Football Explained: Weakside Linebacker

In May of 1945, George Orwell wrote a now famous essay entitled Politics and the English Language. In it he argues both for a cleansing of the English language and that much of the needless adornment of the language is done to confound and to distance those in power from those not. That essay has a lot to do with Football Explained. Few sports suffer grandiose metaphor, jargon and double speak like football. And when one cuts through the fog it’s pointed how frustratingly meaningless most football analysis is.

I mention this only because our next position, and, in fact, each linebacker position, suffers the yoke of jargon like no other position in football. Jargon has a purpose, weakside is comparatively efficient to “the side opposite the side the tight end aligns on”, but calling a weakside linebacker a “will”, “wanda”, “wolf” or whatever-the-hell starting with “w” is a waste of words. Worse, it’s often a desperate, but disappointingly effective, play at credibility.

Glossary:

Backside: The area opposite to the direction the play is advancing.

Flat: [A]n area on the field between the line of scrimmage and 10 yards into the defensive backfield, and within 15 yards of the sideline.

Hook Zone: To spare everyone too much grief about the particulars, a hook zone is essentially a small zone (roughly 5-10 yard radius) that is typically employed by a linebacker or lineman and is typically positioned between 10 and 20 yards from the line of scrimmage.

Linebacker: A defensive position that plays just behind the defensive line.

Man Coverage
: An assignment where the defender is assigned a single opposing player to cover rather than a position on the field.

Traditionally, the weakside linebacker plays diagonal-in to the opposing tight end. In the modern NFL, with more formations without tight ends, more tight ends playing the slot and more complex and demanding defensive play calls, linebackers often play a right or left side, and are not strictly strongside or weakside linebackers. But like the 3 tech tackle, weakside linebacker refers as much to the typical abilities and responsibilities of the player as their absolute position on the field. The weakside linebacker, true to its name, is the smaller, quicker compliment to the opposing strongside linebacker. (An important aside, quickness and speed are too often conflated. Speed refers to a player’s “top speed”, while quickness refers to a player’s ability to accelerate.)

The weakside linebacker is the linebacker most often deployed in coverage. Its typical coverage responsibility is the left flat. Flats are almost exclusively the territory of backs, but can also be used by offenses on wide receiver screens or the occasional motion play. Weakside linebackers also play short hook zones and seldom man coverage. The weakside linebacker does blitz, but typically less so than the strong side linebacker.

In run support, it is assumed that the weakside linebacker is capable of providing backside pursuit. In the past, teams ran a majority of their rushes, that were not up the middle, behind the side of the line the tight end was aligned on. In the modern NFL, tight ends most commonly align on the right side of the line, but teams most commonly run to left side of the line (when not running up the middle.) Therefore, though the prototypical weakside linebacker is quick, the need for backside pursuit has been greatly deemphasized.

A great weakside linebacker must be able to play the run, play coverage, but also seamlessly transition from one to the other. No player in the current NFL better embodies that ideal than Lance Briggs. Briggs has shutdown ability against all but the best tight ends and receiving running backs, but can start in coverage, read run, rip through a lead blocker and force a fumble while converting a tackle for a loss. Leroy Hill has that potential.

Prototype: Derrick Brooks

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