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Offseason Knowledge Base: Linebackers, the heart of the 3-4 defense

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And, man, has Alabama had some great ones.

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Alabama v Arkansas Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

We pick up with another knowledge base article. Again, this is in no way remotely enough information to qualify you to coach a pee wee defense (which I did for a few years, BTW. It was hella’ fun. I highly recommend it as a rewarding experience.) Rather, these are to make you a more informed viewer; to know generally what you’re seeing when you watch games on television. The multiple 3-4 can sometimes look like an orchestrated car wreck, but there is a method to the madness.

When last we checked in on the Alabama defense, we began with some basics for the defensive line in the Alabama 3-4 defense. It may be helpful to read that one first: a lot of the responsibilities of the linebackers are directly tied into how the defensive line responds, particularly in two-gap schemes.

/pours coffee

//waits

In any 3-4 defense, perhaps no position group is as critical as the linebackers. They are tasked with pressuring the quarterbacking, stepping into holes, laterally pursuing the run, and assisting in pass coverage.

There is some terminology to wrap your head around first. As we wrote last year:

  • Alabama does not use the “middle linebacker” designation per se, instead calling the players “inside linebackers.” The reason is that especially along the weakside of the defense, the linebackers play both inside and outside.
  • Theoretically, in a base 3-4, Alabama uses four designations— Sam, Mike, Will, and Jack— for each starting linebacker.
  • The Sam is the "strong outside linebacker," one who typically will line up directly across from the tight end, whichever side that may be. Typically, this is the player that will be subbed out in a nickel package, and therefore is the least used.
  • The other outside linebacker is the Jack. The most well known of the positions at Alabama; his usual role is to line up as a wide defensive end and rush the quarterback. In Alabama’s case (especially under Kirby Smart,) the Tide actually use two Jacks in place of defensive ends in nickel or dime, blending the Sam and Jack roles.
  • Due to all of this, separating these players from the defensive ends can often times be a tough distinction, and categorizing the inside and outside linebacker can be just as futile.
  • The Tide defense puts tremendous pressure on the middle linebackers, as they are tasked with making plays in the run game from sideline-to-sideline.

The diagram below show what all the above looks like. Notice that all three linemen have two-gap responsibility. The left outside linebacker here is actually playing the strong side because is lined up over the outside shoulder of the tight end (Pop Quiz: Review the DL article above on gap responsibility and tell me below what gap the Sam/LOLB is playing.)

The rush/weakside OLB is freed from the extra blocker that the tight end represents and would be the Jack on the play, free to pursue the passer if the call gives him the green light or if he is an a read-react scheme.

Via movethesticks.com

Seems simple enough, right? It is at its heart. This is the base defense that the Bills and Ravens use.

There are other, more exotic looks for the 3-4. As we discuss above, Alabama can play two-passing rushing Jack LBs; they can play two Sams that drop into coverage; or, like the Seahawks, Patriots, and Rex Ryan’s iterations, some coaches create hybrid inside-outside roles for the linebackers. These various combinations can have the inside linebacker acting as the Jack to be a pass rusher, can swing the Will linebacker into coverage, can be used as defensive lineman in zone blitz schemes, etc.

This is a much more complicated version of the defense, so naturally Alabama runs this as its scheme. It is called the 3-4 “multiple” defense.

via Movethesticks.com

In the above, you see the Carroll/Bellichik/Saban tree of 3-4 schemes designed to confuse offenses. The defensive line 2-gap as usual. But, there is a wrinkle. The rushing linebacker (the 4th lineman) comes not from an OLB positions, but from the inside, where the Mike linebacker normally plays. When you see Reuben Foster applying pressure straight up the middle, even in the absence of a blitz, it is a hybrid look — the OLBs have peeled off into coverage or contain, and the rush comes right up the middle.

Of course, the defensive coordinator can choose to bring not just that Jack ILB on the rush, but pressure from one or both of the OLB positions. Since there are so many moving parts, and so many different ways to get pressure, the defense can win the next play before the snap just by disguising where the rush is coming from. And the Tide do it every snap. Alabama’s Jeremy Pruitt, in particular, is excellent at it. He may be the most aggressive 3-4 play-caller the country.

The question, then, is why does Alabama use the 3-4 as its base defense? The head man’s philosophy is an open book: Alabama has never disguised its intentions with respect to overall goals or play-calling strategy:

[Our] philosophy on first and second down is to stop the run and play good zone pass defense. We will occasionally play man-to-man and blitz in this situation. On third down, we will primarily play man-to-man and mix-in some zone and blitzes. We will rush four or more players versus the pass about ninety-percent of the time.

"In all situations, we will defend the inside or middle of the field first – defend inside to outside. Against the run, we will not allow the ball to be run inside. We want to force the ball outside. Against the pass, we will not allow the ball to be thrown deep down the middle or inside. We want to force the ball to be thrown short and/or outside.

Let’s see how it works, then, given the responsibilities above and what we all know about the responsibilities for the linebackers.

