What Do You Read to Know Where the Ball Is Going As a Linebacker?

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For most defenses -- at least, most good defenses -- the unit's leading tackler will be a linebacker, one of the three or four players who begin the play standing up 5 to 8 yards from the line of scrimmage. From the initial set of the offensive formation, linebackers start reading keys to determine what kind of play is coming -- run or pass -- and which direction it is headed. There are different reads for each outside linebacker as well as the inside or middle linebackers. You can be a more knowledgeable fan by reading the same keys to which the linebackers react.

Strongside Linebacker

  • Find the tight end. When the offensive team sets its formation, the strongside linebacker shifts to the side where the tight end lines up, which puts three blockers flanking the center instead of two.

  • Focus on the tight end. If the tight end blocks hard, it's a run read. If the tight end quickly disengages or heads downfield from the line of scrimmage, the linebacker sets up to play pass defense.

  • Find the ball. If the play is coming at him, he heads for the runner, being aware of blocking help from the backside. If the play is away from the linebacker, he fills the cutback lane. It's important not to pursue the tackle so hard that he allows a cutback gain behind him.

  • Watch for slants. Both outside linebackers need to close fast on quick passes to their sides of the field. Then, the strongside linebacker must find his assigned receiver -- sometimes the tight end, but more often a running back -- although the strongside linebacker likely will end up in zone coverage or as the second player on a double-team.

  • Focus on the quarterback. The linebacker always keeps an eye on the quarterback; the linebacker's job is to break toward the pass after it is thrown.

Weakside Linebacker

  • Use the wide receiver as a guide. The weakside linebacker sets up on the side opposite the tight end, about one-third of the way between the offensive tackle and the wide receiver on that side of the formation.

  • Make sure your field of vision includes at least two offensive linemen. If they drive off the ball, it's a run; if they step back, it's probably a pass.

  • Spy on the running back. The weakside linebacker gets his read for the direction of a running play from looking into the backfield. The weakside linebacker's first responsibility is to make sure no running play gets to his outside.

  • Watch for misdirection plays. On runs away from his side, the weakside linebacker steps diagonally toward the line of scrimmage and checks for cutbacks and reverses, when the initial ball carrier hands off to a receiver cutting behind him. Reverses typically are run toward the weak side of the formation.

  • React quickly to a pass read. If the linebacker reads a pass, he'll either rush the quarterback -- weakside linebackers typically blitz more than the other linebackers -- or find his zone or assigned receiver in pass coverage.

Middle or Inside Linebackers

  • Key on the center. If there's a single middle linebacker, he first lines up head-on to where the ball will be snapped or off the center's shoulder toward the tight end's side of the formation. With two inside linebackers, each will line up head-on with an offensive guard. More than other linebackers, a middle linebacker will first react with a quick step forward when the ball is snapped.

  • Watch the running back. Stopping the run is an inside linebacker's primary responsibility, and he'll react to the running back's first move.

  • Be aware of the offensive linemen, particularly the center and guards. If they charge, it's a run. If one moves laterally to the line of scrimmage, that tips off the play's direction, and the running back will confirm which way the play is headed. The middle linebacker must get at least to the lead shoulder of the blocker assigned to him to fill the gap where the play is coming or be able to track the running back laterally on the outside.

  • React to a step back by offensive linemen. If the middle linebacker sees a pass play developing, he'll push off on his first step and backpedal quickly. It's unlikely that the middle linebacker will have man-to-man coverage, but he must keep receivers cutting quickly toward the middle of the field in front of him and be ready to help out on an underneath double-team on deeper routes.

  • Check for delay plays. The offensive team knows a middle linebacker will drop hard into coverage -- or one inside linebacker will drop and the other will rush the quarterback. Slipping the ball to a running back after the quarterback has taken a couple steps toward the pocket for a delayed run in the middle of the field is a way to take advantage if the linebacker pursues his assignment too aggressively.

  • Watch the quarterback. As the ball leaves his hand, the middle linebacker must break toward the ball.

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