Linebackers must be versatile just to slow video-game offenses
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.