Lineback­ers must be ver­sa­tile just to slow video-game of­fenses

The Charlotte Observer - - Front Page - BY ARNIE STA­PLE­TON As­so­ci­ated Press

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 run­pass 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.”

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

AP re­porters Teresa M. Walker and Dave Camp­bell con­trib­uted.

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