Ever since Sam Huff became the middle linebacker in Tom Landry’s seminal 4-3 defense, the position has enjoyed a unique mystique. Middle linebackers are often known as the quarterback of the defense, and more than any other position, middle linebacker is accredited with the success of the entire defense. While it is true that player’s like Lofa Tatupu deduce offensive formations, anticipating play calls, making line reads and calling coverages, it’s also true that the effect of all this sound and fury is almost immeasurable. Occasionally, Tatupu hits a bullseye, sniffing out a play exactly and preempting the offense. But occasionally, Tatupu calls stunts, aborting the pass rush, or leads the charge left, allowing a huge cutback lane right. It’s one of many football phenomena that exist within that gray expanse between common knowledge and modern analysis. As one might guess, common knowledge lords the annals; 9 of 18 linebackers enshrined in the Hall of Fame are middle linebackers. 10 if you include Harry Carson, who started his career as a MLB before becoming an inside linebacker in Bill Parcells’s 3-4.
Cover 2: A set of simple defensive plays that involve the two safeties playing deep zone coverage.
Stunts: A play type where two defensive linemen cross each other in an X pattern so that each is attacking the other’s typical assignment. The purpose of stunts is to confuse offensive linemen or retard blocking patterns. Sometimes effective, stunts often only create a longer route from the defensive lineman to the ball carrier.
Tampa 2: A style of 4-3 defense that emphasizes team speed, pass rush, the Cover 2 defense, pass cover ability in its linebackers and a middle linebacker who can cover the deep middle. It also deemphasizes a need for larger defensive linemen and man cover corners.
Apart from its more high-minded duties, middle linebackers serve as a 4-3’s primary run tackler. Many 4-3 defenses use the line to channel opposing rushers to the middle linebacker. That’s not as prevalent as it once was, or is in the amateur ranks, but because roughly half of all rushes are “up the middle”, that is, behind the center or guards, the defense needn’t influence the play for the rusher to enter the linebacker’s zone of control. Because middle linebackers are measured above all else by their tackling prowess, people often equate total tackles to ability to stop the run. A middle linebacker with a lot of tackles is given all sorts of fanciful properties*: sideline to sideline range, a nose for the ball, intelligence and instincts. Though awareness, prescience and an extensive knowledge of an opponent’s playbook and tendencies is important, agility, strength and quickness are likely just as if not more important. The two groups of traits rarely are found in the same player. That players without the latter never sniff the pros is why pros with the former are so celebrated.
The other major duty of the middle linebacker is coverage. Though not every team employing a 4-3 runs a fulltime Tampa 2, the Cover 2 with Tampa 2 principles is in every modern playbook. The difference between a typical Cover 2 and a Tampa 2, besides personnel, is that in a Tampa 2, the middle linebacker must be able to drop into deep middle cover, controlling the otherwise vulnerable middle in a Cover 2 defense. In the pass first modern NFL, that ability cannot be overestimated, and middle linebackers who can control the deep middle are a definitive step above their tackle racking peers. A great middle linebacker can drop into coverage, adjust should the play be a run, but be able to prevent their assignment from getting open, force incompletes, play the ball, intercept passes, and also force fumbles after receptions. At his best, Brian Urlacher could do all that. Lofa Tatupu stands as the current heir apparent.
Middle linebackers do not blitz much and when they do, it is often as a decoy. Or if not as a decoy, they are assigned to engage blockers and allow another blitzer or linemen to create pressure or convert the sack. That’s not hard and fast by any means, and some linebackers, like Urlacher, are or were great pass rushers, but it’s a comparatively small part of their repertoire compared to run and pass coverage.
Prototypical Middle Linebacker: Sam Huff
Greatest I’ve ever seen play: Ray Lewis
*Total tackle numbers are not a good indication of a middle linebacker’s ability to stop the run. An abnormally high number of tackles, like Patrick Willis recorded in 2007, is often indication of overall defensive failings. I.e., defensive linemen not making tackles, sustained drives by opposing offenses and opposing offenses running to take time off the clock.