Base 3-4 “under”. Pay attention to Reggie Ragland working from the inside to diagnose the play, run parallel to the LOS, then chase down the Wisconsin RB near the sideline for a negative play.
CBS Sports

In the play above, you see Alabama defending Wisconsin on the read option “give.” This is just a modern shotgun variant of the the old student body right play, however, instead of a fullback or pitchman, the quarterback here has the option to fake the handoff and turn upfield on the weakside.

Here is how Wisconsin drew up this simple staple play:

Read Option

If you look to the gif above, you can see all of the Saban factors at come into play from the quoted material, but let’s break it down to prove it to you:

Alabama’s linemen (DJ Pettway (57) A’Shawn Robinson (86) Jarran Reed (90)) two-gap the run and take away any interior cutback lane.

Pettway (57) is responsible for any backside blocking and preventing misdirection such as counters, reverses, QB bootlegs etc. He also has responsibility for taking away the quarterback on the keeper (“keeping contain”.) It is called “contain,” because he has to options: To crash in on the play or play in the “bubble.” The quarterback makes his decision on whether to pitch the ball based upon what the defensive end is doing. This is called his “read.” In the black and white diagram above, D.J. Pettway is the player shown in the grey bubble.

That responsibility to contain on the option is why Pettway doesn’t charge pall mall into the fray; rather he penetrates without engaging a blocker, standing up to confirm that the play is moving away from him on the outside before beginning pursuit. If the quarterback had misread the play kept the ball, he runs directly into Pettway. And, Reuben Foster behind him stays on this side of the formation to assist Pettway.

This is straight man-blocking from Wisconsin, where the guard from the weakside immediately moves to the playside of the field, keeping one hand in contact with his man. If the defensive tackle looks to be making a play on the backside, he would square his pads and make the block.

A’Shawn, however, is not any interior tackle; he is able to beat his man with pure speed on the outside shoulder, splitting the guard and tackle then pursue along the line of scrimmage. Had Ragland not made the play, Robinson would have cleaned this one up for a loss.

Behind Robinson/Pettway at inside linebacker is Reuben Foster playing Will. He is moving laterally with the play to prevent the back from turning upfield. Remember, you want your Will to be as free from contact as possible. His job, after the Wisconsin RB has made his cut to the corner, is to avoid getting blocked as he’s making his lateral pursuit. By and large Foster succeeds. The play is already diagnosed and effectively over, before the Sconnie TE can get a block on him four yards into the second level. Note that Reuben has very few or no blockers to defeat on the play. With Pettway containing the edge, Foster is free move to the strong side of the play.

Ryan Anderson has dropped down from his position at OLB to act as a fourth down-lineman to pressure any pass attempt and to contain the run. Since he is lined up over the tight end, he is playing the Sam spot.

The inside linebackers, Reuben Foster and Reggie Ragland move laterally, flowing with the play as it moves towards the outside; the Tide have the blockers outnumbered here and the sidelines act as another defender.

Ragland having moved from inside-out diagnoses the play and the blocking scheme. He then waits until Ryan Anderson has engaged the tackle and tight end to turn upfield and generate a negative play for the Tide defense. As we noted above, Ragland had help on the backside by Robinson defeating his man. He had additional defenders at his back in the secondary, and the sideline contained any further lateral movement. All that was left was making the clean tackle, which Ragland did.

This was unsophisticated, old school playcalling by both coordinators relying on gap discipline and simple man blocking: It was a simple read and give by the quarterback and was actually blocked pretty well by Wisconsin against a base scheme by the Tide. Pettway forced the QB to give the ball off by playing contain on the play. From there, the linemen just needed to stand up their blockers while moving with the play to free up the Tide linebackers for the tackle.

Having seen what the linebackers do behind the defensive line’s reads, let’s compare what Saban wants to do versus what Alabama did on this play:

  • “[Our] philosophy on first and second down is to stop the run and play good zone pass defense.” Safe balanced base defense versus first down run. Check.
  • “In all situations, we will defend the inside or middle of the field first – defend inside to outside.” Defensive line moving the play to the outside by negating the QB option, requiring a give to the outside. Check.
  • “Against the run, we will not allow the ball to be run inside. We want to force the ball outside.” The defensive line holds up at the point of the attack with the linebackers laterally pursue the play, preventing any cutback lanes. Check.

And that’s how it all comes together up front.

Over the next week or so, Brent will publish his post on the secondary. Then, we can see how all of these units play together to create a nasty defense. But, it is fair to say that the heart and soul of any 3-4 is the linebacking corp. They are tasked with doing so much, and so many of the options to affect the quarterback arise from this group, that you need a great number of highly-skilled, intelligent specialists to have an elite defense. Fortunately, that has never been an issue for the Tide under Nick Saban.

For advanced knowledge on gap-reading, ways to defeat blocks, over-under schemes, additional responsibilities and the like, I cannot recommend Coach Lamon’s piece at Burnt Orange Nation enough, “Linebacker rules the multiple 3-4 defense.”

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