rushed the quarterback against the pass. Both were typically bigger than the inside linebackers but not as big as the tackles. They were usually faster than the tackles though.

As offenses evolved so did this position. Multiple wide receiver sets forced the ends to stand upright and to walk out to take away the quick slant and to play the backside flat in Cover 3 defenses. The strong side, or Sam linebacker as he is generally called, lines up to the strong side of the formation, or to the tight end side, and plays over the tight end for the most part.

His responsibility is to deny the TE a free release and if the TE doubles down on the defensive tackle the Sam must squeeze in toward the football cutting down the size of the gap or hole that the TE is trying to create. One of the big mistakes we see all the time is the Sam backer coming upfield at the snap opening a hole between himself and the defensive tackle allowing the ball carrier to cut underneath the Sam and then back outside for a big gain. This is especially costly in Cover 2 defenses where there is no strong safety.

The Sam must force the ball carrier to run deep to try to get outside and then take the proper pursuit angle to keep the ball carrier headed toward the sidelines. The Sam must keep his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage and his inside foot upfield to have a chance of succeeding in catching a back running outside. If the Sam gets turned in even a fraction he will loose the footrace outside every time. For fans, watch the shoulders of all the defensive front 7 and watch to see if they get turned at all, the squarer to the line of scrimmage the better and the Sam MUST keep his shoulders square and his inside foot up against the run or he will get beat by today's speedy running backs.

Another mistake a Sam can make is to let the TE hook block him. A hook block is letting the tight end get his head to the Sam's outside cutting him off from getting to the sideline. The Sam must use his inside arm and shoulder and keep his outside arm and shoulder free to play his position. When a Sam gets hooked he usually also gets driven off the line of scrimmage cutting off any pursuit from the inside linebackers who are then forced to run deeper. Meanwhile the back is piling up big yardage unless the secondary is there to help. We try to never count on the secondary to make a tackle and if they do then we consider ourselves lucky.

Against the option we ask the Sam to take away the quarterback and if he sees a pitch to then pursue inside out to help cut the size of the alley down for the ball carrier to run into. The force cornerback is the outside boundary of the alley and the pursuit coming from the inside is the inside boundary. The tighter the defense can make this alley the more effective it becomes in forcing the back to continue to run toward the sidelines. In order for this inside boundary to be formed with the Sam he must force a quick pitch by taking away the QB's running lane.

The Sam does this by actually hopping back to his inside when he reads option, keeping his inside foot upfield and keeping his shoulders square. The QB is taught to read the Sam's movement. If the Sam tries to tackle him he is taught to pitch and if the Sam gets too far outside or up the field the QB turns up inside and keeps the ball. I teach the Sam to stay deep, get in the quarterback's running lane, and throw his inside arm at the QB so that the QB sees movement coming towards him. This usually causes the QB to pitch the ball at which time the Sam can now turn and run to cut down the alley. It is amazing how many times when the force corner does his job that the Sam will force the pitch and make the tackle on the option man as well. It is a thing of beauty to watch when it happens.

The Will is the designated weak side outside linebacker and unless there is a 2 TE formation can line up either backed off the line of scrimmage as a true linebacker or he can play on the line of scrimmage as if a TE were there. Depending on down and distance or formation tendencies he might either rush the passer or drop into coverage where his area of responsibility is based on what the secondary is doing. Against the run the Will should read the rear end of the offensive tackle and if it moves forward in any direction he must squeeze down toward the football with square shoulders and his inside leg upfield for all the same reasons the Sam needs square shoulders.

If the Will gets upfield too far the cutback run opens up as well as the same hole between himself and his buddy the defensive tackle. Both outside linebackers must be aware of reverses and counters but this is especially true for the Will. The worst place to be for both outside linebackers to be is behind the football. They must play with square shoulders and keep the football in front of them at all times to be successful.

This fall, while every position on defense is important and critical to a team’s success, the better the outside linebackers play the better the chances of seeing Notre Dame among the defensive statistical leaders in the NCAA. Teaching square shoulders and inside leg upfield will take hours of teaching and learning and must constantly be stressed as the foundation of outside linebacker play.

Amazingly, on the college level, it is not a technique that is being taught all that much. If you watched Notre Dame's attempt at the 3-4 the past few years, rarely did you see the Sam or Will play the positions with the proper technique. It would hurt me to see big John Ryan run upfield at the snap only to see the running back cut underneath him and then back outside for a big play.

Watch the path of the ball carrier and notice how many times on big running plays that he will run right over the spot the outside linebacker lined up then vacated by running upfield. This fall let's keep an eye out for good defensive technique. I believe the Notre Dame staff will teach proper footwork and pursuit angles and we'll be very pleased with the results.