I've broken down, the best that I can, the different player types in the Seahawks 4-3 Under defense run by Pete Carroll. We've looked at cornerbacks and safeties, after breaking down the assignments in general, and now I'm going to give you a quick and simple look at the linebacker position.
In the 4-3, as you probably could have figured out, the Seahawks utilize three linebackers, on the strongside (Sam), middle (Mike), and weakside (Will). In simplest terms, Pete Carroll described each position as such:
"The Mike linebacker is a traditional middle linebacker. He is instinctive and makes a lot of calls for the defense. He may be the guy with the most experience or the best feel for the game.
The Will linebacker can be a smaller player. He is generally protected in the defensive schemes and will not see as many blocks. All you want him to do most plays is flow and chase the football. We want our fastest linebacker at this position.
The Sam linebacker has to be a good containment player. He has to be big and strong enough to play on the edge of the tight end. He has to be able to run in pass coverage also."
Lofa Tatupu certainly fits the bill as an instinctive linebacker and leader of the defense. He is the guy for the Seahawks with the most experience and it could be argued he's made his pay in his career by having a good feel for the game and a veteran savvy. David Hawthorne has filled the Mike linebacker role when called upon in the last few seasons and also displayed these traits but it seems to me that his best role is on the weakside. With Tatupu and Hawthorne on the roster you have decent depth at the middle linebacker position but if either goes down you start to have issues.
When the Seahawks run their version of the Tampa-2 defense, the middle linebacker is asked to play the deep middle of the field in pass coverage. This necessitates a quick and instinctual player with some ball skills, or at worst the ability to make the quarterback hesitate when looking to throw a deep ball over the top. I'm not sure that Tatupu or Hawthorne are ideally suited for that role at this point in their careers, so look for a middle linebacker with those types of skills and mobility to be drafted or signed in the next year or two.
The Will linebacker position is manned by David Hawthorne when Tatupu is healthy. Like Carroll stipulates, Heater is a bit smaller, though not particularly, and is without a doubt the Seahawks' fastest (starting) linebacker. He consistently leads the Hawks in tackles, but as Carroll mentions, this could be partly due to the fact he isn't faced with as many blockers and generally gets runners funneled his direction.
You saw the Seahawks draft Malcolm Smith in the 7th round this past Draft and he seems to fit the mold Carroll has laid out here. He's super fast for a linebacker, running in the 4.4s, is very athletic, and has shown an ability to chase the ballcarrier and make the tackle. Some people believe we could see newly drafted LB KJ Wright playing some weakside as well, as he too is fast, has a nose for the football, and wraps up well.
Just in general, the Will linebacker needs to be pretty good in pass coverage also, and that is something that critics have pointed out as one of Hawthorne's weak areas. Not surprisingly, both Smith and Wright are fairly heralded for their pass coverage abilities so perhaps you'll see them in on passing downs in 2011 much like we saw the smaller, speedier Will Herring do in 2010.
The Sam linebacker spot is currently manned by Aaron Curry. He fits the bill in several areas but can be a liability in others. He is certainly big and strong and able to set the edge against tight ends. It can be argued that this is his biggest strength and when he's asked to take on blocks from these tight ends he has shown an ability to physically dominate. In pass coverage I don't believe he's quite as effective. He can get himself out of position and look a bit lost at times but regardless of his draft position he is an effective player on the edge in the 9 technique position and has been at worst a sturdy, tough linebacker for the Seahawks.
The other thing that Carroll has tried to do with the Sam linebacker is to rush the passer in certain situations. This has not been Curry's strong suit, but the Seahawks may envision KJ Wright in this role. He has the physicality and strength to play the edge against tight ends, has shown good awareness in pass coverage, and even showed the Seahawks' front office some things that make them hopeful he'll be a good pass rusher down the line as well. Whether that means he'll be stealing snaps from Curry or used in conjunction with him remains to be seen. The nice thing about Wright is that he's versatile enough to play at several spots, perhaps even the LEO defensive end position, and it should help him earn some snaps.
So hopefully that gives you a basic idea of what Carroll looks for in each linebacker position. In general, in Pete Carroll's version of the 4-3, you'll see smaller-than-normal players, but also faster-than-normal players. With a four man front plus a Sam linebacker up on the line, you'll see safeties and linebackers needing to cover a lot of ground in pass defense. Because of this, speed is valued over size, and instincts are valued over brute strength. In general, 'tweener' players are functional and you'll see other teams' cast-offs able to function in certain specific roles.
I'm hoping for a diamond in the rough cast-off making a splash in the linebacker corps this year. I'll be damned if it wasn't Tyjuan Hagler in the preseason last year, but he didn't make the team- much to my chagrin. We'll see what happens in camp this season.