Lineback­ers must be ver­sa­tile to slow video-game of­fenses

The Telegraph (Macon) - - Sports - BY ARNIE STA­PLE­TON AP re­porters Teresa M. Walker and Dave Camp­bell con­trib­uted.

With the NFL’s vol­canic of­fenses, can’t-hit-them­too-hard rules and be­wil­dered of­fi­cials, lineback­ers to­day aren’t the snarling 250-pound thumpers who used to just give run­ning backs fits.

“Now we have to cover well, too,” Den­ver’s Bran­don Mar­shall said. “We still have to tackle well. So, you can’t be real light and only play­ing pass or too heavy and only play­ing run. You’ve got to be able to do all of it, man.”

Which means find­ing a sweet spot on the scale so they can run like a gazelle and still hit like a truck.

To­day’s in­side lineback­ers not only need to have the stamina to go side­line to side­line, but they also re­quire:

suf­fi­cient strength to shed 320-pound line­men;

enough vigor to cover tow­er­ing tight ends;

am­ple speed to keep up with re­ceivers no longer timid about go­ing over the mid­dle;

enough recog­ni­tion and quick­ness to keep up with shifty run­ning backs and ever-more-mo­bile quar­ter­backs.

It’s also handy to have a thick skin, know­ing lineback­ers will bear the brunt of fans’ frus­tra­tions as of­fenses pick apart ap­par­ently de­fense­less units at a record-set­ting pace.

Sounds im­pos­si­ble. “It al­most is,” Bron­cos coach Vance Joseph said. “It al­most is.”

“It’s def­i­nitely very dif­fi­cult,” Vik­ings line­backer An­thony Barr said. “You have tight ends that pro­vide mis­matches, you’ve got run­ning backs that are great re­ceivers. You’re asked to be in a lot of po­si­tions. But that’s what we get paid to do. So, we’ve got to fig­ure out a way to do it and do it well.”

As do the of­fi­cials, whom Joseph said are al­low­ing il­le­gal blocks with the run-pass op­tion rage that has seeped from the col­lege game and is promi­nently fea­tured in places such as Kansas City, Philadel­phia and Seat­tle.

Take the Bron­cos’ loss to the Chiefs in Week 8.

Line­men aren’t al­lowed to block more than a yard from the line of scrim­mage on a pass play. But the Chiefs’ guards and cen­ter got a few yards down­field sev­eral times, caus­ing Den­ver’s lineback­ers to in­stinc­tively com­mit to the run – only to see quar­ter­back Patrick Ma­homes pull the ball back from run­ning back Ka­reem Hunt’s belly and zip it to wide-open tight end Travis Kelce.

“It’s the league we’re in,” Joseph said. “Those guys block­ing up front don’t know the ball is be­ing thrown. They’re block­ing zone, so ab­so­lutely it’s an is­sue. We have to fix this is­sue in this league, un­less it’s go­ing to be col­lege foot­ball.

“It’s tough for the lineback­ers to play both, and you see it on tape. Todd Davis is hav­ing hell try­ing to fit his gap and chase the guy in the flat. When you see Kelce in the flat over there with no one around him, (Davis is) play­ing his run gap be­cause the guard and cen­ter are four and five yards down the field.”

Joseph added, “That’s an is­sue. It’s a leaguewide is­sue, and it’s a Chiefs is­sue. Ev­ery­one is run­ning th­ese plays, so we have to fig­ure out a way to of­fi­ci­ate this bet­ter to help the game.”

Mar­shall isn’t so sure the league’s com­pe­ti­tion com­mit­tee will do any­thing about it, though, say­ing more points equals more eye­balls.

“They’re not go­ing to change it,” he said.

So it’s the lineback­ers who are chang­ing.

Davis, the Bron­cos’ lead­ing tack­ler, said he’s dropped his weight to 233 and “I do a lot more train­ing with DBs and cor­ners. I add that on to what I al­ready did in the weight room and run­ning and con­di­tion­ing. But now I have to be ready for ev­ery­thing in the pass game, as well.”

The lineback­ers who are mod­i­fy­ing their bod­ies and games are em­brac­ing the chal­lenge.

“It’s the NFL,” Ti­tans line­backer Wes­ley Wood­yard said. “There’s great play­ers at ev­ery po­si­tion.” In­clud­ing line­backer. “I love it,” Davis said. “It’s on us to play well, and it’s on us to set the tempo and be great for our team. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Mar­shall said lineback­ers ul­ti­mately ben­e­fit from the ever-in­creas­ing chal­lenges brought on by the RPO trend, faster rush­ers, big­ger tight ends and plucky re­ceivers.

“I think that’s why teams put a premium on ath­letic ’back­ers,” Mar­shall said. “Be­cause we have to be out there to cover the Kel­ces and the Gronks and the Dion Le­wises and the James Whites of the world. And then we’ve got to be able to tackle (Todd) Gur­ley. That’s just how it is.”

De­fenses are em­ploy­ing more de­fen­sive backs, as many as seven, to com­bat the RPO trend.

“I think schemat­i­cally we have to ad­just as far as per­son­nel and put faster ath­letes, bet­ter ath­letes at cover line­backer po­si­tions to nul­lify some of this stuff,” Joseph said. “Be­cause right now it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble phys­i­cally.”

Joseph thinks he has an an­ti­dote in Su’a Cravens, and the 6-foot-1, 220pound safety from USC who’s used as a dime line­backer cer­tainly agrees.

“With guys like me, I think it’s an op­por­tu­nity for us to show­case what we can do be­cause they’re mak­ing it hard for tra­di­tional lineback­ers who are heavy-handed, heavy­footed,” Cravens said.

MARK REIS Colorado Springs Gazette

Den­ver’s Bran­don Mar­shall, left, and T.J. Ward can’t keep up with At­lanta’s Tevin Cole­man on a touch­down run. Mar­shall and other lineback­ers have to be some of the sport’s most ver­sa­tile play­ers just to sur­vive.

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