March 31, 2009
By Donald Starver
Note: This is part 4 in a series. If you haven’t already read the previous chapters, please click the appropriate link below:
In part 3 of our series on the 3-4 defense and how it affects the Steelers’ draft, we talked about the defensive end. Now it’s time to break down the glamor position on any 3-4 defense; the linebackers.
The 4 in the title “3-4 defense” represents the fact that there are 4 linebackers in a 3-4. Unlike the 4-3, where there are two outside linebackers (the Sam and the Will linebackers) and a middle linebacker (the Mike linebacker), in the 3-4 defense, there are two outside linebackers and two inside linebackers. In the Steelers’ case, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison are the outside linebackers, while James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons are the inside linebackers (notice how I subtly promoted Lawrence Timmons to starter).
While pressure in a 4-3 defense come from the four down linemen, in a 3-4 defense, the pressure comes from the linebackers. At least one of the outside linebackers will be rushing the quarterback on almost every play. Unlike the down linemen, the OLB’s rush from a 2 point stance, so they’re standing up. The outside linebackers will almost always lead a 3-4 team in quarterback sacks.
The linebacker is probably the most flexible position on the field, and can be used in a myriad of ways. Linebackers may blitz, they may stay in their area and protect a zone, or they may drop into coverage and guard a tight end or even a running back going out for a pass.
Because of the wide variety of things that linebackers are asked to do, linebackers come in many sizes. Typically, linebackers will range from 225 pounds to 270 pounds, depending on their specialty. However, former Steelers linebacker Levon Kirkland often played at a weight of nearly 300 lbs. Moreover, Kirkland was surprisingly fast and was reasonably good at dropping into coverage.
The two inside linebackers typically weigh around 240 lbs., and are expected to be quite athletic. They must be able to chase down extremely fast running backs who penetrate the defensive line.
The two outside linebackers will typically be bigger than the two inside linebackers, since they have to face massive offensive tackles on a regular basis. Outside linebackers in a 3-4 will generally weigh between 255 – 270 pounds and be quite fast. Many 3-4 linebackers were actually defensive ends in college. However, they may have been either too small to play DE in the NFL, or they may be able to play both DE or OLB depending on which type of defense their team runs. The Steelers’ LaMarr Woodley was a defensive end at Michigan.
The Steelers don’t have a grave need at linebacker. In addition to last year’s starters, Lawrence Timmons is poised to break into the starting lineup, Arnold Harrison was re-signed, Keyaron Fox is a solid backup, and Bruce Davis will have a year of experience under his belt. However, you can never have too many linebackers in a 3-4 defense. I won’t be surprised if the Steelers select at least one linebacker in this draft.
This year’s draft class is loaded with talented linebackers and “tweener” defensive ends who will be moved to OLB in a 3-4 system.
The top two inside linebackers in this year’s draft are Rey Maualuga of USC and James Laurinaitis of Ohio State.
Rey Maualuga is 6’2″ and weighs 254 pounds. He is strong and extremely physical. He can deliver punishing blows at the point of attack. His best position will be the “Mike” in a 4-3 defense.
James Laurinaitis is a 6’2″ 240 linebacker from Ohio State. He is a 3 time All-American, a very intelligent player, and some consider him to be the safest pick of this year’s linebackers.
The best of the outside linebackers include Aaron Curry, Brian Cushing, Clint Sintim, and Clay Matthews.
Aaron Curry (6’2″, 246 lbs.) is viewed by many as the elite linebacker in this draft. He has a rare combination of size, strength, and speed. He is equally good dropping into coverage as he is in run support. He is the most versatile linebacker in the draft, and will probably be the first linebacker selected.
Brian Cushing (6’3″, 243 lbs.) played DE, OLB and MLB in college. Probably best suited to play strong side linebacker. A sure top 20 pick.
Clint Sintim (6’3″, 249 lbs) is a strong, fast pass rusher. He is a bit stiff, and struggles in coverage. He was once thought of as a potential first round selection, but poor performances in Senior Bowl practices and a sub-par pro day have dropped him to the second or third round. He probably won’t excel in a 4-3, but he would be a good pick as a rush linebacker in a 3-4.
Clay Matthews (6’3″, 246) is the third USC linebacker who might get selected in the first round. Matthews played both LB and DE at USC. He lacks the size to play DE at the next level, and will move exclusively to LB. His size and skill set probably makes him best suited to play ILB in a 3-4 system.
In part 3 of our series, we outlined several college defensive ends who could potentially make the change to OLB in the NFL. Here are two additional college defensive ends who will probably be best suited to play OLB at the next level.
Aaron Maybin (6’4″, 248 lbs.) is a unique player. He is very experienced at dropping into zone coverage. He is tall and has a tremendous burst as a pass rusher or in chasing down ball carriers. However, Maybin is lacking in the strength department. He has no bull rush, and struggles to disengage from blockers. This probably eliminates him from consideration as a 4-3 DE. His best option is as a 3-4 OLB. However, he will need to spend lots of time with the strength coach at the next level.
Larry English (6’2″, 254 lbs.) played defensive end at Norther Illinois. However, he lacks the bulk to play that position at the next level. He has no experience dropping into coverage, so teams will be evaluating his potential to do so. However, his overall speed and athleticism appears to translate well to the 3-4 OLB position.
Because of the large number of linebacker candidates available in this draft, several quality linebackers will be available when the Steelers draft at #32, and a few may even be available at #64. However, since LB is not a glaring need for the Steelers, they are much more likely to pick up a LB later in the draft.
To read the other installments in this series, click below:
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