The demise of the three-down linebacker?

It’s become a local mantra - the move from older base formations to using a nickel package as a team’s base package is a natural response towards slowing the pass-centric tendencies of the modern NFL.

I’ve been on that bus for a few years now. Last season, the Broncos used their nickel defense 65% of the time. Nickel is the new base.

But along with that recognition, there’s been an increasing suggestion that you don’t need three-down linebackers as much. The starting Mike, in particular, often leaves the field for nickel downs. That’s particularly the case if the Mike has better skills downhill than in outracing running backs, wideouts, or tight ends in a coverage role.

Does a team have to change their linebackers out when they move to nickel?

Are the days of three down starting linebackers really over?


The Broncos are using two of them in Von Miller and Wesley Woodyard. It’s possible (although not important) that over time they could add a multifunctional middle linebacker and move to a three-starter group that can stay on the field whether it’s a run or passing down. Since we’re also seeing the league move to no-huddle and hurry-up offenses, having a starting three who are versatile enough to handle nickel duties as well as what were once ‘base’ packages would be optimal.

The easiest place to start an overview is with Denver’s Sam linebacker, 2011 Defensive Rookie of the Year Von Miller. Von is a true three-down linebacker because he’s worked on each phase of his game, and he has the chops to swing to DE on nickel downs. Miller can play in a two- or three-point stance. He has worked hard to become bigger and stronger to stuff the run, is honing his coverage skills, and his pass rushing is already remarkable.

As noted by PFF's Ben Stockwell:

Miller is one of the first of a new breed of linebackers who is helping teams to rethink how they deploy their LBs in a three-down capacity. No longer does a linebacker need to be able to play well in coverage to stay on the field for three downs, with ever more impressive athletes emerging from college they can instead put their hands down in the dirt and rush the passer on third down, offering even greater flexibility to their defense. Miller is not the first, Julian Peterson for one played in a similar role at times in the previous decade and Kamerion Wimbley was doing the same for the Raiders a year before Miller entered the league. However, none have executed this role as well as Miller has in just two years in the league.

Wesley Woodyard can also play a three-down role, being one of the most versatile players on the Broncos. He was the only NFL player in 2012 with at least 100 tackles, five sacks, and three interceptions. He was on the field for pass plays, run plays, and in nickel formations - he even made four plays on special teams, with one tackle to show for it. He played 990 snaps in 2012 and provided 52 stops according to PFF's data (stops are the number of solo defensive tackles made which constitute an offensive failure). He has the coverage skills for the nickel package and makes a fine Will linebacker in Denver’s multiple defense packages.

Since Woodyard frequently swings to the Mike role for the nickel package, he’s on the field nearly all the time, just as Miller is. A linebacker who can pair with Miller and Woodyard in the nickel package (nickel linebacker is currently Danny Trevathan’s role to lose) would seal the deal - no matter how much you no-huddle and play hurry-up offense, the linebackers you need would be on the field. It’s just one option, and it requires three very talented linebackers. Denver already has two in place, and substituting a nickel linebacker isn’t a bad thing.

Trevathan showed considerable skill in that role as a rookie last year and often came in on nickel downs, usually matched with Woodyard as one of the two linebackers behind the LOS in the nickel package. He also led the SEC for two consecutive years in tackles, and I don’t worry about his downhill technique.

He’s becoming very good in zone coverage and seems to have eliminated his weakness of peeking at the QB too much in zone, which back in college led to people moving in and out of his zone without him reacting quickly enough. Pro coaching makes a huge difference, and he’s also coming out of a full year of training his body with Luke Richesson and company.

Both Nate Irving and Steven Johnson are in competition for the Mike slot, along with Stewart Bradley and college free agents Damien Holmes, Uona Kaveinga, and Lerentee McCray. The Broncos use a wide variety of packages, from a variation on the 3-4 (which they often use), to multiple variations on the 4-3 and 5-2 defensive packages, and whatever else flows from the seemingly endless creativity of defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. Substitution is going to be a necessity, but Denver has good depth at linebacker right now. They still need to solve the MLB question, but Woodyard and Miller have the other roles fulfilled.

Is having all three-down LBs necessary?

No. You’ll see most MLB’s replaced by nickel linebackers.

Having a quality nickel linebacker like Danny Trevathan is a boon to any team. They’re going to use him as much as he can handle, and bring him along until he can take on more, including work on special teams (he had three solo and two assisted tackles in eight games on special teams as a rookie). Depth, however, always matters. Bringing your depth players like Trevathan or Irving up to a starter’s level is often a difficult undertaking, but Denver is convinced that it’s their way to go. It seems to be working so far.

It’s only one option but finding a couple of three-down ‘backers seems to me the most rational approach to the modern game, whenever it’s possible. It gives you base players who can morph to deal with hurry-up offenses and who can switch positions in multiple ways, due to their versatility. You often don’t have a chance to substitute when your opponent is playing a hurry-up approach, and the three-down linebackers help overcome that conundrum. It isn’t easy to find the right personnel, but the Broncos are fortunate there.

Your starters are going to wear down at times, when you stick with that approach. You need to have your backup options firmly in place to deal with the inevitable injuries - if the backup can’t handle all three downs (and most won’t), you need to know who to put in at what point, to maximize your depth’s effectiveness. It might affect your playcalling and that could be a disadvantage. Happily, Woodyard and Miller held up well for nearly all of last season.

You will see fewer and fewer teams using the same ‘backers for all three downs, but having two in place who can fulfill that role helps Denver maintains a high level of consistency in their defense. Linebackers who can rush the passer, drop into coverage, and tackle effectively are always going to be in high demand. Having two of them already in place helped Denver’s defense rise from the bottom of the league to a top-five defense. I look forward to watching the competition for the Mike and nickel LB slots in training camp.

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