Welcome back to "Chalk Talk" with LB Coach. In this installment he breaks down the responsibilities of the inside linebackers. Links to Parts I, II and III are below in case you missed them. Enjoy. Whiskey
If you're a tough guy, if you're an ALPHA male, if you'd be a Marine Platoon Leader were you were in the military, you're an inside linebacker in the 3-4 defense! Big, Strong, Fast, and Aggressive are all demanding traits of the position. As I take you through this article about inside linebacker play and the reads that they have to make keep in mind that as in the other position breakdowns I refer to the position responsibilities as if they were in the base 3-4 look. There are many variations, blitzes, front twists, and slants that I couldn't possible write about in these short essays so keep in mind we are just talking about base 3-4 play.
There are many ways to line up so I will attempt to keep this article as generic as possible. The inside linebackers generally line up at about 5 yards deep so that they can fill gaps inside and out as quickly as possible depending on their read and the point of attack. You want the inside linebacker to be the point of the spear when attacking an offensive running play. His initial read is the offensive guard. His initial gap responsibility on a running play coming straight ahead is the B gap or guard/ tackle gap with the nose tackle responsible for the A gap.
If the guard attacks straight on he must meet the guard's forward charge, neutralizing him, shedding the block, and keeping his outside arm and shoulder free to tackle the ball carrier. The 5 yard depth gives him a running start and enough space to change his attack angle if the ball changes direction. It also allows pursuit sideways without running horizontally. If he did that all of his tackles would be after a 5 yard gain! He must run down hill! The other space a 5 yard depth creates is if the defensive tackle gives ground off the line of scrimmage the inside linebacker can still support outside the tackle. If the tackle give up too much ground or if the inside linebacker lines up too close to the LOS he gets cut off from his inside out pursuit.
If the guard's head moves forward but aimed at the outside shoulder of the inside linebacker, he is now thinking the off tackle hole. The guard's move says that he is attempting to cut him off from his outside pursuit. In other words, the B gap is moving out and the inside linebacker must not allow that. At all times his outside shoulder and arm must be free as these are his weapons. The guard knows this and is trying to occupy that arm and shoulder so they can't be used to tackle the ball. As the outside linebacker must fight to stay square to the line of scrimmage so must the inside guy.
I do a drill where I give each guy on the front 7 a 3 yard long pipe and have them carry it across their shoulders. When all the guys are square to the LOS the pipes all meet end to end and there is no place for the ball carrier to run. The defensive front is now a solid wall. Then I show them what happens when one of the defenders allows his shoulders to be turned and now the wall has an opening and the running back will exploit that hole for a positive gain. It is a great visual for the new guys and a great refresher course for the veterans to see what turning of the shoulders means to a defense and how it weakens it.
When the front side inside linebacker is attacking the off tackle hole on his side the backside inside linebacker must now move to cover the cut back run. Most big plays happen behind the backside backer because he overruns front side allowing the back to cut back into the backside A gap. You see it all the time. The past two years at Notre Dame when they attempted to run the 3-4 it was like an epidemic constantly over pursuing the backside allowing for big cutback runs. Because the defensive tackle and the outside linebacker were allowed to penetrate on running plays they were past the football and couldn't help on the cutback.
On defense you never want to be past the football at any time on a running play. If one guy is past the football it's like playing with 10 guys on defense vice 11 so when several defenders are past the football it becomes a total mismatch numbers wise. When Coach Kelly told several of the young linebackers that they didn't play very well last year I'm sure this very technique was a big part of that. Too many times last year poor inside linebacker play allowed inferior opponents big running plays because of over pursuit from the backside or from allowing their outside shoulder and arm to be attacked thus losing their ability to make a play.
If the guard pulls back toward the center that signals a trap or sweep and the backside inside linebacker must move to take the front side A gap because generally the Nose Tackle is being double teamed. So the backside guy must move front side. The front side inside linebacker sees his guard block down on the center he must fill the front side B gap and look for a lead blocker or the guard coming around to block him. The front side offensive tackle is usually assigned to the linebacker so if the ILB doesn't come forward at a blistering pace the 6'8" 320 lb tackle will leave a lasting impression on his outside shoulder and helmet! Look for Notre Dame's inside linebackers to be much more physical and assignment competent than in year's past.
If the Guard pass blocks, the inside linebacker has his pass responsibility based on the coverage call in the secondary. The linebackers must be aware of screens and draws before their full pass drop can be realized. Poor inside linebacker drops have plagued the Notre Dame defense for years giving up big plays over the middle far too many times. Most of the time drops were too shallow allowing over the top throws or the linebacker simply ran out of his area following a cutting receiver only to have another receiver cut into the vacated area catching an uncontested pass.
In my early professional career my linebacker Coach, Howard Tippett, filmed us pass dropping and then asked us how deep we thought we had gotten. During a football play you can take a lot of steps and not get anywhere. When we thought we had dropped 10 to 12 yards many times it was only 2 or 3 yards! You have to learn to get depth. In a normal offensive set the Mike backer, once he reads pass, needs to pick up the route of the TE or the number 2 receiver on his side. On a vertical route he stays to that receivers inside and drops his intended depth. If that receiver cuts out he must now look for the outside receiver or the #1 receiver cutting in behind that out move.
I have watched seemingly intelligent linebackers chasing TEs or #2 receiver out to the flat while the curl route opens behind it. It even happens at the professional level at times. Fatigue is a big factor and generally sloppy coaching the other. Of course, some of these high paid professionals know more than their coaches so they do it their way! On the college level there is no excuse to overplay the out move. Inside linebackers are generally curl defenders. You can allow an occasional ball to be caught in front of you but that ball caught between the linebacker and the secondary is very problematic!
I hope this helps your understanding of inside linebacker play in the 3-4.