Although an American football linebacker’s main intention as part of a team’s defense is to tackle the offensive player with the ball, a variety of different types of linebackers can be out on the field, all with different expectations and goals. The following definitions can help you dissect the complex world of the linebacker:
True linebacker: Linebackers who line up in the conventional linebacker position — behind the defensive linemen — are true linebackers. They align themselves according to the defensive call. Their depth (or distance) from the line of scrimmage varies, but it’s usually 4 yards.
Sam linebacker: A linebacker who lines up directly across from the tight end and keys the tight end’s movements.
The Sam linebacker’s responsibility is to disrupt the tight end’s release off the line of scrimmage when he’s attempting to run out for a pass. The linebacker must then react accordingly. Depending on the defensive call, he either
Rushes the passer
Moves away from the line of scrimmage and settles (called a pass drop ) into a specified area to defend potential passes thrown his wayThe ideal Sam linebacker is tall, preferably 6’4” or taller, which enables him to see over the tight end. (Tight ends also tend to be tall.)
Willy linebacker: The macho term for a weak-side linebacker, the Willy linebacker has the most varied assignments of any linebacker: He rushes the passer or drops into coverage, depending on the defensive call. He tends to be smaller, nimbler, and faster than most other linebackers.
Mike linebacker: This is the glory position of the linebacker corps. Every defensive player — from boys playing pickup games on the sandlot to men playing in the NFL — wants to play this position. The Mike linebacker is also known as the middle linebacker in 4-3 defenses. He lines up in the middle, generally directly opposite the offense’s center and off him 3 to 4 yards.
The Mike linebacker’s job is to make tackles and control the defense with his calls and directions. He keys the running backs and the quarterback because he’s in the middle of the defense and wants to go where the ball goes.