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Principles of Linebacker Play Teaching Progression

By Eric Firestone | May/June 2006

We teach our linebackers how to play our style of football with a progression that we use every day at practice in addition to spring drills and early-preseason practice. 



Legs are shoulder-width apart with the linebacker on the balls of his feet, knees bent.  He is also bent at the waist, low enough to make his number difficult to read. 

Hands are held at the side of the hips, like a western movie gunslinger reaching for his guns, or in front between his legs, but not resting on the thighs. 

It is important to work on stances every day.  Humans are creatures of habit, so make it a habit to be in a good stance.


Alignment, 4 1/2 to 5 yards deep (Diags. 1-2):

In a 4-3 defense the Mike (middle) backer will be in strong A gap, the Sam (strong) backer will be in strong C gap, and the Will (weak) backer will be in Weak B gap (Diag. 1). 

Firestone Diagram 1
Diagram 1

If there are two or more wide receivers to a side, the backer to that side will split the difference between the #2 receiver and the tackle (Diag. 2).  

Firestone Diagram 2
Diagram 2

Reads & Keys (Diag. 3):

If the offense is in a two-back I set, Mike will read the first back and the Sam & Will will read the second back (Diag. 3). 

Firestone Diagram 3
Diagram 3

If the offense is in the shotgun, the backers will cross-key, meaning that they will read the back away from them.  In the shotgun, Mike will key the QB.

Firestone Diagram 4
Diagram 4

Cross-keying will work on both one-back (Diag. 4) (above) and two-back sets (Diag. 5). (below) If the offense is a big misdirection team, such as a Wing-T or likes to pull linemen, the backers will read the guards. 

Firestone Diagram 5
Diagram 5

Initial Movement (Diag. 6):

At the snap, the backers will take one step to their gap and re-gather. 

Firestone Diagram 6
Diagram 6

Determining Run or Pass:

Backers will read through the linemen to the backs to determine if the play is a run or pass. 

If linemen are set up higher and retreat, backers will play pass while watching the running backs and QB. 

If linemen drive out hard, backers will play the run while watching the running back and being cautious of the play-action pass.


Block Destruction (Diag. 7):

Firestone Diagram 7
Diagram 7

Backers will attack blockers, using both hands and feet.  Hands will attack the V of the neck; at the same time the backer steps between the blocker's legs with his nearest foot. 

Backers will attack with bent knees and waist.  When contact occurs, the backer with use the power in the legs by pressing with the legs and rolling the hips to destruct the block.  Backers will not run around blocks; they will take them on. 

Diag. 7 shows a good drill with which to work on block destruction (Triangle Drill). Backers will step toward the blocker and shed them, re-gather, step to the other blocker, and re-gather. 


Pursuit (Diag. 8):

Firestone Diagram 8
Diagram 8

We have our linebackers set up in the correct alignment to cover all gaps at the snap.  Once the ball is snapped, the backers must attack the ball down hill and push it to the sidelines, not giving up a cutback lane (Diag. 8). 

One way to stress this pursuit are pursuit drills with the linebackers and entire defense (Diag. 9).   

Firestone Diagram 9
Diagram 9


Backers will tackle the ball-carriers when possible, chest-to-chest. 

Linebackers will be taught to tackle with the use of four steps: Lock, Load, Fire, and Finish. 

First, Lock their eyes on the ball carrier's number. 

Then Load by getting into position to make a tackle with their knees and waist bent and their arms at their hips. 

Then Fire into the ball carrier, putting their number on the ball carrier's number and throwing both arms, as in upper cutting. 

Finish the tackle by grabbing high cloth and trying to step on the ball- carrier's toes.

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