Linebackers (LBs) are defensive players that operate behind the main defensive line and perform a number of important jobs. Most defensive formations include between two and four linebackers, who are tasked with rushing offensive passers, covering receivers and defending against runners. They are usually famed for their punishing tackles on opposition players and their marshaling of the defense.
There are three different types of linebackers: middle, strongside and weakside. The middle LB is known as the quarterback of the defence. It is his job to organise the entire defense in reaction to the opposition formation and make sure that running backs and full backs are stopped if they make it past the defensive line into the middle of the field. During running plays, the middle LB, often referred to as Mike, must shadow the path of the ball providing tackles and support.
Strongside LBs (Sam) line up on the same side of the field as the opposition’s tight end and are usually the strongest of the bunch because they must be able to dispatch lead blockers quickly enough to tackle the running back, often having to go through the tight end to do so. Weakside (Will) LBs have to be strong, but also very athletic as they will be forced to defend against runners and wide receivers in the open field.
Because linebackers act as the enforcers of the defense, they can often be the key difference between the best and worst of defences. For this reason, top NFL LBs are usually considered among the best defensive players in the league. Raymond Nitschke, who played linebacker for the Green Bay Packers from 1958 to 1972, was named in 1969 as the greatest linebacker in NFL history, narrowly beating Dick Butkus (Chicago Bears, 1965-1973).
Lawrence Taylor played linebacker for the New York Giants from 1981 to 1993. Widely regarded as one of the greatest defensive players in the history of the sport, the Big Blue Wrecking Crew won a record three Defensive Player of the Year awards, was voted as the NFL Most Valuable Player in 1986 and was a first team All Pro in each of his first nine seasons.
Mike Singleton is a Pro Football Hall of Famer who played for the Chicago Bears from 1981 to 1992 and came to be known as Samurai Mike for his intimidating presence and hard tackling. Ray Lewis has plied his trade at the Baltimore Ravens since 1996 and is considered one of the best linebackers currently in the business, picking up the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in 2000 and 2003.
Playing as a linebacker is one of the most demanding roles in defense. You must be big enough and strong enough to tackle all game, but fast and agile enough to track down opposition runners and disrupt passes. In addition, the middle linebacker must have an excellent reading of opposition tactics and be able to successfully marshal his defense to cope with any type of play.