DENVER (AP) — With the NFLs volcanic offenses, cant-hit-them-too-hard rules and bewildered officials, linebackers today arent the snarling 250-pound thumpers who used to just give running backs fits.
“Now we have to cover well, too,” Denvers Brandon Marshall said. “We still have to tackle well. So, you cant be real light and only playing pass or too heavy and only playing run. Youve 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.
Todays 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.
Its 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.
“It almost is,” Broncos coach Vance Joseph said. “It almost is.”
“Its definitely very difficult,” Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr said. “You have tight ends that provide mismatches, youve got running backs that are great receivers. Youre asked to be in a lot of positions. But thats what we get paid to do. So, weve got 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 arent 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 Denvers linebackers to instinctively commit to the run — only to see quarterback Patrick Mahomes pull the ball back from running back Kareem Hunts belly and zip it to wide-open tight end Travis Kelce.
“Its the league were in,” Joseph said. “Those guys blocking up front dont know the ball is being thrown. Theyre blocking zone, so absolutely its an issue. We have to fix this issue in this league, unless its going to be college football.
“Its 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, “Thats an issue. Its a leaguewide issue and its 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 isnt so sure the leagues competition committee will do anything about it, though, saying more points equals more eyeballs.
“Theyre not going to change it,” he said.
So its the linebackers who are changing.
Davis, the Broncos leading tackler, said hes 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.
“I love it,” Davis said. “Its on us to play well and its on us to set the tempo and be great for our team. I wouldnt 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.
“Its made me a better player,” Marshall said. “Its also made me more valuable.”
“I think thats 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 weve got to be able to tackle (Todd) Gurley. Thats 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 its almost impossible physically.”
Joseph thinks he has an antidote in Sua Cravens, and the 6-foot-1, 220-pound safety from USC whos used as a dime linebacker certainly agrees.
“The way the rules are, they handicap defenses. Were basically on the field to get in the way, were not supposed to stop the offense,” Cravens said. “Defense is already hard enough. Theyre making it harder.
“So, with guys like me, I think its an opportunity for us to showcase what we can do because theyre making it hard for traditional linebackers who are heavy-handed, heavy-footed. Theyre ready to be physical at the line of scrimmage and they cant do that anymore.”