Fat Camp: Linebacker responsibilities in the Eagle defense

A recent re-reading of Football’s Eagle and Stack Defenses, written by longtime Penn State linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden, turned up some information on the attacking 4-3 single gap and its versatility, as far as rolling the responsibilities of the players to match up with different downs, distances and probable plays.

It had me thinking about Jack Del Rio and his approach, which has some overlaps with my earlier musings. Vanderlinden’s discussion of the use of linebackers and reads was a perfect next step to reading Complete Linebacking, a book I also recommend highly, and which was written by Lou Tepper, under whom Vanderlinden coached with the CU Buffs in the 1980s.

I’ll get into eagle and stack defenses at another time, but there are some specifics here that can be adapted into many formations and schemes.

Vanderlinden's book provided some additional insights to the Broncos' use of the two lines, and the functions of the linebackers, from both the offensive and defensive perspectives. In Denver’s case, the Sam-Mike-Will players are in fairly normal positions when the Broncos are running base defense - which is about 35-45% of the plays, depending on the opponent.

Von Miller sometimes creeps up to the line of scrimmage, of course. Their scheme is such that it would benefit from a three-down middle linebacker, although there are always approaches around it. Keith Brooking did well for them last season and was often used as a stack linebacker, but his time in the league is limited.

It's when they go to nickel and dime formations that you expect to see two LBs behind the line of scrimmage and the Sam - and 99% of the time it's Miller - up in a two- or three-point DE stance, changing the alignment.  Miller was more of a traditionally placed factor in the run game last season, but he can be moved around as a Joker, which has proved effective. 

JDR has also been using the nickel and dime situations to have both Elvis Dumervil and Miller standing, with Derek Wolfe, Justin Bannan, and often either Kevin Vickerson or Mitch Unrein in the middle. It's not really a 5-2, nor is it a 4-3. The actual designation would be individual to the team, and is one area where terminology varies from team to team.

It is an 'odd' front, with a lot of specifics to the individual positions and players when there are three down lineman, and an even front when two linemen are down and Miller and Doom are in two-point stances (standing up). Let’s talk about the terminology and how the two linebackers who are behind the LOS (rather than the two defensive ends, as you’d generally label Dumervil and probably Miller as well, in that formation) might be used.

When you move to the nickel and dime packages, one or both of the two LBs who are behind the LOS would usually be in either a 50 or 51 designation in an eagle defense, which Denver did use on some downs last year.

In other words, the designation ‘5’ for the linebacker would have as his assignment the ‘5 gap’ if the play is run at him. In this case, we’re substituting the number rather than letters: 1 gap, 3 gap, 5 gap, and 7 gap instead of A gap, B gap, and C gap designations. It’s common, although fans can find it confusing. If you’re confused, it might help to look over TJ’s article on techniques and gaps here. That covers it well. His info on the over and under formations is also well worth a review.

A ‘50’ linebacker would have responsibility for the 5 gap (or C gap) if the run play is coming toward him and he has no specific gap responsibility - he's freelancing - in pursuit, when the run play is going away from him. That’s why the ‘0’ comes after the 5 designation - it’s not for a 0 technique, right over the center’s helmet, but an indication that there’s nothing specific that he’s assigned to except chasing down the ball.

Another possibility is that he'd have the 5 gap if the play is run at his side and the one gap on the same side of the center if the play is run moving away from him. In that case, you’d designate him as a ‘51’ LB - responsible for the 5 gap when the play comes to him and the 1 gap on his side of the center when the play is run away from him and he’s in pursuit of the ballcarrier.

There’s a third option: when you see a 52 designation for a linebacking corp, it doesn't mean the three down linemen and two LBs on the line that most folks got familiar with during the McDaniels era. It means that the LB is responsible for the 5 gap when the play is run toward his side of the center, or the 1 gap on the opposite side of the center if the play goes away from him. When using '2' as the second digit, the coach is saying that that LB has the ‘2’ gap if the play goes away from them.

There isn't really a two gap, but there is a two technique - the inside of the guard's shoulder. They’re using that’ 52’ designation to say that it's the 1 gap on the far side of the center that is the LB's assignment when he’s in pursuit, as the run goes away from him. That’s not the same as talking about a ‘two gap’ player, who has to choose between the two possible gaps at the snap. It’s always going to mean the A gap on the other side of the center for that LB.

So, to review:

  • The 50 linebacker is the LB who protects the 5 gap if the play is run towards him, and freelances when the run goes away from him.
  • The 51 linebacker protects the 5 gap if the play is run toward him, and the 1 gap on his side of the center if the run goes away from him.
  • The 52 linebacker protects the 5 gap if the play is run at him, and protects the 1 gap on the side of the center away from him if the run goes away from him.

Different defensive schemes can do the same thing with protecting the 3 gap by those two LBs:

  • In a 30 designation, the LB has the 3 gap on his side of the center, and no specific responsibility (he's freelancing) when the run flows away from him. He just flows to the ball.
  • A 31 designation says that the LB is responsible for the 3 gap (or C gap, in other systems) and the 1 gap on his side of the center if the run flows away from him.
  • Finally, a 32 designation says that if the run is toward his side, he has the three gap. If it moves away from that player, he has the ‘2’ gap - which is the 1 gap on the other side of the center.

It's in part because of this confusion that coaches increasingly refer to their formations as simply odd or even fronts rather than 4-3 or 5-2, 3-4, etc. and they start filling in specific responsibilities from there. The terms 4-3 and 5-2 or 3-4 are too simplistic for the modern game, but coaches try and use them for simplicity with the media and the less educated fans are forced to follow suit.  There are also times when those designations are still of some use. Even odd and even front are becoming loose terms with regard to a team’s entire defense - in the modern NFL, hybrid, or as UTEP head coach Sean Kugler calls them, ‘voodoo’ defenses are increasingly the rule rather than the exception.

Strongside and weakside, as they were once interpreted, are also often being modified and given new meanings. They once referred to the side with an in-line TE in a ‘pro’ formation. With TEs often on both sides of the line, that one ceased to be universally useful. ‘Strongside’ if used by a coach can now refer to the side where there is no offensive player on the line past the OT, or where the pass is most likely - such as having two receivers or 'trips' WRs on that side, which makes it the pass-strong side.

Even in 13 personnel (1 RB, 3 TE, and 1 WR), you'll generally have more receivers on one side or the other and that can make it strong or weak, accordingly. If it’s a simple formation with one TE on the line, strong side can still refer to the TE side of the formation. They may use ‘closed’ for the TE side and ‘open’ for the side without. The game grows more complex, and the terms we use will eventually have to follow.

I know - it’s confusing at first. Very quickly, though, through normal repetition you begin to understand the jargon, and it becomes second nature. There are also various ways to identify defensive fronts that are new to most fans. Kugler, who until recently was the offensive line coach for the Steelers, did a very good presentation in 2011 on how OL players can identify defensive fronts, both inside and outside. It’s different from what you’re probably used to.

I won’t confuse things with all those details today, but he noted that they don’t talk about defensive fronts as a whole, which is the common approach for both pundits and fans alike. They break things down so that they’re simpler. There are only five possible (at least ‘rational’) defensive options that deal with the center and two offensive guards, the defensive tackle and the nose tackle. They talk about whether the center or OG are ‘covered’ - have a defensive player directly in front of them - or are uncovered, and do not. There are also four ‘exterior line‘ looks, which include the TE, and he discussed them as well. It’s an article for another day, but it points to a valuable conclusion.

Modern offenses and defenses are extremely complex and becoming more so. By breaking them down into their component parts, you as a coach can make the game much simpler for any one given position or sets of positions (such as the OL or DL). You can also be far more exact in terms of what you (and the fans) can expect from your players in a given situation.

All of those things may have to come into play to explain what JDR is doing out there. He's by far the most creative DC Denver's had since Joe Collier left (although I give Greg Robinson a lot of credit for his work during the SB winning years). He’s developed a wide range of defensive formations and methods of attack. Over time, I’ll get into more of the specifics.

Like so many things in life, the more I learn about the game, the less I think that I know. Accordingly, though - it just gets more interesting all the time.

Go Broncos!

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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